Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Wombat Roast

I just found out that it seems that much of southeastern Australia is on fire and over a hundred have died. How does this not make it to the news? Oh, right. I know, but really. Now I hear arson? Any news from the Aussies on the blog?


Spotted Handfish said...

Yes, there have been large fires mainly within Victoria (Victoria is the second most populated state, with Melbourne as the capital). They have been warning for days that conditions on Saturday (it's Monday afternoon about 5pm when I write this) were going to be the worst on record. The conditions resulted in high temperatures and strong winds following out of central Australia. The maximum in Melbourne hit 46.4 degrees centigrade (around 115 degrees in the "old" scale) around 2pm, which was an all time record. Hot winds continued until a cool change at 6pm, which changed the winds from NW to SW but still quite strong. Pombat and I barely moved out of the house; local public transport was hindered by line failures and spot fires, and riding the bike wasn't too pleasant.

I really can't state the scale of this, but I'll try. Latest estimates are of around 200 dead and 750 houses lost. Whole towns have disappeared: there simply isn't a building left standing. The ferocity of the blaze seems to have caught a number of people who thought they could stay and fight the fire. There is at least one case I know of where four cars ended in an accident on a road probably because they couldn't see: no one survived. The wind was picking up embers and carrying them kilometres to start new fires. In the last month we've had no rain so everything was tinder dry. As Californians will attest, eucalypt trees when they burn in high heat simply burst into flame. Some fires were deliberately lit, some were existing blazes, some spotted from others, a number were started from dry lightning strikes.

There are fires still going, but the conditions are better than Saturday. The previous week Melbourne had three days in a row of 43 degree plus weather.

If you want more information a good source on the web is The Age. I have seen articles in the LA Times and on Google News (US edition), so there is stuff out there.

The irritating bit is Queensland to the north is going through some of the worst flooding on record: Townsville recently got 275mm of rain in three days.

Anonymous said...

Don't know what rock you live under but I've been hearing about it regularly and from a number of news sources for a few days now.

Pombat said...

The Police Chief Commissioner is treating every fire site as a potential crime site, plenty of people are calling for arsonists to be labelled and treated as terrorists (currently the favoured media term is the cutesy 'firebug'!), including trying them for murder/manslaughter, and as Spotted H says, the scale is just ridiculous - whole towns have turned into ash, with just the odd bit of tin here and there. Cars are melted, most of the firefighters and firefighting volunteers are in some kind of crazy shock and somehow carrying on anyway, and a lot of the firefighters have lost their homes whilst saving others.

I've heard rumours that at least one arsonist has been caught - a CSA (firefighting) volunteer, who really wanted to fight fires but knew he wouldn't be called up unless there were absolutely loads of fires, so solved his problem by lighting loads. I know he's mentally ill (he must be!), but there's still a part of me that wants him dropped into the middle of a firezone with no protection - what's happened to people here is that hideous. At one point during the TV news last night, I had to get Spotted H to turn the sound off, because it was just too much; I know I am so very fortunate to have the option of switching this off.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, Anonymous, I live under the same rocks that most Americans do. I spent the weekend watching CNN and MSNBC talk about the stimulus non-stop. No mention that I recall of fires in Australia. Saw floods in Queensland, though. Does Australia really want to be like California so bad?

Spotted Handfish said...

"Does Australia really want to be like California so bad?" Really LTG? It is about time that you lost the implicit assumption that anyone else wants to be like you guys, even if it was glib.

Pombat said...

"Does Australia really want to be like California so bad?"

As I thought I made clear in my posts on the In-blog-uration thread, no, we don't thanks very much, so stop being so arrogant as to assume we do.

Yes, I know you probably typed that with humour in mind, but without your belief that you are the best, it wouldn't've occurred to you to write it. And I'm really not in the mood for humour on this topic - the official confirmed death toll now stands at 173, worse than Ash Wednesday, worse in a lot of ways even than Black Friday.

Valar Morghulis said...

There's only one NSFW picture but it isn't viewable unless you click the link to show the picture (*it's a dead charred horse).

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat, Spotted Handfish... LTG was just indulging in a little innocent black humor regarding California having suffered floods and fires recently too.

Of course, what happened in CA was not as horrible as what has been happening this weekend in Victoria. I really hope you all are all right down there.

Spotted Handfish said...

