Tuesday, March 3, 2009
It is only four weeks since I experienced at first hand the hottest day ever recorded in the city of Melbourne: 46.4 degrees centigrade, which translates to 117 degrees Fahrenheit. It was frightening. From my window in New Haven this morning I am seeing more snow on the ground than I think I have ever seen here, and more is on the way. And it is minus 10 (14 Fahrenheit), more than a hundred degrees' difference. The change has me completely addled, and my instinct is simply to creep back into bed and continue to read From Billabong to London, the ripping 1914 novel by Mary Grant Bruce which I discovered lately is based almost entirely on my great grandparents' happy first extended sojourn with their children in England in 1912-1914, about which more presently.
The bushfire disaster is hard to describe to many of my American friends, though not to people who have ever lived in Southern California. Yet even the menacing concept of Santa Ana brush fires doesn't really capture the full horror like this amazing photograph that was taken from the roof of the Doncaster Shopping Centre, looking due north. In America for the time being, the benchmark of disaster still seems dismally affixed to the 2,974 souls who perished in New York City, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. No-one here would ever say that compared with this, the current tally of 210 documented deaths in country Victoria on Black Saturday (February 7 last) seems small, but it is the horrifying manner in which so many of these people died that appears to move sympathetic inquirers.
Above all, it now seems inconceivable that we can any longer live with the curiously laissez-faire policy of "if-you're-going-to-leave-comma-leave early-semi-colon-if-you-decide-to-stay-comma-make-sure-you-have-a-plan." Comprehensive evacuation procedures, however difficult, however costly, however impossible, now seem the only reasonable path forward, especially because our rural populations will presumably continue to grow and put more people in harm's way when the weather conditions conspire to unleash other firestorms, fueled by immensely inflammable box eucalypt. It will be interesting to see whether the royal commissioner and his staff reach the same conclusion. I hope they do.
In Sydney I caught up with my excellent literary agent Mary Cunnane. It turns out that Paul Collins, who not so long ago wrote Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia, is also one of her authors. Incredibly, it seems that Allen and Unwin feel that to reissue this title now, never more germane at a time when the entire nation is pondering so many of the relevant issues, would amount to an act of gross insensitivity. I think they are plain wrong. No doubt this fine book, which will evidently remain out of print, deserves to be read closely by the royal commissioner and anyone else seeking to understand the comparable but altogether less costly bushfire disasters which took place on Black Thursday 1851 (February 6); Black Friday 1939 (January 13), and Ash Wednesday, 1983 (February 16). Surely Burn ought to be made more widely available, and read with some care, not merely by people in authority. It does not seem too extravagant to suggest that lives may depend on it.