Fire

  • adam 

A year ago, in November 2019, life was pretty different. My family and I were half a planet away living deep in the mountains of Victoria’s great dividing range, borrowing my parent in laws’ holiday shack nestled on the Mitta Mitta River while searching for a more permanent home. It was quite a wonderful life – we made our own power, had no internet at home, collected and managed all our water, cooked on and heated with wood fired stoves, with wood we retrieved from trees on the property killed by a wildfire in 2003. I became very familiar with my chainsaw and splitting axes.

We were deep in a valley, 9 kilometres of dirt road to the nearest sealed road and then another 11 kilometres to Benambra, the nearest town.

The smoke started in early December. We had gone to a house sit in Tilba Tilba, on the south coast of New South Wales, again looking for a more permanent home and applying for rentals where we could find them. On the day we packed up to head home we started to smell and see smoke. The main road back to home (the Great Alpine Way) was closed because of a fire north of Bruthen- so on this crazy day we travelled north to Bega, then east over the snowy mountains, where we drove through a blizzard just out of Cabramurra, and south to home via the Benambra-Corryong road.

This was really a precursor of things to come.

Normal life prevailed for a little while, although the smoke never went away. We were not in Gospers Mountain style trouble. Even so, December was a fraught month. Every day, sometimes four times a day, walking up to the mobile phone tower (not far, about 500m and 75m uphill) to get a weather, fire and forecast check. Every day, listening to the radio. Every day, going to Benambra to work in office space I’d rented there, with a hair trigger to pull up stumps and go get the family.

In many ways we were lucky. We had a good fire plan – evacuate early. With a good fallback – a tractor we used to slash clear paths to places we needed to go, so we could do it easily in dark and shitty and burny conditions. We had a small dam on the property, slashed clear 20m around, and did not need to open any gates to get there. Our last resort absolute balls-up plan was stupidly simple – get in the truck, drive it into the dam, get out of the truck, stay in the water, wait until the fire passes, walk downhill and see whats left, and hope the tractor still works so we can pull the truck out of the dam.

Why not the river, which is right there 100m from the door? Trees. Too many trees in a wildfire. The Mitta Mitta is wonderfully tree lined, and too narrow. Easy to have air we need to breathe consumed by a fire that is a lot bigger than us.

So we prepared, and waited, and tried to live our lives. In the smoke. In our little bubble. Roads were closed and opened, often we could not have gone anyplace further than Omeo if we wanted to – and late in December the landline phone died and did not come back. Mobile reception became very patchy. We saw new fires appear to the south, to the east, to the north, and to the west. Always watching – whats coming near us? What will the weather do? Where does this smoke come from?

On new years eve some neighbours visited, we had a few beers, they went home. At 11pm they came back and said the bloke leasing land between us and the sealed road heard a spot fire had started near where the dirt road meets the sealed road, and they were leaving.

Shit.

Remember that there was one road in and out? We had to make a decision, and decided to not risk putting the kids through a wildfire. At 1am on new years day we had thrown a pile of stuff and a cat in the truck, locked the doors and left. In Omeo we pulled into a wildfire relief centre which very fortunately was staffed, and got beds for the night (well, I slept in the truck with the cat).

Waking up on new years’ day 2020 – with Faerie, queen of all the things

Hi 2020, what an apt welcome that turned out to be! Later on new years’ day, after talking to the police we headed back to our temporary home, did a much less rushed pack, prepared the house as much as we could, dumped thousands of litres of water on to the well-trimmed house paddock, locked the door and then headed over Mt Hotham to Bright.

We evacuated because we could already not escape south or North, both routes closed by fire. The fire to our west was growing and moving fast, and at that moment in time there was a severe risk of the road over Hotham being cut off by fire – which was realised the next day. Doing the sums, it felt right to get our kids out of there while we could – it seemed very likely that by staying, we risked being trapped in an even more stressful scenario. And not the least of all, we badly needed a break.

We camped at Bright for two nights on very rare and expensive dirt, and enjoyed one day of smoke free air, the first in a month. Then, Bright was evacuated after a fire to the south of the town started running rampant – so we followed the crowds further west, and after camping in Wangaratta (still smoky) for two nights realised there was a relief centre there we could go to! So we did, and had a night on actual beds. There, we felt relieved (pun intended) for the first time in a while.

…all the while watching fires and weather, wondering what we would drive back into whenever we could get back, if there was anything to get back to at all…

At this point Victoria’s relief efforts were in full swing. A wonderful suprise was that people were donating accomodation to forced nomads – and were donated two weeks in a wonderful cottage near Traralgon, where Bel’s parents have a tiny part time home (when they are not up in the bush)., We were feeling pretty ragged and lost by this time, so it was perfect. While we were there, fires burned south toward Bairnsdale, North into New South Wales, and east toward the coast – East Gippsland was ravaged.

