AUSTRALIA is still reeling in the aftermath of last weekend’s bush fires in Victoria. The fires, erupting across the drought-ravaged state on a day when Melbourne recorded a temperature of 46.4°C — its hottest ever — have now claimed at least 181 lives. Police estimate that the figure will exceed 200, as outlying homes and abandoned cars in the burnt-out areas are reached. A final figure is not expected for some days.
Temporary morgues have been established to ease the burden on the Melbourne morgue, already under strain because of the increased death rate, particularly among elderly people, after severe heatwave conditions over the past two weeks.
More than 20 people, two of them children, are in hospital in intensive care, suffering severe burns. Most are suffering from burns to their hands, feet, and face after fleeing to safety through flames.
The fires were the worst natural disaster to affect Australia since European settlement. The death toll is already more than double the previous worst bush-fire toll of 71, set in January 1939, also in Victoria. The speed and intensity of last week’s fires was severe, prompting some to describe it as similar to the heat generated by fire-bombing in the Second World War.
On Tuesday, despite cooler weather conditions, more than 20 fires were still burning across the state, days after what is already being called “Black Saturday”. Up to 5000 people are homeless after 750 homes were destroyed, while hundreds of thousands of hectares have been burnt in various parts of the state. Livestock and wildlife losses are expected to be high, and some rural towns have been virtually wiped out. Marysville, a pretty tourist town, has just a few buildings left standing, as does Kinglake, an hour’s drive north-east of Melbourne.
The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, spent several days in the worst affected areas, having suspended normal sittings of Federal Parliament in Canberra. He has promised generous aid.
The Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, has announced a Royal Commission into the disaster, while a task force to oversee the rebuilding of shattered communities has been established. Police are exploring the possibility that at least some of the fires were deliberately lit; the site of every bush-fire death has been designated a crime scene until the investigation is completed.
Meanwhile, community support stands at record levels, with blood donors inundating blood banks, and millions of dollars pouring into relief funds established by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.