Could Bairnsdale Burn?

(The Guardian)

The London fires in July left me with the feeling that the historic fire of London could be repeated, and if so, is any residential area safe from the catastrophic fires the climate emergency helps create. An article in The Observer noted that 41 houses burnt in three locations as the temperatures approached 40C and a comparison of this recent event was made with the great fire of London in 1666. 

“Guillermo Rein, professor of fire science at Imperial College London, said that strong winds played a major factor in spreading the 1666 fire, which lasted for four days and ended when soldiers blew up houses to create fire breaks, and the strong easterly wind died down. ‘While it was blowing, the [great fire of London] was completely unstoppable’ he said. ‘So let’s put it this way. Tuesday could have been even worse if we had more wind.’ Gusts reached 14mph last week, barely above average.”

There have been a number of examples in North America of substantial towns being destroyed by bushfires. Examples in Victoria include Marysville in the Black Saturday fires of 2009 when whole rows of houses burned and at a number of locations in the Black Summers fires when many residences were lost – all or nearly all, in rural locations. During these recent fires a number of substantial towns were threatened, including Bairnsdale, and the fires advanced at a terrifying pace on a number of occasions.

These fires were the third I had prepared for in the last 20 years, although the first in an urban situation, and there was little I could do beyond keeping a close ear to the ABC emergency radio. Fortunately, the conditions were benign and the threat passed. But we are left with the question ‘Could Bairnsdale burn?’ and the answer is almost certainly yes.

A bushfire that approached the town during catastrophic ‘code red’ conditions would almost certainly make severe inroads destroying many residences and taking lives. The river flats and the river are easily surmountable obstacles and the combustible material in urban environments is plentiful – wooden fences and buildings, trees and shrubs, cars, even asphalt roads. As global warming gets worse we should be making detailed plans for the defence of the town.