As soon as the road north to Benambra opened, Bel’s father and I took off to the property. We passed burned out homes, millions of acres of devastated bushland, black everywhere. Except a little pocket between Ensay and Benambra… and as we drove into the Mitta river valley, we were relieved to see green. Bel’s dad had fought the 2003 fires, and it has left a deep mental scar… he’s seen the Mitta Mitta valley as a towering inferno, and I could feel his relief as we drove the last few kilometres to the gate with the trees still standing.

Three days of hard work followed – with fires still all around, we were not done yet. We went with no idea if or when we would be able to get back out – but we felt, again, with the family safe we could invest more time in making things safe. While we had a tractor, we didn’t have a plow. So while he slashed more grass and worked around the house I spent hours and hours trimming 3 metres each side of all the house paddock and orchard fencing to a few millimetres off bare dirt with a line trimmer, breathing smoke and powdered bugs and powdered cowshit. We pumped water, sprayed water, moved water, moved bees, did all the rest of the things we could to make sure that once we left, we could be satisfied that if the place burnt down it was really meant to. And we retreated south again, navigating a half-closed Great Alpine Way to Bairnsdale.

A few days later we all went back to the Mitta Mitta. Roads closing on and off, communications coming on and off, smoke still filling our valley and horizon, occasionally watching new fire spring up. By this time there was a small army of forest fire teams camped in Benambra, so we felt a lot better about staying in place.

On and off the roads closed again, and a few fires popped up, but we felt mainly out of the metaphorical woods, and thanking the stars and many more things that the wind managed to turn just the right way at the right times to keep fire out of the valley. The closest fires came to about 20 kilometres away in the end. Our biggest worry was a fire which lingered to our west all summer, by absolute chance not veering east up the Omeo valley towards us.

In late February, the rain came and we were then pretty much safe – the only reminders in our green valley being the Mitta Mitta river running black, the lingering smell of burnt bush and still no landline phone. We were lucky. Some of our near neighbours fought pitched battles with fire in their paddocks, and then when it rained lost crops to ash sliding off of bare hillsides. Double whammy. Every time we went to Bairnsdale for errands in the big town we drove past ruined homes, scorched forests, rivers choked with black silt, and road crews cleaning up.

We were very lucky.

Most of the 2019/2020 summer

What did we find useful in all this?

During and after the fires, a lot was made of communicating disaster information by maps or apps or whatever. We ended up using a really mixed bag of tools to make plans:

  • VicEmergency
  • CFA briefings
  • Local police
  • NSW’s equivalent
  • Sentinel hotspots
  • ABC AM radio
  • Bureau of Meteorology forecasts
  • the bush telegraph

It is hard to say which was most useful. We got situational awareness about events remote from us via VicEmergency and CFA briefings, which let us do things like plan an evacuation route or know whether to ask the nearest police officer which roads were open.

For nearcasting, ie what do we prepare for in the next few hours, I used DEA hotspots (https://hotspots.dea.ga.gov.au/) and BOM a lot. DEA hotspots take some caution to interpret, and carries a huge warning that it is not to be used for safety of life decisions – which is a reflection that it can sometimes show fire where none exists, or no fire where fire does exist. It needs to be interpreted in the context of where you are now and other information. However, it shows what is potentially burning almost now a lot faster than any other service we could access. So, DEA hotspots plus detailed weather forecasts and some standing up on the hill watching the weather was a great combination for thinking about what to do as in right now.

ABC AM regional radio deserves a most amazing special mention because for quite a while this was our only contact with the world in an isolated, smoke filled valley. At times in the fire season, after our landline phone died mobile reception was also quite patchy, some days nonexistent – so we quite literally could not communicate with anyone unless we drove into Benambra. In these times we relied 100% on regional radio and a weather (smoke) eye. I cannot express strongly enough the value of ABC regional AM radio as an emergency broadcaster. For us, and likely many others, it was at times our only way to hear from the world.

We went to CFA briefings whenever we could. These helped us understand what the local firefighters were thinking and where resources were going. We spoke to local police as much as we could, which also helped us in our contingency planning. And we kept in touch with our nearest neighbours, stopping for a yarn when passing. In the bush, everyone helps each other out – everyone is stressed and nervous, everyone feels it. Taking the time to chew the fat, to hear bits of news we might not have heard because our neighbours have a UHF radio in the truck and we don’t, to pass on intelligence we’ve gathered… its important. It helps people to make better decisions about survival.

Do we need more technology? My take is no. There is no shortage of technology. Keeping a diverse range of communication mediums, methods and styles is critical to helping remote communities plan and respond to disasters.

Thoughts on communicating in fire emergencies

To me, I don’t think there is a one perfect way of communicating about fires. I actually found it really helpful that different states used different symbology and terms from time to time. I had to learn two things, but it helped me triage situations, and allowed me to focus on the right set of stuff at the right time. No, fires don’t care about borders, and yes, duplicate near border fires in two systems if you have to, share information rapidly and openly, and ensure that border fires have the same data in both.

