The Australian Ash Wednesday Fires

On February 16 1983 (the middle of Australian summer), fewer than ten major bushfires swept through the states of Victoria and South Australia.

Seventy six people lost their lives, 2,545 homes were destroyed and over 390,000 hectares of land was razed. 360,000 livestock perished (no doubt millions of native animals as well), 3,700 other buildings were lost and 20,000 km of fencing demolished. The damages were estimated at $A960,000,000.

Bushfires on this scale are a natural part of the Australian environment - the bark on many eucalypts have adpated to it and some seed pods even require the intense heat before they open. Every day in summer you can switch on the news and see the numerous fires around the country. However, Ash Wednesday was a day when the unthinkable happened.

Home owners would point a garden hose at a twenty metre wall of fire. The CFA (Country Fire Authority), represented only by local volunteers, would battle endlessly using what appeared to be toy trucks in the face of such an inferno. People would just have to stand and watch as all their lifelong possessions were burnt to the ground.

Should we contemplate the seeming stupidity of timber houses in hot dry forests? Should we wonder about the powerlines strung through the trees? Should we question whether society is correctly addressing pyromania?

Bushfires are going to keep happening. Community awareness is very high in danger areas - largely due to catastrophes such as Ash Wednesday. Advertising campaigns, with similar horror to those of the TAC seem to be working. We just need to ensure that no one forgets. It can't be unthinkable anymore. It is inevitable and we just need to be prepared.