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:

 

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Photos: Aftermath of the Southern Highland fire – Apparently this is Yanderra. Photos by Brad Chilby via news.com.au

 

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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:

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

 

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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.

 

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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

 
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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.

 
Related information

The current (October 2013) NSW bushfire emergency:

Bushfire education / general information:

 
 
* 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.

13 Thoughts on “The bushfire situation is under control…

  1. Glad to see you remain safe. It restores my faith in human nature when I see how people react to crises in the way you describe here, helping each other out: that’s the kind of world I want to live in.

  2. So thankful this is coming to a close. I really love your pictures of “re-birth” after the fire. It is amazing to me to see which plants grow and then thrive after fire and flood. The shoots of green against the blacked earth. Take Care!!

    • It is not my pictures… The one with grass is from Wikipedia (photographer unknown), and the one above with just one sprouting plant is by photographer Josh Smith, from Australian Geographic’s website.

      I like them too:-) and it is easy to take care, it has all calmed down.

  3. I’m glad you’re safe and the danger is mostly passed. I lived in a fire prone area for 7 years so this brings back lots of memories. One summer we spent quite a few night sitting on the roof, watching the flames in the nearby mountains to both sides of us. It’s amazing the lengths fire crews go to in protecting what they can and the sacrifices firefighters make, living in tents and being away from their families for months at a time.

    I enjoyed your photos of the re-birth. There is an area in the mountains in Santa Fe that was badly damaged by fire thirty years ago and is now an absolutely beautiful grove of aspens. It’s amazing how nature can regenerate after such devastation.

    • Thank you!

      I some times forget that people living in other parts of the world than Australia may experience wildfires too (we don’t have it where I come from). I quite like the idea of sitting on a roof at night monitoring fires in the distance… Like campfire, just with a big strain of danger.

      And I totally agree about the fire-fighters…

      They are not my photos (the credits are written under the photos), but I like them too. There is something fascinating about the crystal clear life-death contrast when the first plants sprout up through a dead landscape of ashes, and seeing the lively young green plant cover spread and cover the grey & black remains of the old landscape.

      In the same time, the Australian ecosystem is overall quite horrific. After I realised it, when I look over the bush landscape is a bit like watching a horror movie where nothing bad has happened yet, but you can hear on the soundtrack that it will sooner or later… So much of the native vegetation, and especially Eucalyptus, is “designed” to promote the risk for and spread of bushfires.

      I have also thought that maybe the volatile wildfires in California, US, has something to do with their many Australian Eucalyptus trees. They may have imported the Australian ecological mechanism that promotes big wildfires, and that may be why they have to deal with it that bad… Does Santa Fe have Eucalyptus forests?

      This is from Wikipedia: Eucalyptus: Fire hazard:

      Eucalyptus oil is highly flammable (ignited trees have been known to explode); bushfires can travel easily through the oil-rich air of the tree crowns.Eucalypts obtain long-term fire survivability from their ability to regenerate from epicormic buds situated deep within their thick bark, or from lignotubers, or by producing serotinous fruits.

      In seasonally dry climates oaks are often fire-resistant, particularly in open grasslands, as a grass fire is insufficient to ignite the scattered trees. In contrast a eucalyptus forest tends to promote fire because of the volatile and highly combustible oils produced by the leaves, as well as the production of large amounts of litter which is high in phenolics, preventing its breakdown by fungi and thus accumulates as large amounts of dry, combustible fuel.Consequently, dense eucalypt plantings may be subject to catastrophic firestorms. [...] It has been estimated that 70% of the energy released through the combustion of vegetation in the Oakland fire was due to eucalyptus.

  4. I am also glad that it’s all calmed down now. we talked about this specific fire prone flora in Australia, too at home, but I just can’t feel that that balance would be disturbed by the intervention of humans. The streets, the settlements in bushland, the near extinct species that only survive in the most inaccessible areas.. not too mention the fact that humans lay the majority of those fires, including children, which is so horrific, i can’t even think that through. and hearing a head of state getting pissy with UN officials about weather or not this was a ‘fair dinkum Aussie’ fire or whether climate change might just have something to do with its extent or the frequency of those fires in the last 100 years (nobody said that climate change stroke the matches and set the fire, but you know.. conditions..) .. urgh. So yes, you are right, the best is focusing on the fact that there were only two victims (and both in a bit particular circumstances, not surprised by the fire and burnt), that there is now the wave of solidarity the communities need and that nature, over time and if we let her, has ways to recover completely, which is pretty miraculous really.
    Oh, and you had the Danish Royals visiting as a bonus, too! ;)

    • Hi again!