The last thing I wanted was to have to click through anything. I wanted an app I can use with my elbow. The other last thing I wanted was any of the channels mentioned above to be unavailable at any time. I used them all, sometimes together and sometimes on their own. Sometimes one or more channels were simply not available. Keep multiple, independent channels with different communication styles.

Consolidating too much risks the not so old joke “US East went down and now the toaster won’t work” – which is a reference to losing vast chunks of internet services anytime a data centre for a major cloud provider goes offline. And yes, I’m going to repeat it a different way – it is beyond valuable and so important to maintain different, redundant channels with different communication mediums and styles.

To all the academics and communication specialists analysing all of this from afar:

We really do need a diversity of media and messaging styles and tools and ways to access those tools. I think one application with everything would have been unwieldy and overwhelming, it made sense to me on the ground to use different tools for different tasks and scenarios. Please share data quickly and widely among emergency agencies.

To politicians:

Never ever cut funding to public AM radio (the ABC), listen to people on the ground more than besuited salesfolk pitching technology solutions.

Slashing, way back in December 2019

Thoughts on a fire future in Southeastern Australia

Please take these with the experience I’ve related in mind. I do not have the experience of someone battling fire in a real safety of life and property scenario, and was very lucky. Things I felt could really help for future fire scenarios were:

  • heavy investment in park rangers and boots on the ground and indigenous mentorship and ownership of wildfire prevention and mitigation and working with modern fire ecologists and climate scientists. Deep local experience saves more than houses and peoples’ lives.
  • heavy investment in airborne fire suppression,
  • Stop letting anyone burn stuff to make electricity, as of right now!
  • Start reforesting the 70+% of Australia we have denuded of trees in the last 200 years.
  • Vote for politicians who want to do all of the above. Even if you don’t believe in greenies, you can’t make money for long off of scorched ground. Be properly selfish for once and vote for your great grand kiddos still making money 200, 300, 400 years from now instead of just a generation or so of exploitative seasons. And think of all the cash you’ll save on fire hardening and plant.

Thankyou to…

Nobody gets through experiences like this alone. We want to thank a lot of people! Firstly the community of Benambra, while we didn’t see eye to eye politically all the time, we always felt like we could ask advice and get help when we needed it. The state government of Victoria, who really stepped up to help out everyone in so many ways from relief centres to direct financial assistance to putting professional firefighters and road crews all over the place. Also all of the volunteers from firefighters to community centre attendants, and all the people who donated accommodation. We also want to express a lot of gratitude to local radio broadcasters who tirelessly read a seemingly endless stream of emergency updates clearly and chose empathetic, sensitive subject matter to broadcast around them. To the nameless and faceless people at keyboards in offices who developed and constantly updated emergency apps and data streams, not just the talking heads but also everyone from the junior analyst updating shapefiles all shift long to whoever kept servers and infrastructure running.

We are so grateful to everyone who helped us stay safe.

Epilogue

We live in Tromsø, Norway now. So we have not settled into a picturesque Victorian mountain community and offered our services as volunteers in the local volunteer firefighting brigades. Instead I work on unpacking climate mysteries in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean instead – adding to already-overwhelming evidence that we have pushed our planetary system out of balance and must treat reduction of carbon emissions and restoration of ecosystems as an emergency.

In the summer that was 2019/2020 we felt like we were just living normal ‘bush life’ – it goes with the territory that summer has fires. It always has. And compared to life here, what we considered normal now seems totally insane. I miss it and really don’t miss it at the same time. Right now I would be keeping a watchful eye on the weather, the water, the bush around me. Carrying a spray backpack full of water everywhere I went in a vehicle, and likely suiting up to cop a weekly faceful of powdered cowshit and bug juice, trimming fencelines. Or we might have bought a faceshield for line trimming – or a plow. While I thought we did OK, and made OK decisions, it doesn’t feel like we did much ‘right’. We just did the best we could at the time.

Only now, a year later and approaching something like settling after a year of semi-nomad and extremely remote life, are we seeing the impact on ourselves and our children. Little things, like the fact that I could not write these words until now. Like our kids have a lot – really a lot – of pent up stress that is coming out now. Maybe this feeling has accumulated over the years. I lived through the Ash Wednesday fires as a 9 year old kid in 1983, being pulled out of primary school to help fire-ready our home in the hills and watching burning embers fly by has left a vivid memory I will always carry. As I’ve grown I’ve seen the results of other significant fires close up. I have never developed an immunity to it. I can’t turn off the scenery flashing by as I travel around. I know we don’t have to do things this way.

I have to say, I am pretty happy to be looking out at snowy mountains instead, even though it is dark at 1pm and hovering around zero. From here it seems mighty strange that Australia, with its broadly conservative politics, chooses to risk putting themselves through stories like the one I have just told every year.

I hope that situation changes soon.