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© Neena Bhandari, Women's Feature Service

As nature's fury wreaked havoc, reducing to ashes all that came in its way, engulfing historic towns and hamlets along the state of Victoria's picturesque tourist trail, even for 99-year-old great-grandmother, Mona Farr, it was unlike anything she had witnessed in her lifetime.

Surviving her third major bushfire, Farr was helped by relatives to flee her weatherboard home in one of the worst affected areas of Kinglake, north east of Melbourne, as the inferno raged with unprecedented intensity on the fateful Saturday of February 7, 2009. "It was the most dreadful day," told a shocked Farr to the local media.

Bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia's vast woodland, scrub or grassland areas and can move with terrifying pace, especially in the Eucalypt forests. With temperatures soaring close to 50 degree Centigrade, parched land and strong winds fuelled the fires that have razed 1.1 million acres of land, gutted more than 1,800 houses, rendered over 7,000 displaced and killed over 200 people. Such is the magnitude of destruction that is being termed as the worst peacetime tragedy in Australia.

Town after town was wiped off the map within hours as firestorms raged. Families, fearing the worst, tried to escape in their vehicles, which became deathtraps. In Strathewen, a community of 200 people on Melbourne's northern fringe, a couple fled in separate vehicles. The wife survived, but the husband didn't.

Others stayed to defend their homes. A woman passed buckets of water from their in-ground pool to her husband on the roof as fires brushed her backdoor. Their three young sons were huddled together in a bath full of water with a blanket over their heads. Another couple sought sanctuary in a cellar as their home above was burnt down and 63-year-old Dorothy Parker was found by her sons in a tiny space beneath the back stairs while her house and surroundings were smoldering.

But despite the hopelessness, there are countless stories of survival and hope. A couple in their 50s, who had been separated while trying to flee, knew no greater joy than discovering each other in the hospital's emergency and accidents ward despite sustaining burns. And, as the deadly fires raged, news of Emma Smetham, 40, giving birth to her second son was proof that life conquers all. Smetham was able to escape with her husband and parents even as the flames were closing in on their home.

"They breed them tough in the Australian bush, none tougher than the women, who always seem to be at the front of all the volunteer efforts; and none tougher than the men, who fight like tigers to save their homes until it's too late, and then fight to save their families; and none tougher than the children, who manage to stay optimistic, that is, to stay children," wrote Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of 'The Australian'.

The role of Country Fire Authority (CFA), one of the world's largest volunteer-based emergency services with around 58,000 men and women volunteers supported by over 400 career fire fighters, has been crucial in helping affected communities.

The golden rule of surviving bushfires, according to officials, is to evacuate early or stay and defend homes. But this "stay-or-go" policy has recently come under a lot of criticism. "It's nonsense. In those extraordinary conditions you cannot defend your home. You have to go. Dad wasn't an idiot. Had he been given those instructions he would have left," Marisa Robbins, who lost her parents in the weekend fires in Humevale, told the 'Sydney Morning Herald'.

According to Dr Mary Omodei, a La Trobe University psychologist and fire research specialist, "Previous research suggests that human decision-making ability deteriorates in rapidly changing and relatively unpredictable fire situations... The weather situation predicted for Saturday (February 7) and the actual fire situation would have placed decision makers in situations which exceeded the limits of human decision making abilities on many levels."

Over many years, Dr Omodei and her colleagues at the Victoria-based School of Psychological Science have played a major role in understanding how decisions are made in an attempt to predict and control fires. "While it remains unclear what factors cause such a decline in decision-making ability, our research findings suggest these range from inherent limitations of cognitive processing abilities - limitations that are further aggravated by cognitive overload and physiological and psychological stress - to the communication and coordination challenges faced by teams of people having to exercise decision making-control over such situations," adds Dr Omodei.

With scientists and environmentalists warning that global warming will increase the intensity and duration of fires and floods, pressure is mounting on Australia to do more towards cutting emissions. The United Firefighters Union of Australia, in an open letter to the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, have said that its 13,000 members are at extreme risk as a result of Australia's plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a dismal five per cent by 2020.

While nature's fury was unfathomable, it is difficult to comprehend that some of these catastrophic fires were the result of arson. Victoria Police have charged a 39-year-old man with arson causing death and lighting the Churchill bushfire. According to Australia's Institute of Criminology, up to half of the bushfires in Australia each year are started deliberately. Australia has tough penalties for lighting bushfires, with arsonists facing up to 25 years in prison, but convictions are few.

Meanwhile, Australians have given whole-heartedly, donating over AU$100 million for the victims. One woman offered a wedding dress to a couple that was planning to marry but had lost everything in the fires. "We must do whatever needs to be done to help people rebuild their lives, their livelihood," said Governor-General Quentin Bryce, while visiting the survivors, who have been provided free accommodation and cash hand-outs by the government. More than 150 actors, sports persons and musicians have also come together to raise funds and visit the affected communities. Tens and thousands of Australians, in ceremonies large and small, observed February 22 as a national day of mourning to remember the victims of the bushfires.

Earlier, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had told parliament, "It is very important that the nation grieves and shares the stories of individual heroism and courage of ordinary people caught up in the fires... It is something which, unless you've experienced it, is beyond imagining. It's not just the loss of memories and photos and entire family histories, it's the loss of the certification of who you are and your legal personality."

For those who have survived, returning to the dark and desolate remnants of what was once their home in a thriving community has been the most trying experience. The social and ecological impacts of the bushfires will linger, perhaps, for years. But people are determined to begin life anew. And as in any tragedy, though women and children are the most vulnerable, they often prove to be the most resilient too.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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