Island fires are a stark warning on how lives can suddenly be at risk


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The Independent Online

As we swam in the pool of a log cabin resort in the Tasmanian coastal town of Bicheno over the weekend, my family and I relished the 35C temperatures - an uncommon occurrence in this usually mild climate.

The weather initially appeared to offer the perfect conditions for our family holiday. But the sight of local children gasping as smoke billowed across from the South soon left a feeling of deep unease.

Swathes of Tasmania were succumbing to bush fires that have now claimed over 50,000 acres of land, left hundreds homeless, and continue to burn out-of-control.

Fear of fire is engrained into the Australian psyche. Residents here receive DVDs on how to defend themselves and their property from the wildfires, and even primary school kids are taught how to prevent and react to the flames. For those living in remoter tinder-spots surrounded by trees and scrub, the dangers are particularly acute.

On Friday night our fears peaked. We awoke to the smell of bonfire smothering our bedroom while branches torn off trees in wild northerly winds thrashed against the roof of our cabin. The owner of the resort had promised to drive around honking his horn should we come under immediate threat, but in such circumstances it is hard to feel safe relying on the efforts of a single person. “I will tell you everything I’m told,” he said, honestly. “But I can’t guarantee you anything. I’m not God.”

The following morning, as those who wished to leave were told to do so with haste, we took to the Tasman Highway, which had been cut off further south by an escalating blaze. At points in the drive, smoke billowed across the road from both sides as residents in remote communities prepared their land for the fires, cutting back bush around their property and dampening everything with water. We saw a truck load of charred sheep drive by, as well as cyclists who seemed unaware that they were heading into danger.

A petrol station worker named Pete, who is also a volunteer fireman, had been out all night fighting flames at Cole Bay near Fortescue. He was preparing for another long night. I heard from a woman named Cassie who had been camping at Fortescue Bay over the weekend. While the rest of the campers on site had chosen to leave, she and a few friends stayed, planning to spend the night on the beach. But within hours they were forced to evacuate. Cassie lost her tent and belongings, and had to abandon her car at the ferry terminal where she and hundreds of others were escorted to safety away from the peninsula, which soon became an inferno. She felt lucky to be alive.

For the island’s community, the events of the past week have served as a stark reminder of just how quickly lives can come under threat when flames, fuelled by soaring temperatures soaring as high as 45C, low humidity and wild winds, take hold in the lush undergrowth afforded by several wet years.

Alan Beech’s home was almost destroyed in a bush fire in the Tasmanian suburb of Taroona 15 years ago, when the blaze had crept over the hills behind his traditional pole-house.

“It was the noise that came first, a great roar from the mountain, and the smoke - at first just a wisp and then suddenly there were huge clouds. At that point there was this chilling fear,” he said. “I thought I knew about bush fires before, but you can’t imagine what it’s like until you’re in it. I knew nothing until I saw that furnace roaring on top of ridge line at the top of the hill.”

“At that point, he adds, “You realise just how helpless you are.”

Since the severe bush fires which ravaged Victoria in 2009, killing 173 people, the Australian government is less defensive of the ‘stay and defend’ practice, which had been touted as the safest approach. It is thought most victims of “Black Tuesday” had chosen to stay in their homes, only trying to get out once it was already too late.

The events of the past week may have been extraordinary for Tasmania, but for many other parts of Australia in the summer months, bush fires are a consistent threat. As Christine Vautier, a Hobart resident, concludes, “Long after the flames die down, the smell of cinders, and the fear, lives on”.