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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
09MELBOURNE34
2009-02-27 02:14:00
UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Consulate Melbourne
Cable title:  

VICTORIA BRACES FOR MORE FIRES

Tags:   EAID  SENV  CASC  AS 
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VZCZCXRO4030
RR RUEHPT
DE RUEHBN #0034/01 0580214
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 270214Z FEB 09
FM AMCONSUL MELBOURNE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 4897
INFO RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHINGTON DC
RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHINGTON DC
RUEHC/DEPT OF INTERIOR WASHINGTON DC
RUEHRC/DEPT OF AGRICULTURE WASHINGTON DC
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 3552
RUEHWL/AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON 0115
RUEHDN/AMCONSUL SYDNEY 2066
RUEHPT/AMCONSUL PERTH 1539
						UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 MELBOURNE 000034 

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

Department for CA/OCS/ACS/EAP, White House for NSC Bader

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAID SENV CASC AS
SUBJECT: VICTORIA BRACES FOR MORE FIRES

Ref: A) Melbourne 31, B) Melbourne 28, C) Melbourne 25, D) Melbourne
24, E) Melbourne 23, F) Melbourne 21, G) Melbourne 20, H) Melbourne
17, I) Canberra 134, J) Canberra 100

Summary
-------



1. (SBU) Hot weather and high winds on February 27 threaten to
spread the five major ongoing fires facing emergency personnel in
Victoria. The state is taking precautionary measures by advising
against unnecessary travel and closing schools. Charge visited the
Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) where Victorian officials told
him that a prolonged emergency of over 30-60 days may stretch the
state too thin; the fires have been burning for 20 days. Charge
also visited a U.S. wildfire team deployed to a fire affected area
who warned that soil damage may have long lasting effects including
a significant threat to Melbourne's water supply. Post has not
received any reports of U.S. citizens injured or killed in the
fires. End Summary.

A Tough Day Ahead


--------------------------





2. (SBU) Expected temperatures of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit and strong
winds on February 27 have emergency officials preparing to confront
additional fires in Victoria. Chief U.S. wildfire liaison Doug
Alexander told post on February 27 that five major fires continue to
burn throughout the state and high winds may threaten communities in
the Yarra Valley, located only 35 miles northeast of Melbourne.
While conditions may not be as severe as those on February 7,
officials are concerned that lightning strikes and embers from
existing fires may ignite new blazes. Emergency officials warned
Victorians on February 26 to "avoid unnecessary travel" and closed
189 government schools as well as 221 children's services centers on
February 27 in preparation for extreme fire weather. The number of
dead from the February 7 fires has reached 210, as two people
succumbed to their burns in a Melbourne hospital.

Charge's Visit with U.S. Personnel


--------------------------





3. (SBU) During a February 21 visit to Victoria's Emergency
Coordination Center (ECC), Secretary of the Department of
Sustainability and Environment Peter Harris, told Charge that the
inter-agency coordination model in Australia is working "as well as
it can." Harris noted, however, that the creation of a national
fire coordination center would be a welcome development. Because
the majority of Victoria's emergency coordination personnel are
temporarily seconded to the effort from other departments, Harris
believes that a prolonged fire of 30-60+ days may significantly
drain these other agencies. While Harris was unable to provide a
precise cost estimate of Victoria's response to the fires, he
believes that at least A$200 million (US$130 million) has been spent
so far on salaries and equipment.



4. (SBU) Charge visited a fire affected area near Traralgon (located
87 miles southeast of Melbourne) and met with a U.S. burned area
emergency response (BAER) team. The BAER personnel told Charge that
one of the long term effects of the fires is that soil has been made
temporarily water repellent, increasing the risk of flash floods as
well as polluting downstream water catchments. Damaged soil, the
BAER team said, can sometimes take three to four years to recover.
The U.S. team told Charge that their Australian counterparts have
shown a particular interest in soil imagery and U.S. personnel, in
return, have learned best practices in documenting emergencies.
Charge and Consul General attended a memorial ceremony on February
22 which featured speeches by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the
Opposition Malcolm Turnbull, the Governor General and Princess Anne,
representing Queen Elizabeth. Leaders promised to rebuild Victoria
"brick by brick."

American Citizens


--------------------------





5. (SBU) Post has received no reports of U.S. citizens injured or
killed in the fires. On February 24, we received notification that
a UK/Portuguese national couple with three minor U.S. citizen
children lost their home and personal effects in the February 7
fires. The children's U.S. passports were recovered, but their U.S.
birth certificates and other important documents were lost. Post
assisted the family in renewing the recovered, but expired

MELBOURNE 00000034 002 OF 002


passports. The family is staying in temporary accommodation and
plans to return to the United States in March.



6. (SBU) This is the third report we have received of U.S. citizen
families who have lost their homes in the February 7 fires; none of
the families have requested consular financial assistance. The GOA
is providing financial assistance to families affected by the fires,
and an Australian/U.S. national requested help from post in
obtaining more information about these funds. We have no
outstanding welfare and whereabouts cases. Post will continue to
report new developments to Consular Affairs.

Comment


--------------------------





7. (SBU) Although the fires have been burning now for nearly three
weeks, emergency officials tell post that the fight is far from
over. Expected extreme weather conditions on February 27 and March
3 may add a further burden on already exhausted fire fighters. U.S.
wildfire personnel deployed to Australia tell us that cooperation
with Australian counterparts has gone very well, and that the help
has been warmly welcomed by an emergency service stretched thin by
the fires.

THURSTON