Thanks for the clarification, Dr S. We got no coverage of floods in California.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Wow, touchy. Dr.S. got the joke. Northern California has been inundated repeatedly in floods.


And it has a dike system built almost entirely of earthen levees a century ago that are due for massive failure. When they fail, it will be just like Katrina. I've driven through the Delta area. It's freaky to drive across long with houses and farms, then drive UP to the water level, cross a canal, and go back down.

Spotted Handfish said...

Sorry for being touchy, LTG. The State recently exploded in a fire ball and they are still counting the dead.

Pombat said...

Of course we're fucking touchy, people are still DYING here!!!

Had we "indulged in a little black humour" whilst the safety of your loved ones and your friends' loved ones was still unknown during the recent Californian fires, we would've been utterly blasted - and rightly so - by all on this blog, especially you LTG. Now, luckily for us, Spotted H and I are not directly related to anyone who has been killed or hurt, or suffered loss of a loved one or possessions during these fires (friends and relatives of friends are suffering however, thankfully no deaths that we've heard of), but they are still ongoing - not only is the death toll continuing to rise as authorities finally make their way into affected areas (confirmed 173, feared 300), but new deaths/losses are occurring because the fires are still burning in many areas, with the overall danger level still high. As a Brit raised on it, I am keenly attuned to black humour, both appreciating it greatly, and knowing when to use it. During an ongoing tragedy is not when to use it.

Dr.S: Thank you for your clarification re the floods, and for your apology on
behalf of LTG - it would be nice to hear his apology from him

So, LTG, I think maybe what you meant to say was "Spotted H, Pombat, and any other Aussies out there: I'm sorry if my misjudged attempt at black humour caused any offence or upset - that certainly was not my intention. I hope that you, and everyone else in your state, and indeed country, survives this tragedy as best you can; our thoughts are with you". Feel free to copy-paste that into your own comment.

Raised By Republicans said...

I'm glad you guys are OK. Did I read correctly that you had to evacuate? For some reason I thought you guys lived in Sydney not Melbourne. I have an old friend who lives in Sydney, should I be more concerned about him and his family?

SH and Pombat, don't take it personally. LTG and US West made similar jokes and borderline insensitive remarks when my home state was suffering catastrophic flooding and tens of thousands of its citizens were driven from their homes.

Something I am curious about. Why the high death toll? California has massive fires like this every few years and I can't remember death tolls this high. In 2007, LA and San Diego were both virtually surrounded by out of control wild fires up in the hills and only a dozen or so people died.

(BTW, the LA Times has been covering this for a week or so - and BBC and the continental press have covered it as well).

Raised By Republicans said...

Possible causes for higher death tolls that come to my mind:

Sparse population makes warning more difficult.

Lower overall population of Victoria compared to S. CA. means fewer fire fighters to cover similar area.

Some heretofore unexplained policy difference.

Pombat said...

RbR: we're in Melbourne, which is the capital of the state of Victoria, which is the state that's currently on fire (although I have heard of some small fires in New South Wales, where Sydney is, but they're "regular" fires as far as I know). The wikipedia page on States and Territories of Aus has a nice map showing which state/territory is which. As a guide, the landmass of Aus is roughly the same as the mainland chunk of the USA, WA is bigger than Texas. Victoria is about the size of the UK.

We haven't had to evacuate at all - we personally have only had minor inconveniences from this, such as the train line we wanted to use on Saturday being closed for the middle third of the journey due to grass fires near the tracks. Our power went out this morning as I went to reply to this too, but I'm not sure if that's fire related.

The death toll here isn't normally as high. Even Ash Wednesday didn't result in this many deaths, although much more of the state burned. The policy here has always been leave early or stay and defend your home, which in the past has worked out pretty much ok. And yes, I don't think we've got that many fire fighters/equipment, and they're all knackered. And heroes.

The biggest problem is that this appears to be a new breed of fire. Several things combined to make it so bad: first off, it's dry here. Really fricking dry. Our water storages are at just 30%, and I don't think they got much over 40% for the whole of last year (when I first got here in July 2004, mid-winter, they were 60%). We didn't get any rain at all in January. We did get some record high temperatures - records began about 150yrs ago, and for the first time we had three consecutive 40C+ days (actually 42-44 or so, with overnight minimums around 28 at the lowest. 40C is 105F I believe). That happened just a couple of weeks ago, and completely dried everything out across the state that wasn't already frazzled. It looks like autumn here, with fried brown leaves being blown off the trees. Then we had a week of 30+, and on Saturday our highest temperature ever - 46C. And then the fires started in earnest (the previous 40C spree had seen devastating fires across the Gippsland region, southeast of Melbourne, some of which restarted).

