When Two States Burned
By “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
THE maximum temperature forecast for that day was 43 degrees Celsius (109° F.). The predicted wind velocity: 37 knots (42 1⁄2 statute miles per hour). The humidity was less than 10 percent. Australia, already known as the driest continent on earth, was in one of its worst droughts in years. Put these factors together and you have what most Australians (and insurance companies) dread—the makings of devastating bushfires that exceed the wildest nightmares imaginable!
And that’s exactly what happened on Ash Wednesday, February 16, 1983, when the two Australian states of South Australia and Victoria were largely on fire. The final death toll: 71 people, 36,000 cattle and 320,000 sheep. Over 2,000 homes were destroyed.
Most of the inferno was started, it is believed, by spontaneous combustion from material that was lying on the tinder-dry ground. Once started, there is something peculiar to Australia’s bushfires alone. The fuel is almost exclusively the gum tree, rich in eucalypt oil. The tree literally explodes into a fireball and, with winds to whip the fire along, the flames swirl and roll over one another in eagerness to eat up anything in their path. This fire was clocked travelling through eucalypt trees at 45 miles (72 km) per hour, jumping all fire breaks. The flames rushed with a tremendous roar, likened by one person to “20,000 [railroad] trains gone mad.”
Panic spread as roads became closed or blocked. Blinded by the thick acrid smoke and ash, many people couldn’t tell just where the fire was, in what direction it was moving or at what speed. Then all of a sudden it would be upon them. Telephone lines fell or melted. Often the only knowledge people had of the whereabouts of the fires was what they heard on their portable or car radio—which usually came too late. The 13 helicopters and 13 other aircraft used by the fire fighters were hindered by the smoke and the gale-force winds. Headlights, too, were useless in a pea-soup fog of smoke.
It was hoped the wind would die down by Wednesday evening. Rather, it switched directions at an increased speed of 55 miles (89 km) per hour, catching many who thought they were out of danger. In several towns all were told to drive into the local sports oval or school grounds, wet their clothes and stay in their cars. There they would watch their entire town burn to the ground, including even their fire station. The heat radiation was so intense that some felt they would not even survive parked in the middle of a football field!
In one coastal resort town, residents were forced to run into the ocean and stay freezing in the water for two hours before they could safely return to shallower water and the beach itself. Apples were cooked on trees as the fires raced through orchards. Cows that survived had their udders so scorched they are now useless. In blistering heat, firemen would stop their trucks, get out and hose each other down. For some, cars helped save their lives. Others, including 12 firemen who were found later in and under their trucks, were trapped and just burned alive sitting in their cars.
Of the 17 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses situated in the fire zone, only one family and a woman lost their homes. Thankfully, none lost their lives. The aid offered by Government agencies and their fellow Christians resulted in a “that’s enough” response within only a few days—such was the generosity with which others responded in helping the victims materially.
Of course, people react in different ways at seeing all their possessions gone in but a moment. Most go through four general stages: numbness and shock, depression, anger (especially when some learned the fire in their area had been deliberately lit) and, eventually, the desire to rebuild and start all over again. It is estimated, however, that it will take 30 years for the forest to regenerate.
There was also speculation as to whether God had a hand in matters. Were these bushfires truly “acts of God,” as insurance agencies call them? “Why was the pub saved when the church and the general store and the newsagency were warm, crumbling rubble?” asked one writer. Others wondered why the flames would envelop one home when the one right next door was not even singed. But those knowledgeable in God’s Word recalled that “time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:11.
The disaster has caused people to think seriously about the transience of life and earthly possessions. Some, in anguish, greatly mourned their losses—the possessions they worked so hard to acquire. Others, happy to escape with their lives, prepare to rebuild on the ashes. And those whose hope lies in God’s promise of everlasting life in a Paradise earth have strengthened their resolve to keep rendering God “sacred service with godly fear and awe.”—Hebrews 12:28; Revelation 21:3, 4.