Recent Natural Disasters - the Worst Fires
Bushfire in Victoria 2009
This is a follow on from "Recent Natural Disasters - the Worst Earthquakes". The theme is the common perception that natural disasters are occurring more frequently as well as becoming more intense. I address seven types of natural disasters (Earthquakes, Fires, Floods, Avalanches, Cyclones/Hurricanes/Tornadoes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes) while exploring this issue. Pickrell (cited below) argues that scientists state natural disasters are not becoming either more frequent or stronger in nature. He says that natural disasters are more able to cause damage because populations and development are increasing, particularly in coastal areas. The other side of the story is represented in the Sydney Morning Herald (cited below) stating that 2010 was the second worst year for natural disasters since 1980 with 950 recorded disasters, 295,000 people dead and a disaster cost of $130 billion. Increased media coverage and technology is why many think there are more natural disasters than before.
This aspect of the series will focus on fires. The improvement of fire prevention technology means that most fires occur in rural settings. In the United States and Canada the term 'wildfire' is used while in Australia and New Zealand the word is 'bushfire' for these devastating conflagrations.
Victorian Bushfires Map
View From the Kitchen Window
Black Saturday House Remains
'Black Saturday' - 2009 Victorian Bushfires
From 7 February to 14 March, 2009, 173 people died, and 414 were injured as 4,500 square kilometres of the State of Victoria in Australia burned. Victoria, one of the smallest Australian States, is 237,629 square kilometres in size, about a third the size of Texas. As many as 400 fires occurred affecting 78 communities across Victoria. 7,562 people were displaced and over 11,000 livestock were consumed by the conflagrations. Over 1 million animals altogether perished, with many also being injured (many kangaroos and koalas that survived were given veterinary care as a result of their burns). Over 3,500 structures were totally destroyed, 2,030 of these were homes. Many thousands of other buildings were damaged.
Black Saturday was the 8th deadliest fire in recorded history. Black Saturday is conservatively estimated to have cost around 4.4 billion dollars in damage, not including agricultural losses.
A week before the fires, an unprecedented heatwave hit Victoria. Record temperatures occurred (45.1 degrees Celsius/113.2 F on 30 January) during the heatwave. Conditions were remarkably dry as well as windy due to an approaching weather front. The fires started on a day when the highest temperatures since 1859 were recorded in Melbourne, the States capital. Victoria, like much of Australia at the time, had been in drought for an extended period. On the day before the fires the State Premier, John Brumby, issued a fire warning saying the following day would be the "worst day [of fire conditions] in the history of the state".
The next day saw winds of over 100 kilometres per hour coupled with extreme temperatures. Power-lines came down due to the winds. These extreme conditions meant that there was little firefighters could do to put out the fires. It is unknown what exactly started all of the fires, (lightening, felled power-lines or arson), but some of the fires were deliberately lit. A 39 year old man was arrested and charged with arson shortly after the fires. His name was suppressed out of concern for his and his family's safety. He was not given bail and it was said that he was at risk from the other inmates in prison.
A temporary morgue was set up in Melbourne with the State Coroner issuing a press release that it may be impossible to properly identify all of the human remains. A Royal Commission identified issues with building codes, fire policy and the locations of various townships.
Victorian Bushfires Feb 2009
Devastating Fires in the 20th Century
There have been many other reported fires in the 20th Century which have resulted in tragedy and devastation.
- 1997 - Indonesia - Sumatra and Kalimantan Fires - 240 dead
- 1983 - Australia - Ash Wednesday Fires - 75 dead
- 1980 - Unites States - Needle Ridge Fires - 167 dead
- 1967 - Australia - Tasmanian Bushfires - 62 dead
- 1949 - France, Landes Fires - 230 dead
- 1939 - Australia - Black Friday Bushfires - 71 dead
- 1918 - United States - Cloquet Minnesota Fire - 453 dead
- 1916 - Canada - Matheson Ontario Fire - 273 dead
Common Grave Site at Kursha-2
1936 Soviet Union Kursha-2 Fire
With 1,200 people dead, the Kursha-2 Fire is the deadliest in the 20th Century and beyond. Kursha-2 was a small community built shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1917 as a logging town. Located in the middle of European Russia, it was completely destroyed in a firestorm on 3 August 1936.
At the beginning of the conflagration an empty train arrived at the Kursha-2 depot. It was proposed that the townspeople be evacuated but the depot master had it loaded with wood instead. All of the townspeople perished, except 20 who managed to hide from the fire in a pond, wells, a channel and on an un-forested hill. Ironically, the train was also burnt with no survivors, so perhaps the depot master saved the 20 survivors with his lack of generosity.
The town was re-settled after WWII but the railway line was ultimately dismantled and today no one lives there except one elderly woman. The only reminder of the fire is a common grave near the former railway depot.
Are Fires Getting Worse?
Fires have occurred through history, and like earthquakes and floods it is really hard to support the proposition that they are getting worse in intensity or frequency due to climate change or any other factors. The consensus of researchers is that while many contributors to the warming trend over the last 50 years can be identified as the result of human behaviour, the dryness in Australia over the last 12 years (a major factor in fire severity) may be due to natural variability. It is unknown if greenhouse gas buildup has resulted in more severe fires. However, the vast increases in population and development mean that when a conflagration happens, the damage and the death toll are likely to be worse than in the past. We are aware of more fires today than we were in the past because the media is able to use technology to keep people well informed.
Test your Fires Knowledgeview quiz statistics
- John Pickrell, The Worst natural Disasters in Recent History", ABC Environment, 27 April 2011:http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2011/04/27/3197103.htm
- Natural Disasters in Australia, Australian Government, http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/natural-disasters
- Q & A: Victorian bushfires, CSIRO, http://www.csiro.co.uk/resources/Victorian-Bushfires-QA.html#2
- Emergency Management in Australia, Historical Disasters - Black Saturday Bushfires, http://www.ema.gov.au/www/emaweb/emaweb.nsf/Page/EMALibrary_OnlineResource_HistoricalDisasters_EmergencyManagementinAustralia-HistoricalDisasters-BlackSaturday
- Kosmix, Kursha-2 images; http://www.kosmix.com/topic/kursha-2/Images
- Natural Disasters killed 295,000 in 2010, Sydney Morning Herald, January 4 2011, http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/natural-disasters-killed-295000-in-2010-20110104-19e06.html