The winds were ridiculously high and unpredictable, everything was tinderbox dry, the temperature of the fires themselves was higher than normal, and people just didn't have time to get out once the fires turned on them. We're seeing footage of burntout cars on roads, hearing explanations that the cars came up against fallen trees or similar, and the bodies were actually found a hundred metres away - no-one's fast enough to outrun fire.

Re LTG's comments. Had his "Wow, touchy" comment been, instead, "sorry guys, didn't mean to offend, didn't realise how badly this was affecting you", we'd've accepted the apology and dropped it. But it wasn't, it was "wow, touchy", implying that we're over-reacting, and refusing to acknowledge that he's being a hypocritical jerk. Had either of us made "humourous" comments in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Katrina, or during the recent CA fires, whilst he didn't know whether his family was safe or not, he most certainly would not be shrugging it off in the way you're suggesting we do.

As I said before, this is still happening here, people are still dying, fires are still burning. We have 181 confirmed dead, a lot of whom will never be identified, total 300 feared dead, at least 750 homes completely destroyed, 4,000-5,000 newly homeless people (no-one's quite sure yet). I just overheard a conversation in our kitchen here at work:
"I thought they put out the fire near Bendigo?"
"Nah, it's still going, but it's not close enough for us to worry yet"
"When do you have to worry?"
"When the wind turns!"
"Do you have a fire plan then?"
"Yep, let the house burn and run like hell"
"Sounds like my kinda plan"

I'm not just going to shrug this off as something I'm over-reacting to or taking too personally - I want an apology.

Raised By Republicans said...

Hi Pombat,

I'm glad I misunderstood about your having to evacuate. Yeah, Australia is pretty big. I was pretty clear on where Melbourne and Sydney were etc, I just didn't know where on the map you guys are.

Does Victoria have a wind phenomenon like the Santa Annas in California or the Foehn winds in the Alps? The geography is similar to California, yes? There is a coastal belt and then a mountain range with deserts beyond the mountains, correct? That adds up to Santa Annas in So. Cal.

I was sailing with my uncle once off the coast of Santa Barbara. The "crew" was me and a bunch of his cocktail buddies from the yacht club. When we rounded the buoy and headed back into the harbor, we noticed an enormous plume of smoke rising over the hills behind the town. They all turned to one of my uncle's buddies and said, "Say Bill, isn't that near your place?" The resulting conversation was very similar to the one you overheard. I never did find out if his house survived.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think I'm the one deserves the apology. I'm the one who has been unfairly attacked for a humorous and appropriately self-deprecating remark that Australia seems trying to catch up to the natural disaster problems of California.

I'm sure it feels good to be self-righteous, but it's misplaced. I've had family members evacuated from fires three times in the past three years - my parents just three months ago. I watched a wildfire consume houses out my office window last summer. I've scraped the ashes off my car and watched the skies darken at noon more often than I can count. Californians have watched NorCal inundated repeatedly as farms and vineyards lay underwater. Parts of the central valley were underwater for months in 1998. Never mind the quakes in 1989 and 1994 that killed hundreds between them, left hundreds homeless, and destroyed the marketability of thousands of homes (including those of family in the Valley). Earthquake insurance is almost gone in this state, and millions face great tragedy if another one strikes.

And I am used to people saying - even as people are fleeing from their homes from fire - that that these tragedies are Californians' own fault for building in canyons. I am used to people teasing Californians for building in earthquake zones, even as the quakes happen. Everyone is so self-righteous about California. It's so easy.

Of course, I brought up the current Australian fires not to laugh, but precisely because I was horrified by what I was reading and amazed that it was buried in the news coverage I saw. It's still barely making front pages.

I am sorry that Pombat and SH were and are upset by my words, since I didn't mean to hurt them and still don't. That's different than saying I did wrong, I know, but I won't say that.

Spotted Handfish said...

RbR, thanks for your thoughts.

