Wednesday, February 18, 2009

After the Big Burn

Monday started out like the day before. Our son Greg had gone off to work and we were going to take it easy. By lunchtime, new fires had started up in the region and were raging in areas that had escaped Saturday’s inferno. One of these blazes was burning on the other side of our valley, but we had some protection from it because the area between, was already burnt. However a second and bigger blaze was working its way along Pauls Range towards our place. Suddenly a number of spot fires erupted in the vicinity of our solar panels. Some of these set the fibrous bark of gum trees alight and with the wind fanning them, the flames were quickly getting beyond our reach.

Just as this second dose of hell was getting out of hand, the cavalry arrived. Greg had come home early and had brought our older daughter Kathy and her husband Steve with him. The three of them joined us bucketing and hosing down fires. Within a couple of hours we had them back under control. The photo shows our new look driveway.
Tuesday through to Friday were spent continually patrolling the burnt edge. This formed a line that encircled our house at an average distance of about 80m out. It seemed that no matter how much we mopped up, new outbreaks were still occurring. They began from smouldering roots under the ground or from burning trees and branches that came crashing down. If we didn’t get onto these within minutes, the flames would quickly race up the nearest tree. Bits of burning bark would then be blown into unburnt areas igniting new fires. Constant vigilance was required.

We cannot explain how we managed to save ourselves and our infrastructure. Was it luck, knowledge, our fire fighting skills, property design, fire plan or the specific conditions relating to this fire. We will never know for sure, but it was probably a combination of all of these. Certainly one of the core considerations in our permaculture design for Tenderbreak was minimising the risk from fire. One day we’ll do a post detailing the fire defence elements of our property plan, all of which worked magnificently. Mind you, as we are still in the process of developing the farm, our plan was not fully implemented (eg our Interpretation Centre is still at the frame stage and is quite vulnerable). In the future we will be even more prepared than we were this time. However, I doubt whether you can ever be 100% ready for wildfire.

The knowledge and advice we obtained from the local brigade and our local fire guard group was also extremely valuable. Serafina (the CFA liaison person) had spent many hours over the past few years guiding us in our precautions and understanding of fire behaviour. A testament to the value of fireguard groups is that not one of the ten active members lost their homes. One effect of this tragedy is that it has brought us closer together in a bond developed from facing a common danger.

Whilst on the subject of the CFA, we must mention that the volunteers that make up this magnificent organisation are heroes. We knew it was too dangerous for them to come to our place along our narrow bush access track, but they did not forget us. As soon as they could, they chain sawed their way through to us, and we were saddened to find out that one of the Dixons Creek members lost his own home while he was out protecting others.

Trucks from various brigades made their way up our drive each day to check on us. On Tuesday the Olinda crew spent some time putting out some of our hotspots that were of concern. The sight of a bright red fire truck certainly lifted our spirits. Luckily there was plenty of water left in our dam and they were able to fill up their tanker.

The other emergency services were also magnificent. We had several visits from the police, the army, a chaplain and Yarra Glen Relief Centre to check that we were coping. The latter group kindly supplied us with supplies for our animals and the surviving native wildlife.

Although we made it through this disaster with comparatively little in the way of losses, the experience has still taken its toll emotionally. We feel pain for our friends, neighbours and fellow Victorians who experienced the devastation of losing family members and their homes and are sick with worry for those people who are still facing the raging fires. We are physically exhausted and our bodies ache. We are suffering from lack of sleep and stressed from living on the edge of disaster for so many days and not knowing when the danger will finally end.

This is an old car we had parked in the bush. The fire was so hot here that the window glass turned to liquid and flowed down the side of the car.

All that is left of our two wheelie bins. Glass bottles inside melted into strange shapes.

Added to our stress, is concern for our wildlife. One of the joys of living here was daily contact with wombats, wallabies, goannas, kangaroos, echidnas and a myriad of birds. We know three wallabies, an echidna, two kangaroos and possibly a wombat survived and have made it to our small oasis surrounded by a 10,000 hectare black desert. We are caring for these survivors but what of the rest. Will some make it back in our lifetime? We are particularly concerned for the lyrebirds. Their winter morning singing performances were a joy to hear.

The one thing we know we can look forward to, is the recovery of the vegetation. Fire is part of the natural cycle of the Australian bush. Our plants are adapted to cope and once we get rain there will be a flush of new growth. The forest will never be the same, but it will return to a different form of beauty. In the coming months we will report on the rebirth of the Pauls Range forest and whatever wildlife returns.

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