The NSW bushfire crisis has eased off with a change to cooler and calmer weather, and our neighbourhood has been smoke-free for several days. The big fires in Blue Mountains are of course still going but are mostly contained, and overall the situation is pretty safe. It is a nice sunny day under a clear blue sky, and the view of the horizon has never looked so good!
We were nervous but never directly affected, except for the smoke and scary news updates, of course! The edge of the Southern Highland fire (also called the Hall Road, Balmoral fire) expanded to 25 km south of us. I couldn’t figure out if we should personally worry about it so I did that, just in case, and spent my time on the roof clearing the roof and gutters, trimming down all bushes near the house (“it looks like a desert!” said my husband when he saw the result), raking branches and leaves off the lawn, hosing down vegetation, compost, roof and pavement, and learning about bushfire online.
The Southern Highland fire is now under control and downgraded to “Advice”, which means that it is no immediate threat to anyone at the moment, not even inside the fire zone.
I am struggling to stretch my mind around the magnitude of the land areas that have burned since last Thursday. The Southern Highland fire alone has burned over 15,600 hectares of land. The State Mine Fire has burned over 50,000 hectares, and I believe the total area of burned or burning land is about 118,000 hectares. When battling the State Mine Fire, the firies where working to contain a line of fire that stretched over 1,500 kms!
But that’s just the numbers. To get a visual sensation of the scale of the bushfires, try playing with the NSW Rural Fire Service’s Current Fires and Incidents map. Focus on a suburb not too far from the edge of a major fire zone, e.g. Appin north of the Southern Highland fire, and magnify until you can see all the streets and street names to get a sense of the size of the suburb. Then scroll down the map until you reach the edge of the fire zone. Keep scrolling. All the dark grey area on the map is burned or burning land. And this is the reality behind the map:
Photos: Aftermath of the Southern Highland fire – Apparently this is Yanderra. Photos by Brad Chilby via news.com.au
This is how Yanderra used to look like for comparison (and will look like again in the future). Photo from gerardsmith.com.au – First National Real Estate
A good side of the emergency, now when it is over (almost), is that it has once again shown how impressively competent Australia is at disaster management.
First of all there is the fire-fighting battle itself; the incredible effort and competency of the firefighters, who voluntarily confront what may best be described as Hell on Earth. The firies are still out there working to keep the fires under control, even though the weather conditions have now eased. These videos* gives a snapshot of the work conditions they face:
- A minute of a firie’s job: Crash cam footage of Dargan fires
- What the edge of a bushfire can look like: Yanderra Bargo fire pump truck footage
Behind the firies’ effort is the NSW Rural Fire Service’s coordination, logistics and management of the more than 2000 firies; none of whom were lost in the bushfire emergency, except for one who crashed with a plane. The RFS applied what they called “high risk strategies” (because it can easily go wrong), burning off land ahead of firefronts to reduce the fuel load, and the strategies worked.
Second, emergency information and evacuation services are well organised, efficient and responsive to people’s needs and feelings.
The key information source is the NSW Rural Fire Service’s website. It is kept constantly updated and shows all the key data in numbers and text as well as visually on the Current Fires and Incidents map. “If you smell smoke in your area, check the map to see where the fire is”.
“Need to know” information is accessible to anyone at any time, and the information structure is lean, consistent and strictly prioritised throughout. There are clearly defined procedures for what actions to take at each danger level, and the danger level is always clear from danger rating signs, news media, RFS’s website, direct phone calls to households in danger and other sources.
Evacuation centres are staffed and equipped to care for people’s animals too. The Department of Primary Industries coordinates animal welfare relief services for livestock, wildlife and companion animals during the bushfires:
The Department of Primary Industries, Catchment Management Authorities (CMA), and Livestock Health and Pest Authorities (LHPA) staff along with our supporting specialist agencies are on hand at a number of evacuation centres across the fire zones to assist with the relocation of horses and companion animals.[...]
People who are evacuated should take their animals with them to the nearest evacuation centre. Animals will be looked after and transferred where needed.
Horses can be directly taken to the Hawkesbury Showground. Around 100 horses are now being cared for at the Hawkesbury Showground and capacity has been boosted to take additional horses if required.
More than 400 companion animals are being cared for at evacuation centres, including dogs, cats, alpacas, goats, rabbits and birds.
For evacuation of large numbers of animals or livestock, please contact your local evacuation centre to allow planning their accommodation
- NSW Department of Primary Industries: Current bushfire situation
Local vets are keeping a register of lost and found pets and treating injured animals for free, and generally there is a strong willingness to help others out, including the wildlife.
