Bushfires 2014 – why are they happening?

CAVEAT: Before I begin, I have to say that most of the answers I’ve gleaned are either conjecture, or hearsay. Information I consider to be fact will be labeled as such.

Over the last few years, we’ve all become a lot more aware of what can lead to bushfires – long dry spells/low humidity, fuel load and wind. Yet these factors are sort of passive, like a stick of dynamite. Without a detonator, that dynamite is not going to blow up in your face.

So the next question we need to ask is what are the factors that trigger bushfires?

Dry lightning is one of the most common triggers. We get literally thousands of lightning strikes a year. So did we get lightning strikes when the cool change came through on Sunday, February the 9th?

According to the news media, many of the fires currently raging across Victoria began as lightning strikes a couple of weeks ago. As far as I can tell, however, there were no lightning strikes on Sunday.

So how and why did the new fires start? It appears that 12 of them were started by arsonists.

Now I know that there has been a lot of heat in the media to do ‘something’ about arsonists. What, exactly, I don’t know. I suppose the police could round up all known arsonists before a day of extreme fire danger, but what of the unknown arsonists? Or the kids playing with matches? Or the idiots who flick burning cigarette butts out the windows of the their cars? Yes, the laws can certainly be tightened, and should be, but like lightning strikes, you will never be able to control these deliberate acts of stupidity.

Let me give you an example. I was listening to ABC 774 [the emergency broadcaster] when a listener phoned in about some young tradies in Ringwood. Apparently they were on a building site, and using angle grinders despite the fact that the media has been telling people forever not to use them on a day of total fire ban. The caller told them to stop, but they ignored him. Clearly there is a lot of room for improved fire education. And greater penalties for the willfully stupid.

Yet as devastating as arson and lightning strikes may be, there is another, silent danger most of us never think about – powerlines and transformers. According to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, set up after the horror of the Black Saturday fires, the Kilmore fire, which turned out to be one of the deadliest on that awful day, was started by faulty electricity infrastructure – i.e. powerlines and distribution feeders.

The commission recommended that the existing infrastructure be phased out, starting in the most fire prone areas. The current state government accepted the recommendations, and there has been some progress in terms of legislation, but five years down the track, very little has physically changed.

And that brings me to my own area, Warrandyte. What I’m about to say is either anecdotal, rumour or conjecture. You decide.

1. Anecdotal : I was on my computer at about midday on Sunday, February 9th when my computer suddenly just reset itself. Small blackouts are ‘normal’ in Warrandyte, but this wasn’t a blackout. Nothing else went out. As a result I thought my pc had just overheated. I switched it off, let it cool down and then switched it back on. The first thing I did was to check the CFA website, and there it was, the little red fire symbol on the other side of the river [south from my location]. What on earth?

To make this anecdote more understandable I should point out that my pc is particularly sensitive to power surges.

2. I was soon too busy getting the pumps going etc to worry about my temperamental pc. The next day, however, I had to go into Warrandyte to do some shopping, and of course the fire was on everyone’s lips. One person said the fire had been caused by a ‘transformer’. I still don’t know exactly what that is but I know it has something to do with the electricity infrastructure.

3. Then I moved on to the bakery. Leo’s was full, with lots of young men in various uniforms buying their lunch. Two of them were wearing the logo of SP AUSNET, one of the largest electricity distributors in Victoria.

4. Later there was new footage of the epicentre of the Warrandyte blaze. One resident said something along the lines of ‘there was a bang and then there was fire’. If you look carefully, you can see one of those huge electricity pylons in the distance.

5. Everyone in Warrandyte is in shock, not because there was a fire, but because it was to the south. Fire always comes from the north. Except that on Sunday, it started in the south, just before a wind change was due that would push it up towards the heart of Warrandyte.

Just to add a bit of perspective, the Warrandyte pub was closed down, something that has never happened in living memory.

So, do any of these bits of information add up to the ‘transformer’ being to blame? I honestly don’t know, but if that electricity infrastructure truly was to blame, then the distributor, and the State Government dodged a great big bullet too.

