Author: Cornish, Rick

The Australian Fires
The Australian Fires
Special Report from Mike Kear
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

(Editor’s Note—We had another piece ready to run here in the Welcome spot this a.m., but upon checking this morning’s email we found the following post from Mike Kear, a really good guy and a stalwart on the Bluegrass “L”. News of the tragic fires down under has been in on tv, radio, print media and the web the past several days; here’s an up-close account from one of our International bluegrass family members.)

One of the things I like about bluegrass music is the fact that there are so many wonderful, thoughtful and caring people who are everywhere you look.

It's about the bush fires in Victoria. They are many miles away from us here on the outskirts of Sydney, but that hasn't stopped lots of people, members of this list, and listeners to my radio show around the world, writing expressing concern for my safety.

I'm able to reassure you all that the Kears are OK. I haven't heard how Geoff Morris is. He lives a lot closer but still clear of the area where the worst fires are, so I'm assuming he's ok. There are a lot of bluegrass fans in Victoria where these fires are, so I am fearful that in due course we'll hear of some of our fellow pickers who have lost their homes or even their lives in the fires. The whole eastern seaboard of Australia has been under record high temperatures combined with very low humidity - down near the 10% mark. Record high temperatures, moderate winds, and very low humidity are perfect conditions for an Australian bush fire.

So then some moron(s) in Victoria thinks it'll be exciting to see some flames, and lights a bushfire. Two days later, more than 200 people are dead, and 750 homes are gone. 330,000 hectares have been burned - an area roughly the size of Delaware. Whole towns are totally wiped out. Marysville, for example, was a little mountain community nestled amongst the trees, with a population of 600. It's very similar in a lot of ways to so many tiny villages in Appalachia. Now, 95% of the structures - houses, sheds, garages, shops, offices - in the town are totally destroyed. In Narbethong, not a single house remains. People jumped in their cars to escape, and ended up incinerated as they drove off the road in the thick smoke, or hit fallen trees as they tried to drive, barely able to see as far as the front bumper of the car, or the heat exploded the fuel in the tanks. The other night on tv they showed a pitiful shot of 5 burned out cars that had collided one behind the other. The first car had hit a tree that had fallen across the road and exploded into flames, then another car had hit it, then another, then another. A mother said she had been talking on the phone to her son who was in their house as the firestorm raged around, and the last sound she heard from him was the crashing sound as the windows exploded inwards, the firestorm cremating him inside his own house.

An Australian bush fire is a fearsome sight, as I'm sure most of you have seen on tv. The eucalyptus trees give off an inflammable vapour when heated. The fires feed on this vapour and the fire races through the canopy at more than 70km/h. The noise is deafening. Survivors were saying today it sounded like a dozen F18 fighters overhead at once. You cannot outrun it. You can't even outdrive it if there are others on the road. There was a story on the radio this morning about someone who said they were driving at 80km (50mph) and the FIRE OVERTOOK THEM for pete's sake!! It roars through the treetops with flames going 100ft in the air and the only way to survive it is to hunker down somewhere, and hope it roars over you fast enough that you can make it. There is no oxygen to breathe for 3 times the height of the flames. So if the flames are raging 100 feet high, there is no oxygen to breathe for 300 feet either side of the firefront. Some of the victims suffocate rather than burn to death. The fire sucked air in fast enough to cause a gale force wind. And the heat is intense enough to melt cars. There was a shot on the news tonight of a reporter kneeling beside what had been molten aluminium running down the path. It was a car alloy wheel rim.

What's also amazing is the following few weeks after such a fire. You'd think smoking blackened ruins would be all that you could see for months. But not so. Within a couple of weeks, the eucalypt trees have sprung a green fuzz from the folds of the blackened bark - little leaves springing out to sustain the tree while it rebuilds its branches and twigs. The trees all look like they've suddenly grown bright green fuzz. In the ground, seedlings emerge through the ash within days, seizing the opportunity to grow without the canopy stealing the sunlight, and using the ashes as natural compost. They must race to grow tall enough to get their share of sunlight by the time the trees recover. These seeds may well have lain in the ground for years waiting for the heat of the bush fire to crack their hard casings so they can germinate. The bush fires are needed for regeneration of the forests. An enormous terrifying fire, and 2 years later you'd never know it had happened.

Somehow, the wildlife manages. Koalas presumably hunker down behind a tree trunk or in the hollow of a tree, knowing the fire will roar overhead and only be there for a few minutes as it roars past. Kangaroos seem to be able to outrun it. Anyway, for those threatened by the fires, it's an awesome and terrifying sight. At the moment we're not threatened here in Windsor, but it can change in the wink of an eye.

Thanks a lot for your best wishes. Those poor people in Victoria will need all the help they can get. Thousands of them have nothing left. There are thousands of people wandering about in a daze, starting to work out how to start their lives all over again.

And I'm very thankful to be associated with such a thoughtful group of folks as you. Thank you.

Cheers, Mike Kear
Windsor, NSW, Australia
Webmaster, Bluegrass Australia
Posted:  2/10/2009

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