I'll try and give you a sense of the geography/weather. Victoria is bisected from NE to SW by the Great Dividing Range, which runs along the eastern seaboard of Australia. These aren't Rockies style mountains -- there's no permanent snow on mainland Australia -- but definitely mountainous rather than hills. To the south of the range is several hundred kilometres of fertile land, with small communities dotted throughout. Some areas have spa water and hence trade of the natural beauty of area. You can add the usual holiday home type thing you get in California but possibly to a lesser extent. Other areas have been cleared for farming and so on. On the weather side this is dominated by the Southern Ocean, with Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania, the Eastern Australian current coming down, crazily, the east coast, the Tasman Sea, the Pacific Ocean and you have a clash of water which affects the weather. (It is quite common to sea water spouts when crossing the Strait at certain times of the year.) During the year there is a band regular band of west to east weather patterns that moves north and south with the seasons alternating the weather patterns between very hot and quite cold. It is common to get air coming either from Antarctica or from central Australia depending on where the lows and highs are sitting. In short the weather is variable (four seasons in one day) and gives us something to talk about.

As Pombat stated we've had very dry conditions, not helped by rain in December which lead to a burst of undergrowth. Also human occupation has disrupted the natural flow of fire through the Australian bush: a lot of the bush is designed to burn to generate new life and open seeds. Leaves and bark don't mulch, they sit and dry. Regular low level fires remove a lot of this litter, every 6-8 years from memory. If you get regular fires. And when I say the bush needs fire, it actually dies if no fire comes through.

The weather conditions we got on the Saturday were strong northerly winds formed from a high pressure system to the east of Victoria (winds spin anti-clockwise) dragging hot air from central Australia. The Santa Anna winds are a good parallel: hot and very dry; but these were very gusty with the air being dragged over the Dividing Range. Adding in lots of now dry fuel from fertile land, a lack of clearing and it is a recipe for disaster.

I personally don't think we are necessarily facing a new type of fire threat, but the weather conditions did make for "perfect" fire activity. The government was warning for days. The areas that were burned were highly wooded, very dry, meant to burn anyway, with gusting 40 mile an hour winds and 115 degree temperatures. At points from what I've read there were mile or two fronts of fire moving at 60 miles an hour at a height of 100 feet. (I could be wrong but I think that the fire, as well as getting blown, almost sucks itself along by consuming so much oxygen.) The areas I should add are hilly with winding roads: two lanes only, and lower max speed. In Australia there is a policy of no forced removal of people: you have the choice to go early or stay and defend your house. Previous fires have taught that most deaths happen when people try to leave when the fire is almost there: you get trapped on the roads by falling limbs and smoke. The policy is designed to stop that situation. My understanding is that the fires were so hot and fast that people either got caught without enough time to leave (define early) or simply got over-whelmed when the fire hit. This fire was hot and fast: much more than what people expected. As an example I saw on the news last night a brick wall: it had collapsed because the mortar had burnt out.

Pombat said...

RbR: hope Spotted H has answered all your questions on the geography, conditions etc - feel free to ask more though!

LTG: Thank you for your apology. A belated thank you also for posting on this topic to start with (even if I dislike the title. Incidentally, Healesville Sanctuary seems to've survived intact, the animals were evacuated to the zoo just in case, but it seems the fires didn't get there, which is good for all the wild beasties hurt in the fires too, as the Sanctuary has a centre for caring for hurt wildlife, like this little guy).

"I am sorry you were upset by my words, I didn't mean to hurt" (snipped for brevity) is all we needed to hear from you in response to our initial snappy replies to your "humor". Pity you felt the need to add your last "I won't say that" sentence, but still - thanks for the apology.

Now, had you said that instead of deciding to try and paint us as unreasonable, and you as the innocent wronged party by calling us "touchy" in your reply, we wouldn't've gotten to this point. But you decided to call us "touchy", which came across as bitchy and deliberately taunting, quite frankly.

You mention the fact that your family have been evacuated from fires. Believe it or not, we know this (hence my reference to family & the last fires) - we were communicating with Dr.S throughout the last fires, worrying about your parents, and once they were safe, worrying about their house. And knowing that you know how emotional fires can be, and should therefore be able to empathise so well, is why I got so angry at you calling us touchy - if anyone called you touchy in a similar situation, you'd flip your lid, hence my hypocrisy call. I even stated that you probably meant the comment humourously, but I wasn't in the mood for it - that should've indicated, very clearly, our emotional state, and prompted an immediate "sorry guys, didn't mean to upset you, how you going over there?"

