Monday, February 16, 2009

Victoria Burns

This is the blog entry I hoped I would never have to write. The one that tells you, that our lovely piece of paradise came face to face with Victoria’s worst wildfire. Along with thousands of acres in the Yarra Valley and elsewhere, our bush block was turned to charcoal. Still we consider ourselves very lucky. With the help of our family we were able to save our house, outbuildings, solar system and infrastructure as well as a small area of bush. The smoke was the first indication of what was brewing.

Saturday, February 7th, 2009 will forever remain seared in our memories. It started ominously with warnings that this was to be the most dangerous day ever for wildfire. Virtually no rain had fallen for over 2 months, temperatures were going to be the highest on record (47 degrees in parts of Melbourne), and these combined with strong winds would make up the perfect conditions for a firestorm. The day was hot and windy but went well to mid-afternoon. Then we received news that fire had broken out in Coldstream (20 km away). We sprang into action, making preparations to defend our place, still believing that it wouldn’t actually happen. However, within the hour, a strong cool change (normally good news) had caused the fires to spread across farmland to our local town- Yarra Glen. Now we could see huge billowing clouds rising into the sky.

Soon after, we had a telephone call from Heather’s brother Graham, who had been following the news reports, telling us that fires had started along our road. Greg and I ran through the bush to our fence line to see how close it was. Across our neighbour’s paddock we could see flames rising up tall gum trees licking the sky. We ran back to warn Heather and Sally that the fire was nearly upon us.

We had already spent the last two hours putting the final pieces of our fire plan into action. We had all put on protective clothing, started up the fire pump, put pets inside the house, pulled things away from windows and thoroughly wet down the house along with a 20-30m radius around it. Sally manned the hose at the rear of the house and watched for flying embers which were landing like a meteorite shower. Greg did the same at the front of the house. Heather and I double checked everything and then grabbed our hoses in readiness.

Our first view of flames on our property was 100m down our drive – entering like an unwelcome monstrous visitor. Initially the wind drove the fire across the drive where it stormed up the wall of our dam into a huge fireball. The dam water temporarily stopped it in its tracks- but not for long. The flames worked their way around the edge on the far side and then took off to the north away from the house.

The two photos above show the view over our dam.

Just as we were thinking the worst may be over, another front developed behind us on the southern side threatening our solar power system. See photo at left. We raced over and started hosing down the approaching flames and bucketing water around the array.

By the time we had reduced this threat, the fire had continued expanding until it had completely encircled us forming a ring of fire with us in the centre. Fortunately our driveway runs around the outside of the clearing containing our house, outbuildings and orchard and this formed a valuable firebreak. The fire ran out of fuel once it reached the drive giving us time to catch our breath.

We spent the next 10 hours fighting back flare-ups, and checking for spot fires started by flying embers. During this period a fire fighting helicopter appeared and flew low over our neighbour’s place. We later learned that it had dropped loads of water, but had been unable to save their house. On the left I am placing buckets of water on the drive ready for dousing spot fires

By 4am, the edge of the fire had been beaten down to a smouldering line. Individual tree trunks, stumps and logs were still burning fiercely but the wind had died down and danger had temporarily reduced. Our adrenaline had run out and our limp bodies were numb with exhaustion. We were sick with worry for dozens of beautiful friends who lived within the danger zone and had no idea how they had fared. As there was nothing we could do, we decided to get some sleep while we could.

An hour later we were woken by the sound of a fire truck coming up the drive. The Dixons Creek brigade had found our neighbour’s house destroyed, and wanted to know whether the family escaped. We didn’t know and feared the worst. Later we discovered that they had been rescued by police in the early morning. Still it was good to know someone in the outside world knew that we were still alive.

We cannot tell you about the heat and noise of the fire because we have very little recollection of these. What we can describe is the dense smoke and its acrid smell. The smoke is deadly. Breathing becomes impossible and lack of visibility leaves you blindly stumbling about. Smoke masks and goggles are an absolute necessity for fire survival.

