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Australian wildfires and web tools

What Australia is calling the deadliest fires in its history claimed the lives of at least 108 people, burned a half million acres of land and destroyed an estimated 750 homes over the weekend of February 7 – 8.

In the worst hit state, Victoria, firefighters counted more than 45 active blazes, and as of Monday (Australian time), eight were still burning. Scores of people remained unaccounted for in this area north of Melbourne.

Fires are common during the Australian summer, but uncommonly high temperatures (Saturday, thermometers topped out at 47 Celsius — or 117 Fahrenheit), strong winds and one of the worst droughts on record combined to create these devastating blazes that surprised entire towns.  Survivors say in some places walls of flames reached four storeys high and bolted across the land. People hid in pools, in olive groves while others had time to evacuate. Victims were found in cars, in houses, unable to escape the flames, smoke and heat.

The death toll accounts for Australia’s largest natural fire disaster, surpassing the 75 victims of fires on Ash Wednesday, 1983.

With devastation so widespread, and the threat of fire continuing, citizen journalists have had a hard time getting near the scenes. Yet, the internet is full of pertinent information for those living in affected areas about the continuing spread of fires and those outside who want to stay tuned.

Three developers, Alan Noble, Raul Vera and Pamela Fox, at Google Engineering created a Google Map illustrating the real-time status of fires within Victoria. They also added functionality for users search by specific address.

Here is their explanation at the Google Australia blog:

We've today pulled together a Flash Map, containing the latest up-to-date information about fire locations and their status from the Country Fire Authority (CFA). The Flash Map is updated in real-time from the CFA website via an RSS feed. We hope that it's of some use to people who may be affected, to emergency services personnel, and that it takes some load off other websites which are being inundated. The map certainly makes the scale of this disaster immediately apparent.

Here's the map:

Referenced in the above post is the CFA, the County Fire Authority — one of the world’s largest volunteer-based emergency services — whose site continues to update the different fires they are responding to across the State of Victoria.

Using much the same technology as the Google developers, the Australian newspaper has created an interactive map demonstrating where deaths have occurred.

Here is a satellite image of the fires from the University of Maryland/NASA Modis.

The same group also created a time-sensitive fire mapper using satellite images to see fires within the previous 24 hours, 48 hours, week, all the way back to 2005.

Aus-Emaps.com provides is a link of Brush Fire incidents throughout Victoria.

[A big hat tip to Edward Vielmetti for the information on his blog].

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has used his Twitter account to inform his more than 7,100 followers how to donate to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund or providing contact information for those needing emergency government assistance.

Staying with Twitter awhile longer, people have used the micro-blogging platform for a variety of information pertaining to this disaster.  A volunteer fire fighter, Tweeting under cfavolunteer was very much in the thick of things Saturday.

In one tweet of many:

Is sitting for a short break for the first time in 12 hours. But about to go back to the fires.

Another:

Returns from the township of Calignee where everything is gone.

Another:

7th February 2009 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. I hope people are safe, especially after what I have seen.

Finally winds down after another day. Atleast I can rest. I feel sorry for people who have lost property and loved ones.

Will probably not recover from what he has seen today.

People are also using the platform to ask specific  questions:
geehall1, living in Melbourne, inquires:

Anyone with updates Beechworth and Gippsland areas? Any other parts of the state?

Strictly, a writer and web publisher living in Brisbane, provided a lot of information.

Urgent Crystal Creek etc west side of Black Range increased – LEAVE now if you can


46 fires burning across the state, 8 not contained

Photos have been the perfect medium to demonstrate the destruction of these fires. Australian-based photographer Aussie_Pecker started a group pool called Victorian Bushfires – February 2009 because he wanted to create “[a] historic diary, recording the images from the worst fires to ravage our beautiful state.”

Then we have Facebook groups, like those supporting fire fighters, to protecting the australian bush against bush fires
“Every year in australia,we have to contend with bush fires and quite often , delibritly lit fires,so lets make an effort to fix the problem.” — or an anti-arsonist group and a group organizing a Bushfire relief fundraiser:

My home State of Victoria is burning. As of right now the death toll is 108. Thousands of people are homeless with entire towns having been burned to the ground. Please join me in helping to raise as much money as we possibly can through the Australian Red Cross to help these people rebuild their lives. Facebook is a wonderful worldwide community. Let's use it to help these devastated communities

On YouTube, people are capturing photos of the fires and putting them to music, but so far everything has copyright restrictions. I’ll check back later.

Photo on front page taken from the Flickr page of jsarcadia

  • http://vielmetti.typepad.com Edward Vielmetti

    Thanks John for the thorough roundup of news, much appreciated.

  • http://lebanesechess.blogspot.com Antoun Issa

    It should be noted that the death toll is expected to reach 300.

  • http://mtdblog.mtdsystems.com mike

    A friend told me of a man who had cleared a number of trees around his home last year and had been fined $30,000. His actions – against the law – saved his home. Given that others lost their families and not just property shows how sometimes it’s best to take the consequences if you know a thing is right.

    This is a huge tragedy and I hope that some of the same folks using the internet to such great effect reporting on the situation can bring focus on the larger issues after the fires are out.

  • Taiya

    Thats really horrible about the wildfires, What do you think is Australia’s biggest worry for the aftermath of this disaster?

  • skyler

    Wow, is the fire still burning as of now?

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