Australian Wildfires Prompt Tougher Building Codes

February 12, 2009

Exhausted Firefighter on Black Saturday at Bunyip State Park in Victoria, Australia

In the wake of the worst wildfires in Australian history and the country’s worst natural disaster, Victoria Premier John Brumby is expected to introduce the toughest building standards in Australia’s history for areas prone to bushfires. Brumby, who previously opposed stricter building standards which would make housing more expensive, did an abrupt about face in the wake of last weekend’s “Black Saturday” devastation, which killed more than 200 people in a series of more than 400 fires near Melbourne in southern Australia and left over 5,000 homeless. New high-tech, fire-resistant building standards are estimated to increase the cost of each new home in fire-prone areas of Victoria by about $20,000. The common practice of building flammable houses in or near fire-prone bush areas will end.

A Mother and Her Two Sons Died on Black Saturday When Trapped in This Car in Flowerdale, Victoria, Australia

The death toll is expected to soar. A combination of record high temperatures of up to 117 degrees F., a severe drought, dry bush and high winds of 60 mph caused racing fires to spread rapidly; many of the dead were burned to death in their cars in furnace-like conditions, as they tried to flee. A mother and her two sons burned to death in the car seen above. In many cases, when rescuers opened car doors, bodies fell out. Rivers of melted steel from alloy wheels on cars ran down roads like molten lava. It may be months before all victims are identified, because many were charred beyond recognition. Officials say that it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether charred human remains are those of one person or those of several people. Some of the fires are believed to have been set by arsonists.

The Zoo Man in Marysville, Victoria, Australia

Historic Marysville was among the worst-hit towns, with the death toll there expected to climb to at least 100. Marysville, once a popular honeymoon destination described as “God’s own garden,” is in ashes, with bodies laying in the streets. According to Ian Pearson, a Marysville survivor, “I’ve seen the inside of hell. It’s just flat ash. It’s like it was never there. If you’ve seen pictures of Hiroshima, that’s what it’s like. The pictures you’re seeing in the paper [of other towns], that’s not representative — it’s worse. . .Marysville doesn’t exist any more. Marysville is gone.”

In the wake of the deadly bushfires which caught thousands by surprise, Australia’s federal government will create a nationwide fire alert telephone system. The plan was proposed in 2004, but was hampered by bickering over funding and a failure to make necessary changes in privacy laws which would allow emergency services to access the national telephone number database. Emergency services would send a barrage of automated messages to every telephone in a targeted geographic area, in a system similar to one used in Hawaii.

Members of an Australian Army Task Force Prepare to Conduct a Body Search

More than a dozen bushfires continued burning in Victoria today, with concern mounting that a fire which has burned communities on the northern edge of Melbourne may merge with one still ablaze in Bunyip State Park. Over 1,100 square miles have already been scorched. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology yesterday provided new information on Saturday’s extreme conditions: It was 115 degrees in Melbourne, which shattered the city’s previous record of 114 set on January 13, 1939. On that “Black Friday,” 71 people died in wildfires. Meanwhile, the national United Firefighters Union, which represents Australia’s 13,000 firefighters, warned both state and federal governments that they should take global warming seriously to prevent a repeat firestorm such as “Black Saturday.”

A tip of the hat to Hurstvillian Mark Herron, in Melbourne awaiting the birth of his third grandchild. Read more Australian news.

Photo credit: Jason South / TheAge.com.au

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