Generation Emigration

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Once temperate Tasmania falls victim to devastating bushfires

Things are hotting up on the island where temperatures rose to 59.9 degrees, writes PHILIP LYNCH

Houses destroyed by fire in Dunalley, about 40km east of Hobart, in Australia's island state of Tasmania. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Jan 12, 2013, 10:26

   

Things are hotting up on the island where temperatures rose to 59.9 degrees, writes PHILIP LYNCH 

Houses destroyed by fire in Dunalley, about 40km east of Hobart, in Australia's island state of Tasmania. Photograph: Reuters

Images of burnt-out shells of houses, cars and perished livestock in paddocks prevail, but is there anything more poignant and stark than the image of a solitary chimney standing amid the rubble of what once was someone’s home?

When pictures of fire-ravaged Australia went around the world this week, we received a barrage of emails and Facebook messages from anxious friends and family.

Tasmania is 240km due south of Australia and its climate is on average a pleasant 3-5 degrees cooler than the mainland. With its sweeping green landscapes, rivers and forests – predominantly eucalyptus – there are inevitable comparisons with Ireland.

We generally tend to escape the prolonged heatwaves that afflict the cities on mainland Australia. But it seems that with climate change, things are hotting up here in Tasmania.

Australians are renowned for their love of the beach and the bush, so in times of catastrophic fires, many homes are lost.

In Canberra in 2003, 500 houses were destroyed or severely damaged in one day. In Melbourne in 2009, 173 people were killed and more than 2,000 houses were lost in a day.

Safer place

We are fortunate to be able to call rural Tasmania, or Tassie, as it’s affectionately known to Australians, home. Choosing to live in the bush, though, comes with the knowledge that one day, it may well be our turn to grab our already packed suitcase of prized possessions and to head to a safer place.

We have done what we can to make our property more fire-proof. We have burned off vegetation beside the house. I diligently keep all the gutters clear and sweep leaves from the roof to reduce the potential fuel for any fire.

Australia has a harsh climate, although there is surely nothing harsher or more frightening to rural communities than the horror a bushfire fanned by 100km hot winds.

Although we live an hour’s drive from Dunalley – the scene of last week’s worst fire – for several days we still had to endure lingering acrid smoke that made its way into our house.

Last Friday, January 4th, was the hottest day here for more than 130 years, with values reaching 59.9 degrees (just under 140 degrees Fahrenheit). There were the standard warnings about the likelihood of bushfires. On such days you simply hold your breath and hope your home will be spared.

The harsh reality is that in the event of significant bushfires, so called ember attacks (akin to projectile incendiaries) can shoot an incredible 10 to 12km ahead of the actual fires.

So while you may have a cleared area surrounding your house, it is no guarantee your home will escape destruction.

People still talk about the 1967 bushfires here when 61 people died and more than 1,000 houses, and farms by the score, were destroyed.

Many farmers, orchardists on the island’s south, abandoned their properties after that day.

In last week’s fires at Dunalley, a sleepy hamlet 50km or so south of Hobart and in the surrounding areas, more than 100 homes were lost within a few horrendous hours. Firefighters, many of them volunteers, were forced to decide which houses they could realistically attempt to save and which ones to ignore.

Hundreds of residents and holidaymakers fled to the beach and stayed submerged up to their necks for hours as the fire raged around them. At one stage even the town’s jetty caught fire.

For now we will continue to enjoy our bush site where kookaburras make their raucous racket at dawn and dusk, where, if we are lucky, we can see wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead and, closer to hand, watch superb fairy wrens and native robins scamper around in search of tasty morsels.

We will, however, keep that packed suitcase by the front door – just in case.

This article appears in the World pages of The Irish Times today, and on the main website here.

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