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.