Alexandra, Australia (AFP) Feb 15, 2009
Flying over Australia's deadly wildfires last week, US waterbombing pilot Gary Wiltrout could not believe the ferocity of the inferno he saw below.
House after house ignited in rapid succession as showers of red-hot embers and sheets of flame burst across the rugged hills of southeastern Victoria state at 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour -- the speed of the wind.
"I don't think anyone can tell you what it's like up there. It was just absolutely crazy," said the aerial firefighter with 38 years experience.
"The people that stayed behind to fight that fire, I mean, it's extremely brave and it cost them their lives."
Australia is perhaps the most fire-prone continent on earth, yet the inferno on February 7 -- fed by a searing heatwave and drought-like conditions -- has shaken the nation's confidence in its ability to cope with such threats.
At last count, 181 people had lost their lives, more than 1,800 homes had been destroyed and around 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of land had been reduced to cinders.
One country town, Marysville, was all but wiped out in the worst bushfire the country has ever seen.
Wiltrout's bird's-eye view may help explain how a blaze that many had predicted still caused so much death and destruction in a land where bushfires are a fact of life.
A high-level panel headed by a retired supreme court judge has been set up to examine what went wrong, and why so many people died as they fled in cars or tried to defend their homes.
"No stone will be left unturned," Victorian state Premier John Brumby told The Australian newspaper on Friday.
As Wiltrout and his Canadian co-pilot, John Currie, tried to douse the flames in their firefighting helicopter, they were shocked to see people standing in the path of the firestorm.
Many were on their rooftops armed with garden hoses, mops, even brooms, trying to save their homes. From their seats high above the flames, the pilots knew those people were going to die.
"In my 22 years as a firefighter I've never seen anything as disturbing as this, the extent of the damage and obvious death," Currie said.
In Canada and most fire-prone US states such as California, people are forcibly evacuated from the path of dangerous fires, but Australia says citizens have a "right to stay" and defend their properties.
With proper precautions -- such as ample water supplies, a rooftop cleared of dead leaves, a pump connected to a generator -- Australian authorities say it is better to stay home than to flee at the last minute.
Houses offer protection from deadly smoke and radiated heat, the theory goes, and even if they catch fire they will continue to offer protection at least until the firefront moves on, by which time it is safe to go outside.
"The message is if you're prepared and able to stay and defend your property then do so, otherwise leave early," Victorian State Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin said.
But both pilots agreed Australia's policy of "stay and defend, or leave early" was a recipe for disaster.
"When some of them decided to stay they never had a fighting chance to begin with," Wiltrout said.
"If they'd really understood fire behaviour they could have said, 'This is undefendable,' they should have left, they should never even have tried."
He said it was all too obvious from the air that "people weren't prepared and they weren't clear" about what they needed to do to survive.
As the recriminations begin, environmentalists have been criticised for allegedly opposing proscribed burning and fuel management in the country's forests, which could have limited the intensity of the inferno.
On the other hand, global warming and Australia's high greenhouse gas emissions have also been blamed for extreme heatwaves and drought conditions ahead of the blaze.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said "this is not about laying blame at anybody's feet."
"I think all of that is going to be on the table for examination by the royal commission that has been announced by the Victorian government," she said.
"I expect that it will canvass matters like the planning scheme, back-burning, clearing vegetation around homes, communication systems, the whole lot."
Gillard said as a first step the government was fast-tracking legislation on an early fire warning system that would bombard mobile phones with text messages about fire dangers.
earlier related report
Fire authorities said that while cooler temperatures and higher humidity were helping the battle against wildfires in Victoria state, it would take weeks to tame the deadly flames that have shattered the lives of thousands.
"We currently have eight fires listed as going across the state," said Department of Sustainability and Development spokesman Lee Miezis after four of the fire fronts merged into one overnight.
"These fires are not yet contained, but thankfully there are no immediate threat warnings to any communities at the moment," he told AFP, warning however that the fire danger was far from over.
"We are making good progress in containment efforts in some areas, but there's a long and difficult road ahead in bringing these fires fully under control, particularly those in steep and forested areas around Melbourne.
"We are potentially talking weeks before we have things completely under control and we are only part-way through our fire season," he said as around 4,300 firefighters battled blazes that have scorched 395,000 hectares (975,650 acres).
Two firefighters from the neighbouring state of New South Wales were injured overnight when a tree fell on them as they fought flames near the town of Alexandra, Miezis said.
The pair were transferred to hospital in Australia's second city Melbourne for treatment but their injuries were not life threatening.
Meanwhile a contingent of firefighters sent to help tackle the worst ever wildfire disaster in Australian history arrived in Melbourne on Sunday.
The team join comrades from New Zealand and across Australia who have spent more than two weeks beating back blazes that rampaged out of control through small towns in Victoria on February 7, killing at least 181.
Authorities have warned that the death toll will rise to above 200 as forensic teams sift through the ashes of small communities, some of which were wiped off the map by the blazes.
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Australian wildfire survivors suing power firm: report
Melbourne (AFP) Feb 15, 2009
Australian wildfire survivors have launched a lawsuit against a Singapore-owned electricity firm alleging a downed power line sparked one of the blazes, it was reported Sunday.
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