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The government of Victoria is going through a hand-wringing exercise about the devastation of the bush fires, particularly Black Saturday.  Thirty-four people died in the town of Marysville following the delivery of a report (prepared for Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner) declaring that everyone in the town was safe.

That the intensity of the bush fires took everyone by surprise is not at issue; the real questions are about the wisdom of the “stay or flee ” policy that is currently in favor and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) warnings that seem to have been seriously negligent in giving  residents at risk  timely warnings of the dangerous inferno.

A national review of disaster preparedness done three years ago found the states’ ability to warn its citizens inadequate to the task.  Most people here simply call 000 in the case of emergencies.  When the lines get overloaded, the calls get farmed out to centers that do not necessarily have adequate information to assess a risky situation for the caller.  In the case of the bush fires, neither the telephone or the internet was up to the task of saving citizens.

Even though the adjacent town of Narbethong was under ember attack hours before the blaze approached Marysville, there was no idication of that on the CFA website.  A map indicating that Marysville was in the path of an inferno was faxed to a nearby incident control center just one hour before the town was engulfed in flames.  The nearby town of Srathewen was not even mentioned in the warning. Twenty-seven people died there on February 7, the infamous day now known as “Black Saturday.”

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Ironically, a team of American fire fighters from California has been here recently studying the Australian example. They seem to have concluded that the spirit of volunteerism which makes the Australian policy of ‘fight or flee’ an option  is missing in the U.S.  The policy in California is based on a more authoritarian approach:  get people out whether they like it or not; worry about houses and property later.

I lived in L.A. for seven years, through bush fires, earthquakes and mudslides.  In terms of fatalities, nothing came close to the horror of Black Saturday.  I am not suggesting that my native land does these things better than Australia.  The response to the hurricanes in New Orleans gives the lie to that.  But in this particular case, reliance on peoples’ instincts for survival, mateship, rugged individualism and the myth of the brave Australian battler may have been carried just a little too far.  Fire doesn’t respect rugged individualism or mateship.

In terms of warnings, the most troubling example of late may have been the one that was blatantly ignored right before the devastating earthquake in Italy just a month ago.  The seismologist, Giampaolo Giuliani, drove through the town of L’Aquila in a van with a loudspeaker warning the public about an impending earthquake in March. He was accused of inciting panic and threatened with charges of public mischief.

The city government shut him down and Italy’s Major Risks Committee met in the town on March 31, playing down his disaster prediction, saying it was impossible to predict earthquakes with any accuracy.  The quake hit at 3:32 AM, six kilometers northeast of L’Aquila.  Over 200 people died.  Seismologists from around the world have dismissed the prediction as a fluke, insisting that such detailed predictions are impossible with current data.

But the fact is, he did offer fair warning to the good people of the town and he was roundly rebuked for his efforts.  Did anybody say I’m sorry?


It is hard to believe I have been back in Australia a week already.  Our adventure in the Alps was not entirely positive; I did manage to pick up a bug that plagues me still.  I’ve been nursing the typical hangover symptoms of a bad cold– sore throat, congestion, coughing, wheezing etc.  I was, of course, reluctant to drag myself onto a plane, but I couldn’t change my flights without incurring significant costs.  On the long leg from Frankfurt to Singapore,  I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me.  Fortuitously, I had booked a 24 hour layover in Singapore to recuperate.

If you have to fly, and I don’t particularly recommend it, you could do worse than Singapore Airlines.   The food is edible and they seem to recognize that you deserve to be treated like a human even if you board with an economy fare ticket.  That said, you are expected to do your part.  Once you’ve been fed and watered, the lights will go out and the staff will disappear, not to be seen or heard from again until the lights come back on.   Be a good sport, then, and go to sleep.

My doctor here immediately started me on a course of antibiotics. I am thoroughly sick of being sick and it is hard to squeeze a decent amount of sympathy from friends or loved ones.  You can easily visualize them raising crossed fingers and warding you off, saying, in effect, “Get thee to bed.  Do not emerge until well.”   You can understand the sentiment of self-protection, but it doesn’t make you feel any better.

Much of  the local news has focused on the ghastly fires that took the lives of over 200 Australians not long ago and still threaten rural residents in the state of Victoria.   There are four fires burning now that are “out of control,” another seven that are “contained.”  It is expected to be a hot, high-risk day with another dangerous north wind.    Peter Garrett, the country’s minister of the environment, offered to get his old band back together again for a fund raiser.  Midnight Oil (together with a lot of other bands) will raise about 5 million with concerts in Sydney and Melbourne on March 14.

The Prime Minister has compared the devastation in some towns to World War I, when many small rural communities lost one in four citizens.  There has been much beast beating in the papers about underutilized resources and fire-fighting protocols that may be out-of-date because the conditions now are really unprecedented.  Many older Victorians died in the city simply because of the heat.  The numbers are hard to calculate because the cause of death is usually attributed to some other failure, but the number of ambulance runs during the three days of high temps was triple that of last year.

Melbourne’s answer to the London Eye, the  $100 million dollar Southern Star Observation Wheel stopped spinning only seven weeks after it opened.  Engineers discovered that the heatwave had damaged the structure and it will be out of commission for at least six months.  It is one of the main attractions of a new real estate development in Docklands.

And jobs are disappearing.   There was another “massive” lay off of workers yesterday.  Some 1850  workers were laid off from Pacific Brands, a textile firm.  Four other firms in areas from finance to law announced impending  layoffs, citing an economy that is fragile, at best.  The government is struggling to establish the right tone, of course, somber but not overtly depressing.

This is a resource based economy.  When China catches a cold, Australia sneezes.  No one seems to be wondering why the free market fundamentalists stood by while the world economy tumbled into a tailspin, but the Rudd government does appear, at least, to be questioning  the ideology.  Let’s hope the impulse toward protectionism doesn’t catch on here again and backfire on Australians.

One odd item that emerged last week was in response to a recent spate of muggings of Indian students and immigrants, who are being relieved of IPods, laptops and the like.   In a curious sort of blame-the-victim approach to the problem, police have suggested that the Indians simply pipe down (when they are speaking a native tongue), and stop carrying expensive gadgets on public transit.  I guess these trinkets are much too tempting to the natives, who may have never seen such things.  I have never considered Indians particularly loud;  Hong Kong Chinese are LOUD,  but maybe I just don’t know the noisy ones.  Perhaps the recent Oscars have made them all insufferable.

Stay well and stop by again.  I promise to whistle a more cheerful tune next time.

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