Ok, what next? Ah, the "self-righteous" and "teasing Californians" crap. We have never done this, so stop trying to move the focus from us being rightly upset at you by making yourself a victim.

And lastly, the first sentence of your last post.
1. Comment was definitely not humourous. I know the US and UK/Aus senses of humour differ greatly (the US lacks a u for a start), but still - I don't know anyone who'd find that funny, especially whilst the fires are still burning.
2. Self-deprecating: how exactly is that comment self-deprecating? Saying "hey, we have natural disasters" is simply not self-deprecating, it's a fact. Saying "you have to catch up to us" is most certainly not self-deprecating, and is in fact incredibly irritating to other countries, because we're frankly sick of hearing from Americans (not just you, granted, but you are guilty of this) about how our countries should be catching up to the USA because it's just the best place in the whole wide world. Cos it ain't, not to us.

Spotted Handfish said...

Just to let people know, we're about a week after the fire storm last Saturday. Melbourne is experiencing it's first smoke haze: mostly the wind has been blowing smoke away from the city. 21 fires are still burning across the State.

They've stopped issuing death tolls, mainly because they are treating most fire deaths as crime scenes. 300000 hectares of land has been burnt. And the last estimate I saw was for around 15000 head of livestock killed. That does not include native animals. I thought that might give you a sense of the damage.

A close friend recently updated his facebook status: "Jason has been at his brother-in-law's property - shooting stock, clearing trees and putting out spot fires."

Pombat said...

A follow up on the link in my last post: I believe this is the same koala, and she's got a new boyfriend.

The Healesville Sanctuary is currently closed to visitors, with only essential staff remaining, as the fire threat throughout parts of the Yarra Valley (to the east of Melbourne, I can see the smoke from my office window), and to the township of Healesville has gone back up. A lot of the threatened species have been evacuated to the Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Ranges, but unfortunately not all the animals can be evacuated, hence the remaining staff. Hopefully the Sanctuary, and particularly the Wildlife Centre will be ok - the injured wild animals from these bushfires need care too (this is where my aid money is going).

Pombat said...

The latest: confirmed death toll has risen a little (189 last I heard), number of houses confirmed destroyed has risen, the Red Cross have asked people to stop sending goods because they're overwhelmed and to please just send money instead now, and the donations fund is around the $100million mark, which ain't bad for a country of 20million people. The news has shown people up in Queensland, going to collect their flood relief cheques, and asking for them to be made out to the bushfire fund, on the basis that whilst they might have a house that's three foot deep in muddy water, at least they still have a house.

Speaking of water, Melbourne's drinking water supplies are probably going to be the next problem we face, as they're at risk of contamination from potash and fire retardant chemicals: we're low on water anyway, with our reserves at just 30% of capacity (they were at 60% when I arrived in mid-winter 2004, dwindling since), stage 3a water restrictions have been in place for quite some time (no washing of cars, watering of gardens limited to short time periods on a couple of days a week, all fountains in the city switched off etc), and an ongoing campaign to encourage us all to use less than 155l of water per day each (which Spotted H and I find rather ridiculous, since our last water bill has us using 126l per day between the two of us).

The other problem people are foreseeing is that other charities will suffer this year: people have given hugely generously to the bushfire fund, but given that the economy is tightening, this is likely to be an instead-of donation as opposed to an as-well-as.

And I think the most poignant request I've seen in all this - a request for donations of suits for the survivors to wear to funerals, because theirs have gone up in smoke. It was passed around a couple of large firms here in the city, such as PWC, and within 24hrs seventeen cartons of suits had been donated, and the person organising the collection had to get a maxi-taxi - one of those minibus sized things - to transport them all.

Dr. Strangelove said...

According to the US National Fire Protection Association, you have to go back to 1947 to find a firestorm in the US that caused more than 250 deaths (they only listed the top 20) and that was a chemical plant explosion in Texas. That kind of opened my eyes to just how massive the Victoria bushfires were in context.

It is worth noting also (same source) that approximately ten people die every day from fires in the US alone--the vast majority of the deaths occurring in building fires (as opposed to car fires or forest fires.) But apparently the number of deaths and injuries has been cut in half in the US over the past thirty years, so apparently we are learning something.