Friday, March 27, 2009

We Can't Stop the Fires, But We Can Be Better Prepared

One of our delayed reactions to Black Saturday, has been that we constantly relive what happened in our minds and conversation. Not from the ‘wasn’t it terrible” viewpoint, but more in a questioning way. We are trying to understand exactly what happened and why. We were too busy on the night and in the days after, to do anything but deal with the emergency.

The sorts of questions that are preying on our minds are:-
· How are the many people who lost houses, precious possessions, pets, and worst of all their loved ones, coping? We are reminded of their loss every time we go past the wreckage that was once somebody’s home. This brings tears to our eyes as we feel a small part of their pain.
· Will the bush and its inhabitants return to something resembling what it was before the fires, in our lifetime?
· Why have we no recollection of radiant heat or the sound of the fire?
· How could so much lovely bush (whole forests) be transformed in such a short time?
· How fast did the fire spread? It seemed to arrive and the next thing we knew, it was all around us. How long did this process take?
· How much luck was involved in our fire fighting efforts?
· Would a fire driven by a north wind be worse than this fire that came from the south?
· How is it that the legs of the wooden stands that support our beehives started burning, but the fire fizzled out and the hives survived without our intervention?
· Where did the lyrebird go to survive? Did more survive?
· Did any goannas survive? These massive (2m+ long) ancient looking reptiles always gave us a thrill as they stomped their way through the forest.
· Why did a particular tree or small area of bush not burn?
· Why did the fire come to our place? It travelled 10 km over undulating grasslands burning much of the Pauls Creek Valley, but missed some areas altogether. Was this chance, or were there reasons for the path it followed?
· Was there more that we could have done on the night? This question haunts me (Andrew) in particular. Understandably I was preoccupied with fighting the fire and continually checking out everything, but if only I had spent 10 minutes letting a substantial amount of water out of the dam outlet. This may have created a less intense fire in the gully below our dam.
· What can we do to be better prepared in the future?
· What strategies would be valuable in future events?
· How do you get the message about really basic preparations and behaviours through to everyone in fire prone areas? Some people appeared to be completely unprepared, were not alert on the day and when the fires came many made some really dangerous decisions.

These last three questions have prompted us to put in a submission to the Royal Commission. We don’t expect much attention to be paid to our thoughts (amongst the thousands of pages of expert comment), but we are doing it because we would like to do what we can to help avoid such a massive loss of life in the future. Victoria is certain to have more fires- possibly even worse ones, but we must develop strategies to keep people safe. We are also hoping that by doing this, all the questions that keep popping up in our heads will be put to rest.

Here are two of the ideas we have come up with:-

There is a need for the introduction of a state wide “Closure of Forests” on total fire ban days. That is all National Parks, State Forests and Forest reserves where possible should be closed to public access on fire ban days. The benefits include:-
· Closing forests would make it more difficult for arsonists to access isolated bushland roadsides.
· Apprehension/identification would be easier because forest staff and the general public would know that those entering the forests are doing it illegally.
· Less people in the forest means less chance of fires being accidentally started from cigarettes, bbq’s etc
· Forest closures would reduce the need to rescue people who get trapped in the forest by fire.

A way of helping residents improve their fire defences would be to run demonstration days. Selected properties could be used to provide real life examples of fire defence strategies. Many people cannot /will not read the very useful material put out by the CFA, however they may be prepared to spend a couple of hours looking at what others are doing. This works for open gardens and farm demonstration days- why not for fire defence education?
Most of our ideas are “concepts” that would need a lot more work to make them feasible. Some may be impractical and financially unviable. The thing is, we need every idea on the table, even ‘way out ones’, so that the best can be selected for follow up. We welcome your comments-perhaps you would like to make a submission yourself. The Royal Commission website has all the details on how to make a submission. See
In the next post we will describe a couple of other thoughts we have had.


nomad said...

Wow, I can't believe how the tone of your blog has changed from when I first found you, before the fire, when you were an inspiring story to me of someone who is living out their dreams building a natural farm in someone who has become practically an expert on forest fire.

I'm sorry that your dreams have changed as a result of this experiance, and yet, you remain a fascinating read.

I am thankful to be connected to you through the internet. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

Sue said...

Thanks for your thoughtful/informative blogs. We look forward to your next 'open day' (we came last year) when hopefully this topic will be fleshed out a bit more. CFA's Community Fireguard Groups try to do some of what you have suggested - it's getting people motivated to be involved that's the hard part. We're in the process of getting one going here - a lot more interest now than before - funny that!

Andrew and Heather said...

Thank you for your thoughts Nomad. Although we knew we were always at risk from bushfires and had developed a number of defences, we really didn’t expect to have to put them into practise. We certainly didn’t expect to get caught up in a natural disaster of this magnitude. Luckily for us, the fire was not as fierce in our area and we managed to retain a narrow ring of green around us. It would be devastating to have to have nothing to look at, but black forest for months or years to come.
We haven’t diverged from our dream though. At the moment we are working on plans to build a hothouse (for expanding our winter food crops) and finishing off a mudbrick structure which we could then use to start teaching permaculture.

You’re absolutely right Sue, getting people to be motivated is the hard part. The other thing is that the fireguard groups vary in their effectiveness. At an After the Fires Forum, (which was excellent) some of the people were saying that their fireguard groups were basically a social event- a community bbq and not much more. So everything depends on interest, thinking through the issues and then making the effort to take action before these events take place.

Geoff said...

Hi Andrew & Heather,

Thankyou for your comments Andrew. I think it was only in the last day or so that I found your blog, and the story of your fight against the fires was enthralling and daunting at the same time. It was great to read of your experiences and get an idea of what worked. Your planning obviously paid off!

We're only just starting out on a path you seem to be quite well along, and it's inspiring to read how it has all come together. I'm not sure we can wait as many years as you did before moving out though, that must have taken some willpower!

I agree with you on the case manager idea. Our salvation has been our independent certifier, he's been able to cut through a lot of the waffle for us and been there as a voice of reason on a number of occasions (and we haven't even got up to the building bit yet!) I wish we'd engaged his services before we'd started submitting plans.

Hopefully once things settle down from the fires you'll have time to "pen" the post about your house design hinted at a while back, I'm looking forward to it!

All the best with the ongoing recovery. I remember walking through the Blue Mountains a season after one of the big fires went through and was amazed at how swiftly nature recovers. Hopefully you see the same there.


Free Hit Counter