Why? Because the fire in Warrandyte could have become a raging inferno. The CFA knew it, all the authorities knew it, that’s why so many resources were thrown into the fight. To put it in bald, uncompromising terms, lives could have been lost, and the blame would have rested squarely with the negligence of the state government and the distributor.

Some fires are ‘acts of god’; the Warrandyte fire wasn’t, in my humble opinion. If I’m proved wrong, I will recant with good grace. But if I’m proved right, what will the state government do about it? More words? More legislation? Or will there finally be some action?

Update 12/2/2014 : I just found a very interesting blog post that provides more detail about the Warrandyte fire, and adds some weight to the theory the fire was caused by powerlines or whatever. You can find it here.



About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

10 responses to “Bushfires 2014 – why are they happening?

  • dadirri7

    very interesting Meeka, and scary, there is room for much more fire awareness and education if we want to save lives and properties …


    • acflory

      There certainly is, but I believe it’s time our infrastructure reflected the reality of where we live, and how things are changing, for the worse.


      • dadirri7

        oh dear, and lots more of that to come the way things are now 😦


        • acflory

          I hope this isn’t just a flash in the pan but…it’s raining today! Real rain. 😀


          • dadirri7

            not here, just drizzle … but it looks good on the radar for Canberra and environs 🙂 I was shocked to see everything brown and burnt as we flew into Melbourne last friday … hope it keeps raining for you!


          • acflory

            I actually took some photos this afternoon – to prove to myself that there really was water on the ground. 🙂

            I think we had close to a month without any rain, and this time of year everything dries out anyway. It’s been pretty grim but with luck, we may get a fuzz of green after a day or two. Hope so coz the alpacas desperately need some green to supplement the lucerne chaff we’ve been feeding them.


  • EllaDee

    You raise interesting points. Bushfires are a fact of life in Australia, and in the right circumstances are necessary for the regeneration of the landscape. But, and it’s a big but, your points lead us in the direction of contemplating [escalating] infrastructure rather than nature being responsible, as well as contributing the element of being also at greater risk.
    What to do what to do? Nought but learn the lessons and go on… there will always be people that just don’t get it, throw cigarettes out of cars, tow their kids on skateboards with their cars, light wood bbqs in the middle of summer, drink and drive. There may well be entities that haven’t grasped the risk their practices engender in certain conditions.
    All we can do, collectively and individually is continue to influence awareness, and protect ourselves.


    • acflory

      I agree, Ella, we’ll never be able to eradicate stupidity, however I can’t help feeling that in Australia, fire awareness should be part of the curriculum in schools. It used to be that only country people had to worry about bushfires. Nowadays it’s pretty obvious that big towns and even major cities can be hit. With people moving around so much, the only way to ensure that new residents in bushfire prone areas know what to do is to teach them, from an early age. And then, of course, there’s the infrastructure. Putting fire risk technology underground would cost a lot, but how much did Black Saturday cost? And how much will this fire season cost? I bet the authorities thought they’d have at least ten years to slowly get around to things. Well they got 5 and were caught napping.


  • davidprosser

    Please let the answer be action. If there’s any way to prevent a fire it must be taken. OK, it’s not possible to wipe out every chance of a fire starting but any progress is good. I know I should concentrate of he wider issue of lives lost but at this moment I can’t. My concern is for a good friend I don’t want to lose. I don’t want the property to go or any property to go but I don’t want the loss of life more.
    Please be careful. We know you’ve taken the best precautions you can with protection and have hoses at the ready but taking idiocy into account I’m not sure I’d rather you didn’t cut and run.
    Huge Hugs and even prayers till this threat is over.


    • acflory

      Ungh. I really didn’t want to worry you so much David. The threat is a lot diminished at the moment, and we’re in no danger. as for cutting and running, that can be the most dangerous thing you can do, especially if you’ve left it too late and panic.

      A lot of people died in their cars, on the road, during Black Saturday. 😦

      To set your mind at rest, imagine an umbrella of water that completely encloses the house. That is what my roof sprinklers do, so short of driving all the way into the CBD, we couldn’t be safer. 🙂


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