Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Smell that country air!

A little bit of the country has come to Melbourne in the last week. Unfortunately, it's come in the form of a blanket of smoke produced the huge amount of bushfires burning at the moment. Today has a surreal perpetual twilight feel despite the fact it's technically a clear, sunny day. It's just that the sun has very little chance of penetrating the smoke. I'm not complaining mind you, simply observing.

I wouldn't complain about anything as trivial as smoke when people have been battling these blazes non-stop for more than a week. The worst fires are a couple of hundred kilometres north-east of Melbourne, coincidentally right where I took my weekend drive just before the fires started (I had nothing to do with starting them, honest). They have burned through over 400 hectares of land and it's reached the stage where 20 or so smaller fires have joined up into one super-fire. The fire front now covers more than 150km.

Here's a satellite image from a couple of days ago showing how widespread the smoke is. I couldn't find a more up to date image but trust me, it's a hell of a lot worse now.


And the volunteer bushfire fighters are working as hard as hell to manage what looks like an impossible situation. Yes, that's right, in a country that's ravaged by bushfires every year it's left to volunteers to fight the fires. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) is made up of people who essentially give up every summer because you can't exactly say "Oh I'd love to help you with that fire but we're having a bit of a pool party and I don't feel like leaving." Call me harsh but I think it's a fucked up way to deal with such a critical issue.

Obviously paying the entire CFA would get very expensive but I can't help feeling that relying on volunteers will be more expensive in the long run in terms of human and property costs. My cynical side also suspects that the various governments are essentially exploiting the dedication of the volunteers. I believe it's actually quite hard to get into the CFA because of the number of people who volunteer but it seems that every year, somewhere in Australia, fires get out of control to the extent that the CFA can't even slow their spread and we desperately import firefighters. First from interstate and then from other countries (some noble New Zealand firefighters are joining the fight here at the moment.)

We actually have a bushfire "season" that runs from December to March - this being the highest risk period for serious fires. The worst fires usually come in February or March after a long dry summer. The fact that such major fires are already happening in December is freaking people out. It's looking like a long, hot, dry, smoky summer is on the way.

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