February 8, 2009

Australia: "Scorching weather, drought and tinder-dry bush"

"A bushfire burned through a forest on the outskirts of Labertouche, east of Melbourne. The police said they expected the death toll to rise." Photo by Mick Tsikas for Reuters.

The news reports are gut-wrenching and the photos are terrifying. Over 100 people died as wildfires driven by high winds roared through Australia's forests and townships on Saturday, according to the NY Times:

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria.”

At least 108 people have died in a series of wildfires that tore across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday, the country’s deadliest firestorm. Some died trying to escapethe fires in their cars; others were caught up trying to protect their homes.

The fires were driven by hot winds of more than 62 miles per hour, and temperatures that peaked at 117 degrees in Melbourne, making Saturday the city’s hottest day on record.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters on Sunday after meeting with emergency relief workers in Melbourne. “This is an appalling tragedy.”

Fires are common during Australia’s hot, dry summers, when the oil-rich eucalyptus forests become especially vulnerable during lightning strikes or sparks thrown from farm equipment. But a prolonged drought and the weekend’s searing temperatures made recent conditions particularly bad.

More than 700 houses were destroyed and two townships were almost completely leveled in the disaster. The police said at least two children were among the dead, and warned that the toll could rise as emergency crews searched for bodies in the hardest hit towns.

More than 80 people were hospitalized across the fire zone. The victims included at least 20 burn patients, some of whom were unlikely to survive, hospital officials told reporters.

The NY Times photos will look familiar to anyone who lives in SoCal. In summer and fall, conditions here are much like the current conditions [heat, wind, draught] in Australia. It's a strange feeling to be here on a cold day with rain falling outside, snow in the mountains, the foothills green, thinking of fire and saddened by Australia's losses.

Our thoughts are with the families of Australian fire victims.

NY Times: Death Toll in Australian Fires Climbs to 108

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