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Australia Natural Disasters

How did the black Saturday bushfires happen?

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December 02, 2011 9:43AM

There were numerous factors which contributed to the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009. Ultimately, in February 2010, the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires officially blamed faulty power lines and an incorrect fitting which caused the power lines to fail, for starting the worst of the fires, the one which killed 119 at Kinglake.

Arsonists were also partially to blame, though no formal blame has been cast on them. Each place where someone's life was lost was treated as a crime scene, because the authorities said the speed with which the fires started and then took off was more likely to have occurred as a result of being deliberately lit. Fire criminologists and special investigations task forces confirmed this.

Carelessness was another cause - a lit cigarette, tossed from a passing car or truck, was blamed for starting the major bushfire that hit Bendigo, destroying 50 houses and killing two people.

At Horsham, in western Victoria, a faulty power line was found to be the cause of the fire which began in that region. Arson has, at least, been ruled out in this instance. It is believed arcing began due to a faulty insulator, resulting in showers of sparks falling to the ground and igniting the dry grass. Similarly, the survivors of the Kinglake fire, which wiped out the entire town and killed so many, launched class action as that fire also appeared to have been started by faulty power lines.

Victoria and the southern Australia region had recently experienced one of their hottest summers on record, with a heatwave over parts of Victoria and South Australia. This was on top of a drought which had lasted a dozen years. This had dried up the vegetation, making it like tinder in a fireplace - easily ignited and easily spread. Spot fires also occurred as strong, gusting winds - some hurricane-force - carried blazing embers beyond the fire fronts: these fires quickly fanned into larger fires.