Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Testing our spirit.... from Australia

The Age (Australia): The 'Big Dry' and climatic events were common themes helping define the Australian condition in 2007. The calendar year provides natural bookends of summer and heat, and with them comes the peril of bushfire, but this year that threat extended well into the autumn and was already cranking up again by early spring.

And when rains finally fell, they did so in a deluge that bore witness to Dorothea Mackellar's anthem about a sunburnt country with its "droughts and flooding plains".

With dour understatement, the Country Fire Authority officially labelled 2006-07 "a very difficult fire season". The numbers told why – nine total fire bans and 11 partial bans were imposed throughout Victoria, double the number of the previous year; a mammoth blaze engulfed the Great Dividing Range, burning for a record 69 days straight and charring 1. 3 million hectares (an area the size of Greece); 64,000 calls to the state's bushfire information line were logged, six times more than in previous years.

And by late September, when thoughts were turning to the Grand Final, the spring racing carnival and "schoolies", the heat was searing again, with lightning strikes setting off blazes across the state. Were these extremes the likely result of climate change and a pointer to the future, or just freakish weather? Either way, the bushfire season now seems eternal, and never before have such demands been made of the CFA's 60,000 volunteer army.

Gippsland copped more than its share of heartbreak when floods followed the fires. In fact, June was a cruel month: storms lashed the eastern seaboard, wreaking havoc in the Hunter Valley and central coast of NSW, where nine people died, including a family of five whose car was swept into a ravine when part of the old Pacific Highway collapsed beneath it. The storms pushed the freighter Pasha Bulker onto Nobby's Beach, near Newcastle, where it remained liked a beached whale for nearly a month.

Within days of the NSW battering, the worst floods in decades left eastern Victoria awash. One man died, hundreds were left homeless, roads were severed and towns isolated after days of torrential rain. Some parts of Gippsland recorded falls of more than 100mm in 48 hours. In November, the rivers swelled again, causing residents in Tinamba and Newry to evacuate their homes for the second time in a year.

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