Sunday was a day of respite. There were hundreds of trees still on fire and logs smouldering. Moving about the forest was very dangerous, as huge trees would suddenly topple over and others would drop branches without warning and without a sound. We spent the day putting out small spot fires and smouldering patches that we could reach. However our ordeal was not over yet - it will have to wait for the next post.


nomad said...

I was wondering how you fared in this horrible fire I have been hearing about. I'm glad you and your loved ones are OK, but so sad for all that is being burned away...for all you have lost.

Andrew and Heather said...

Thankyou for your kind thoughts and concern Nomad. Although this event is the biggest of tragedies for the losses incurred, we have drawn strength from thousands of people like yourself who have made the effort to send supportive messages. In Australia the community response has been inspiring.
Although our lovely forest is completely blackened, this is part of the natural cycle. Our eucalypts and other plants are adapted to fire and have biological mechanisms to cope. The rains will eventually come and the trees will respond with a massive flush of green growth. Other plants whose seed has lain dormant for years will be triggered into growth by the heat and the new layer of potash will feed that growth for years to come. We're also likely to find other plants like orchids (possibly ones we haven't seen before)coming up. We have lost the bush that we had, but in time this will be replaced by new growth, and each time we see a new small shoot of something our spirits will be lifted.

All the best to yourself in your journey. We believe Vanvouver Island is a beautiful place and hope you find your little piece of heaven soon.

Lucy Duck said...

Dear Andrew and Heather - we were informed of your blog through a mutual friend our neighbour. we are also a part of a CFG and have Serafina come to our meetings. We read your blog and have found great comfort in hearing your positive application of your fire plan. We also have intentions of defending our house and your heartwarming story provides much courage for us. Take care and prosper with the new growth.

Andrew and Heather said...

Thanks for your supportive comments Lucy. One thing we didn’t mention in the post was the effort we put into saving a small piece of bush that didn’t burn in the initial fire. We were advised to let it slowly burn under managed circumstances, as this would protect us from a return of fires- it cannot burn twice. However we were determined to keep a small area green as a refuge and food source for any animals that survived. The added bonus is that our spirits are lifted by the animals that have utilised this area, and also by the fact we do have some areas of green around. Looking out at nothing but black trunks and ash covered ground for the next six months would be very depressing.

janet said...

Thank you Andrew and Heather for taking the trouble, in the midst of all your stress and exhaustion, to tell us your story. It gives much encouragement to those of us who had also planned to stay and fight.
With hindsight, we realize that our carefully thought-out bushfire plan would have been inadequate and will be forever grateful that it was not put to the test. We would be interested to attend one of your workshops/open days to hear more about what worked for you and what didn't.
In the meantime, I wish you all the very best as you grapple with the aftermath of this terrible disaster - you sound so positive! I hope all goes wonderfully well for you.Incidentally I walked to the Wilson's Prom lighthouse about a year after the Prom fires and was delighted to see the regeneration in the blackened bushland - green shoots everywhere and so many beautiful little plants flowering totally out of season. May yours enjoy a similar miracle!

Andrew and Heather said...

Janet,thankyou so much for your uplifting comments.It’s people like you who help others move forward. We would like to share a joyous experience with you.
Back before the fires in this dry schlerophyll forest of ours we were delighted each year to step outside our back door and hear the amazing repertoire of different bird songs mimicked by a lyrebird. Not only did we hear him but when we very quietly approached,there he was putting on a fine show.
After the fire had passed and several days had gone by ,we were sitting outside in the night recalling some of the magical things that we remembered of our bush friends.We suddenly remembered the beautiful lyrebird and really felt a mourning for this poor creature and all the others .It really was a deep loss inside us and we believed we would not hear our lyrebird again.
.....Two days ago,on the 11th of March, I stepped outside the back door at 8 a.m. and the most beautiful sounds of all kinds of birds filled the air....
Need I say more, but miracles do happen!!!!!!!
Heather and Andrew

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