Aus fire hits academics

Professor Richard Zann, an internationally respected ornithologist and birdsong expert who taught at La Trobe University in Melbourne, died with his wife Eileen and their daughter Eva in the bushfire that almost wiped out the Kinglake township on the outskirts of Melbourne earlier this month.

Zann (64) was one of at least half a dozen academics believed to have been killed by the disastrous fires that raged across Victoria. Other university staff saw their houses and all their possessions destroyed in minutes during the worst natural disaster Australia has experienced.

Eva Zann was about to leave home to be closer to her work and her father was looking forward to continuing his research into the zebra finch in his retirement, with his wife Eileen, a musician and former dancer with the New Zealand ballet company.
The three were found huddled together in one room of the Canadian cedar home that Zann built more than 30 years ago.

As with many other victims of the fires, the Zanns had decided to stay to try to save their home but they had no idea of the raging firestorm that was to descend on them, leaving them no time to put their defensive plans into action.

“Richard was a lovely guy, a dedicated teacher and researcher in ornithology. He had a house at Kinglake but they had only two minutes from when they heard there was a fire before everything went up,” Professor Graham Lamb says, still finding it hard to accept that someone he knew well, who had worked at La Trobe University for 37 years, could be gone in an instant.

Several other academics and university staff may be among the 300 Australians who are now believed to have perished in the 400 separate fires that destroyed large parts of Victoria on Black Saturday.

More than 7 000 people are homeless, dozens are in hospital suffering severe burns and no one knows yet what the final death toll will be. Among the missing are a high-profile education expert, Dr Ken Rowe, research director at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and at least two international students from Indonesia.

La Trobe University has campuses in rural Victoria, at Bendigo and Beechworth, and both were threatened by the fires. Monash University’s campus in Gippsland in the east of the state has been converted into a fire-fighting headquarters and was also not far from the fires that ravaged that region. Monash, La Trobe and Melbourne universities have made beds available in their rural campuses for emergency workers and homeless survivors of the fires.

Philip Chubb, an associate professor of journalism at Monash, pointed out that Australia is facing a new reality, that the world is heating up and what may have worked in the past, in the dreadful fires of 1939 that claimed 71 Victorian lives or the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires that killed 75, no longer apply. Environmental conditions have changed but the advice to the community on how to cope with a bushfire remains the same.—