The temperature soared to an incredible 42.1 degrees this past weekend, the hottest December day Melbourne has seen for 53 years. As the temperatures continued to climb, bush fires raged out of control across large areas of North East Victoria. The city disappeared under a blanket of acrid black smoke and Melbournians were advised to stay indoors as the air quality deteriorated to levels never witnessed before.
250 000 hectares of forest, bush and scrubland was ablaze. The largest fire was 50k long and 20k wide. 3000 fire fighters, many of them reservists, battled to gain control and attempt to stop the fires from merging. The fires will burn for days, perhaps months and Melbournians have been warned to get used to the taste of dirty air and the sight of their city blanketed with smoke.
As we flew into Melbourne on Sunday night after a brief trip to Canberra, we could see the miles of dense black smoke hanging heavy in the air all around us. We flew over Gippsland, the scene of the largest fires, and through the gloom we could see the mountain tops glowing red against the black sky. The scene was apocalyptic. As we exited the Airport you could taste the dust on the back of your throat and see the smoke hanging on the cool evening air.
I turned on the TV, as soon as I arrived home, hungry for the latest update on the encroaching inferno. I wanted to know what to do. Should I implement my exit plan? Should I hose down the roof, block up the gutters, shoot the dog? I needed answers!
I needn’t have worried as the story was barely headline news. Apparently, a southerly wind change had brought the temperature down by a massive 17 degrees, (incredible in its self) the wind had cleared the air over the city and the immediate danger of the fires merging had passed. Having half the state in flames and your state capital shrouded in smoke is apparently not that big of a deal in this land of natural extremes.
Coming from Britain, a land where the most dangerous natural phenomena you are likely to encounter is rising damp, I am totally perplexed and slightly unnerved. Out here, if you happen to notice Dante’s inferno over your back fence, you don’t run to find a local policeman and wait for the emergency services, you implement your plan! They say it might be a good idea to have a fire plan and the locals have informed me that your plan usually involves two choices. Those choices they say, are the front or the back door! As I say, I am totally perplexed and slightly unnerved.