SYDNEY - Ten years ago, Australia suffered its worst bushfire disaster when 173 people died in the state of Victoria. Thousands of homes were destroyed as fires tore through the southern state. The tragedy led to sweeping changes in emergency warning systems.
“Black Saturday” is how Australians refer to the February 2009 bushfire that killed 173 people and left hundreds more injured.
The blaze left more than 2,000 homes in ruins, and thousands of people displaced. Authorities estimate that up to 1 million animals died.
There were not just a handful of fires, but hundreds. About 400 blazes burned across Victoria state. Most were sparked by lightning and faulty power lines, but others had been set deliberately by arsonists.
Carol Matthews’ son Sam was killed when the family home burned down. She recalls the last time she spoke with him on the phone as the flames moved closer.
“We only had a 30 second conversation,” she said. “When he started, he was anxious but not panicked. A tree blew up and then there was fire all around him and then I heard this ‘pop, pop, pop,’ and I said, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘All the windows have blown in.’ In my heart, as soon as the windows had blown in, I knew there was not much hope for him and although I tried about 15 to 20 times to ring him back, we never heard from him again.”
The disaster was caused by a deadly cocktail of record temperatures, unusually strong winds and a long-running drought — conditions that affect Australia today.
Earlier this month, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that January was the hottest month ever recorded in the country, with a mean temperature that exceeded 30 degrees Celsius.
An official inquiry into the 2009 tragedy resulted in sweeping changes to the way Australia prepares for and fights bushfires, including better early warning systems for residents. New homes in vulnerable areas are also subject to stricter building regulations.
Southeastern Australia is one of the world’s most fire-prone regions.
Between 1967 and 2013, major bushfires in Australia have caused about 8,000 injuries and more than 430 deaths.