I come to think of this quote:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” - Mahatma Gandhi
That is so very true. A nation shows it greatness through its treatment of its animals, and I think that is even more true in a major emergency situation.
It is also reassuring. I imagine it would be unthinkable for most people to leave their animals behind when fleeing a bushfire; and for anyone who would be willing to do that; well I don’t personally feel that kind of people are even worth rescuing. So Kudos for the evacuation policies.
A striking aspect of the bushfire emergency response is how calm people are. That’s what made it hard for us to assess the actual risk where we live. We live in a suburb, but the bush is right behind the houses on the other side of the street. We don’t live in a bushfire prone area as such, but near one. To the east there’s pretty much bush all the way out to the coast (judging from Google Earth). However, the Southern Highland fire is in south-west.
The local Fire Danger Rating sign showed “Extreme”, and that’s supposedly our trigger to leave the area according to our Bushfire Survival Plan. However, everybody around seemed relaxed and not going anywhere. Some of the neighbours were mowing and watering their lawns in front of the houses, but they often do that. Was it a sign of danger or just ordinary garden work?
After we pulled up all the dry bushes near our house and covered them under a wet tarpaulin after hosing them, we asked our neighbour next door if he thought there was any serious risk of bushfire attack on our area. He said “Oh no don’t worry, it’s safe” and smiled… while he continued to water his roof.
Even people inside the fire zones, very few kilometer from a firefront, appeared remarkably calm (albeit busy) when interviewed for TV and news articles. A TV journalist reporting from a small town in the Blue Mountains remarked how some people, despite all warnings, dashed around in T-shirts and thongs looking at all the activity of fire trucks and smoke clouds as if it was any day.
Many of the interviewed people who have lost their homes talk about how lucky they are to be alive, and happy their families and pets are alive. They talk about luck and lives, not much about the material losses (for now). In the light of bushfire emergency the life-death contrast is stark, and the hierarchy of what is important in life is clear.
A cycad emerges in Warrumbungle National Park 10 days after the park was devasted by bushfire earlier in the year. Photo by photographer Josh Smith, Australian Geographic
Typical regrowth after an Australian bushfire. Photo and text from Wikipedia: Fire ecology
The constructive human emergency response is the positive side of the bushfire emergency. The most tragic side is that it is bound to happen again and again and again. Australia’s ecosystem is terrible (albeit fascinating)… Its inner engine is this incredible cruel cycle of hellish disasters and landscape rebirths happening over and over.
A few weeks or months down the track, sprouts will begin to rise from the deserts of ashes and slowly repopulate the burned grounds. A new landscape just like the old one will gradually emerge. It will again grow into a highly flammable wilderness.
Australian Eucalyptus which dominates Australia’s vast bush/forest landscapes, is designed to survive and spread fire. It “uses” bushfire to kill off the competition. It also isn’t the only Australian plant that uses a fire-friendly strategy and needs bushfire disasters to maintain its way of life; rebooting the ecosystem and coming best out of the new start seems like an effective way to secure a vital share of scarce resources.
Of course, the more frequent the landscapes burn, the higher proportion of vegetation specially evolved to survive fire inhabits them; with a competitive interest in fire promotion. Add to that rising global temperatures, and “there you go”**.
Bushfire can of course be too severe even for fire-resilient native vegetation: this stunning photo essay by Gary Ayton Photography portraits Victorian bushfire grounds 6 and 7 weeks after the extreme Black Saturday bushfires in 2009; it illustrates both the severity of the devastation and the remarkable rebirth of life.
The current (October 2013) NSW bushfire emergency:
- ABC Emergency Coverage of the NSW bushfires
- NSW bushfire – Sydney Morning Herald live updates blog (last entry 18 October 2013)
- NSW bushfire appeal: how to donate money to help the victims of the bushfire emergency
Bushfire education / general information:
- Landgate Firewatch – a national bushfire monitoring system that provides timely information about hotspots to emergency service managers across Australia
- CSIRO: bushfires
- ABC Catalyst: in the Line of Fire
- Australian bushfires explained: CSIRO bushfire researcher Dr Andrew Sullivan answers questions from readers of the Guardian
- Bushfire education online for kids developed by Education Services Australia on behalf of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA)
- How to Survive a Bushfire by the Queensland Division of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE)
- Are YOU bushfire ready? by Tasmania Fire Service
* Embedding didn’t work, sorry, so the links go to the relevant sections of the news.com.au website
** The expression doesn’t mean anything, but is a useful and common way to pretend to make a final point while ending a sentence.