      Yes… it is so nice that it is over… A reminder of how fragile life is.

      It seems highly likely that climate change would increase the number of “bushfire weather days” and thereby the risk (~ frequency) of major out of control bushfires. And it is also obvious that the more settlements/rural properties and towns in bushland, the more of a human emergency it becomes.

      And I also find it appalling that the fires are often ignited by humans, including kids. On a day with bushfire weather, where the dry landscape seems like an unexploded bomb, who would strike a match? Apparently it gives a kick to some kids and adults to set off the rolling snowball of destruction that causes so intense activity…

      Quick brainstorm of why they may do it: fascination with the power of wildfires, the epic drama of volatile fronts of destruction rolling over landscapes and turning them into deserts of ashes in a matter of days, massive smoke clouds & haze covering the sky, intense media coverage, armies of fire trucks, helicopters, planes… huge impact on thousands of peoples lives… all that would maybe be “the experience of a life time” for a certain type of kid or adult. I think I may be able to understand the fascination aspect. However, the outcome of death, suffering and destruction it produces is so horrendous. Don’t they think through the consequences? Or don’t they care?

      I think that “causes and prevention of arson” should be a major ongoing sociology research study in Australia, supplementing the research studies in fire ecology, bushfire risk prevention, emergency management et.c. (maybe it already is… I will look for it) Arson is Australia’s kind of terrorism problem…

      hearing a head of state getting pissy with UN officials about weather or not this was a ‘fair dinkum Aussie’ fire or whether climate change might just have something to do with its extent or the frequency of those fires in the last 100 years (nobody said that climate change stroke the matches and set the fire, but you know.. conditions..)

      I don’t really follow politics, but I saw some comments about it on my facebook… it doesn’t seem like a particularly intelligent attitude that guy has.

      (Before you judge for not following politics, I’ll just quickly mention that I can’t vote… I don’t have Aussie citizenship yet because Denmark doesn’t allow double citizenship (so I would lose my Danish citizenship if I got Aussie citizenship). I can’t vote in Denmark because that requires residence in Denmark (fair enough), and I can’t vote in Australia because I am not a citizen. So I pretty much ignore election campaigns, because I’d just get too frustrated if I decide who I want to vote for and then can’t vote…)

      • I have heard that much of the urge to lay fire has to do with the “power” of the person themselves, including the harm they are able to do that way. They are often troubled, abused or have lost control and power over their life in some way…
        I also can’t vite but am planning to change nationality at some point. I have only recently started caring about politics more, as it does so directly influence our lives. Special needs child, middle to lower income..
        Uhm. Wanted to friend you on facebook if you are interested but now must rush.
        We are just getting a storm…

        • It’s OK. Was only a little one, they cancelled the severe weather warnings. Had a bit of an adventure picking up my boy early, got very wet, lol, then it already stopped…oh well.. :)

        • The description reminds me of what is said of bullies… Anyway, lots of kids and adults are powerless, troubled and have been abused (sadly), and most of them don’t start fires, so there might be distinct “profiles” and/or specific triggers that would be worth researching to see if at least some triggers for arson could be addressed/prevented in some way… just because of the dire consequences of even just a little bit of arson on a high risk day, and the fact that since the Australian bush is so vast, there is no way to actually keep an eye on it. All that can (hopefully) be addressed is the source: the person who makes & carry out the decision to start a fire.

          Facebook: OK. You probably can’t find me because I don’t use my pen name on facebook (and I don’t want to link on my blog because it is anonymous), but if you send me a link to your facebook account (or your name) then I can send you a friends request. I only know that your first name is Nikki.

          • =) i have sent you an email via your contact form. i am also quite keen on my privacy lol
            it’s very true, it sounds like what sometimes is said about bullies, and also abusers and other criminals.. it’s not an excuse. but it could be a start as you say, to look into better prevention…

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