The Wilds Of Australia

The bushfires which have devastated large parts of Australia are hard for Europeans to understand because people from the Northern hemisphere cannot get their minds around the fact that Australia has no seasons as such.

By Phillip Knightley (ONE MAN’S VIEW)

Published: Sat 28 Feb 2009, 10:08 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:50 AM

Europeans know that no matter how hard winter may be, Spring will replace it, the snow and ice will melt, and crops will be planted. The summer sun will shine, the crops will thrive and come autumn they will be harvested. It has always been so.

But in Australia although they have the same names for the seasons, there is no guarantee that they will recur annually. Spring may not bring rain for seven or eight years.

The rain in summer may cause floods or cause such heat waves and droughts as to make life almost unbearable--temperatures over 43C are not unusual. Nothing can be relied on.

As the poet Dorothea Mackellar put it, Australia is a wilful lavish land of drought and flooding rains, full of beauty and terror.

And it has been the terror that has captured the headlines over the past few weeks as the tinder-dry bush, the gum trees and scrub, caught fire after a prolonged drought and killed more than 200 people and destroyed thousands of acres of property.

A bushfire at its fiercest defies description. Gum trees contain eucalyptus oil, which burns fiercely when heated. Trees explode. Fanned by variable winds, the fire spreads at an alarming rate, jumping from treetop to treetop, consuming everything in its path.

A sophisticated system to monitor the fires and give early warnings of their paths is in place in most areas but it is not foolproof because the fire can change direction so quickly and often leaps ahead of itself with such giant steps that a town thought to be safe for several hours can suddenly be consumed.

The heat is immense. Cars literally melt. The normal methods of protection from fire are useless.

Families who sought to survive by sheltering in their swimming pools died because the water became too hot or because a fireball sucked all the oxygen out of the air. The fires proved that you could take every precaution and still lose your life, that in the face “of the devouring tsunami of fire, a hose is useless.”

The Australian author Tom Keneally went through the competing arguments for fleeing or staying. “Until this fire, the idea was that you attend country fire service briefings and do your best to fireproof your house by removing potential fuel from around it, closing its eaves and removing flammable material from the roof. Then you leave when it’s suggested you should, or stay and fight it and, one hopes, let it jump over you in a few frightening seconds.

“To abandon a house, which is an extension of your soul, is a terrible choice. And to abandon horses, thought one teenage victim, could not be contemplated. And what if you abandon your property and the fire doesn’t affect it anyhow. And what if you go the next time, and ditto. So the third time you say: “To hell with it. I’m staying.”

Another Australian author, Germaine Greer, belongs to the mosaic burning school, which has been practised by Aboriginal people for thousands of years. Greer says, “They burned for a reason. Every season schlerophyll [Australian eucalypts] built up and great amounts of detritus drop and collect and this must be burnt off if there is to be new growth.” So controlled burning might lessen the risk of major bush fires.

It would also have a rejuvenating affect on the bush. Greer says, “If it is burnt every five or six years, you’ll have six months when it looks like rubbish. But you will also get all the orchids and all the rare wildflowers popping up out of the ground.”

But even controlled burning can be dangerous. Near Sydney a few years ago, a party of seven fire-fighters were carrying out a controlled mosaic burn when the wind changed and the fire turned back on them, killing two.

So Australia is a dangerous place. Crocodiles, sharks, poisonous spiders, and now bush fires.

Bush fires must rank as the most deadly. As Keneally says, “The bush cries out for fire as lover cries to lover.”

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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