Australian Fires Overwhelming Officals

by Val Germann

For this writer the Canberra area fires of 2003 were very shocking because the world famous Mount Stromlo Observatory was destroyed along with a surrounding forest.  Thanks to the internet the whole astronomcal world followed this event, complete with  photographs like the one below, showing the top of the mountain on fire.  

Mt. Stromlo on fire

The entire observatory was destroyed, the fire moving so quickly that no important equipment could be saved and many valuable and irreplaceble records lost.  All of the observaotory’s instruments were incinerated.   

 Telescope destroyed

Several people were killed in these fires which at first could not be stopped and so quickly reached into the suburbs of Canberra itself.  Local emergency response was overwhelmed because, for the first time, several Australian fires joined into one, creating a single massive blaze, a true firestorm, as an article in today’s THE AUSTRALIAN reports, quoting a coroner’s report.   

[the] two-year inquest concluded that the damage caused by four fires which linked to form a firestorm was more extensive than it should have been because of the ACT Government’s failures in preparation, firefighting strategy and public warnings.

It seems obvious that local response was slow and the situation was not taken as seriously as it should have been.  However, the emergency was a new one in some respects as a typical Australian “brush fire” quickly moved on to something much more destructive.  Two local officals stated:

“We were not given a briefing that alarmed us in any way or which was consistent with the Coroner’s findings.” 

“Decisions … were made in good faith by many very experienced personnel based on their professional assessment of what was known at the time, not on what ultimately occurred.”

No doubt, to a certain extent, the above statements are true.  That is, Australia is now facing fires beyond any seen before and those fires started burning in 2003.  What the future holds no one can say but the chances are great that Australian officials are not yet finished being surprlsed by this new class of conflagration.

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About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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