More on bushfires

The ferocity and scale of the recent Australian bushfires still remains utterly staggering. Watch this live video taken by a man who no doubt thought himself quite safe, with his brick-built home in a wide-open clearing, with an open view all round. He did survive, and so did his house; but as is clear from his voice-over, it was a close-run thing…

Watching the video, remember that he says he has a clear view for at least 10kms (about 7 miles). At the start, the first flames are just visible in the far distance; at the end, just four minutes later, part of the fire-front has already passed to the left of the house. That’s a probable speed of around 100km/h, or sixty miles an hour – maybe more. No wonder the animals, and most of the drivers, were unable to outrun the flames.

This quote, from an article in Melbourne’s The Age, “Fire’s intensity leaves no trace of victims“, presents in bleak, bald fact some inkling as to what those caught in the flames would have faced:

Forensic police from around Australia who have been deployed to the devastated areas are using the most advanced DNA techniques to identify some unrecognisable remains.

Kevin Tolhurst, Melbourne University senior lecturer in fire ecology and management, said flames would have been about 1200 degrees when they roared across the state.

He said he had calculated the areas burnt and energy released from the fires equalled 400 to 500 Hiroshima atomic bombs and generated 80,000 kilowatts per metre of flame front.

Dr Tolhurst said people caught in the open would be charred and could be identified by forensic tests.

But some of those in vehicles and buildings could have been obliterated.

“In some cases, unless there was jewellery or some other identifying article, there would be nothing left but ashes,” Dr Tolhurst said.

Police working in Marysville, where almost every building was destroyed, say it will take at least another week of intense work to satisfy themselves they have not missed any remains among the ashes.

“The trouble is human ash looks pretty much the same as the ash of everything else,” a forensic policeman told The Age. “And there are tonnes and tonnes of ash.”

I suspect there may be a slight editorial error there: 80,000 watts per metre seems more likely than 80,000 kilowatts. Australia also uses metric units, so “1200 degrees” would be in Centigrade, hence around two thousand degrees Fahrenheit – but whichever we look at it, that’s seriously hot. So in many ways what’s most startling is how many did survive under those conditions. “I love an unburnt country”: scary indeed…

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