Friday, November 1, 2013

Fire day

the view from my back gate for ten days

WEDNESDAY 23 October

The front page of the “Daily Terror” ( also known as the "Daily Telegraph") screamed:
I woke up and decided I would stay with my house.

Year ago my neighbour J. had to scramble out of her house in Springwood, with two little boys, when she, English-born, had not been here very long. She reminded me to park the car in the driveway facing outwards.

I consulted my lists, the “To Do" list and the ”Evac” list.  My neighbours Geoff and Leonie wanted to know what I was going to do, and I told them my plan, to evacuate to the safe house if the fire jumped to the south side of the highway. They had only been in the Mountains eighteen months, when they had to face down a fire in Faulconbridge. Geoff showed me the workings of his pump, gave me a feel for the kick-back of the jet of water.

I got down to the hardware store after picking up a face-mask which my friend Maria offered me, and by then the wind was picking up.  Some expert in human behaviour said on the radio that you shouldn’t try to rush. Hmmm – wonder how many fires he’s been through. 

the wind
like a tattoo'd bikie on

People were pouring in and out of the place, piles of hoses, cheap buckets, joiners.... fire and water were the theme of the day.  Extra staff  had been roped in from right across Sydney; inside the store the air was calm but the atmosphere frantic. L., P.’s partner was taking cotton-headed mops to the cash register ( put them in a bucket of water and splosh them on spot fires). The staff were great in this pandemonium, but outside, in the whirling wind, a little huddle of staff in their red polo shirts gathered round, presumably to make some decisions about their plan, should the fire make its way up a valley and threaten the store.

I was disappointed to learn that the pumps hadn’t arrived as yet, and further, that the petrol pumps were spoken for already, two of them by the Rural Fire Service and I wouldn’t want to gazump them - our heroes and heroines! The pumps were coming in from Queensland, I guess there were none left in New South Wales. 

Yellow Rock
Phew! My sister in New Zealand said she would shout me the pump. There were all kinds of variables which I had to understand and decide on, quickly. Valves. Length of hose. Width of hose. Diesel or petrol. All the goggles were sold out, I bought new plugs for the bathroom where the bath was full of water but leaking. Dribble, dribble, the military would never accept such slapdash weaponry. The checkout woman took my phone numbers, and I was up the ladder pulling plastic guard out of the front gutter when they called me to tell me the pumps had arrived. 
I was down there in a flash; I could take a petrol pump! A guy with a tattoo of the southern cross on his arm, and an earring in one ear, patiently helped me work through the variables. I consulted with  my plumber on the phone, paid for the pump on the plastic fantastic, and then the guy loaded this big heavy mother into my station wagon.
 When I got it home, Geoff came over to unload it. “Ah, a Briggs Stratton”, he said approvingly, of the motor.  He put it together while I sandbagged my downpipes and filled  the gutters up with water, using a device of his invention. You hook it over your gutter at one end, and at the other end connect it to your hose:  one person can do it without up-and-down-ladder exercise, and hose-control-with-brick.
 The wind was really strong by now, and hot. It was pointless wishing I had simpler gutters, and less than five of them.  While I was doing this I was also filling up the containers around my yard with water, including the Otto bins, and putting sacks in them. 

Backyard armoury
For a few seconds I looked up at the magpie nest. It was swaying around in the wind with a parent bird on it. Sitting tight, in the fork of a gum tree,  I bet it was also reviewing its decisions, in its birdy way,  like whether this was a good safe place to have built a nest?

 The ladder blown down
onto the lavender bush -
a rush of its sweat

When I heard the roar of the pump, I felt triumphant.  Geoff showed me how it worked, and   trained me in the use of the hose. By now he was wearing his overall. Mine was still in the box of emergency clothing. On my list I’d reminded myself “ Put on emergency clothing”.

I kept tabs on the direction the smoke was blowing, if it began to blow our way it could mean ember attack. Spot fires starting in the garden or under the roofing can blow up very fast into a big fire. From Geoff and Leonie’s back yard, I noticed a helicopter almost standing still as it struggled to make headway against the wind. A text arrived on my mobile phone telling me that the fire in Faulconbridge had been upgraded from “Watch and be alert” to “Emergency, take cover if fire approaches ..”. I already knew this because the thundering of choppers and wailing sirens and planes had ramped up to another level.  

Wind makes it dangerous and difficult for the airborne strategy. When water is dumped in a high wind it disperses, it’s just a helicopter-generated high waterfall, useless for hitting a target. I found out later that two Erickson air-cranes  which can suck up 9000 litres of water at a time, were used that day.  We lease them; they cost $1.5 million for 12 weeks. Someone described them as huge metal dragonflies hovering over water. Days later I saw them working the dam at the golf club.

Springwood fires seen from the Great Western highway, Linden

Geoff helped me haul a heavy kauri table into the house, from the back verandah, and then I was spent. Lunch, tune in to the latest news, and a couple more messages to people who were worried about me, and then I hit the sack. By the time I woke up, the wind had died down. Helicopters - a gentle buzz. Is it really nearly over? I still hadn’t done everything I wanted to do. Massive relief. Hurray! who can I celebrate with? Maria offered a glass of wine and duck for dinner. After checking in with J., I headed on down to Maria's place in a car stuffed full of my irreplaceables. And I didn’t need to back out of the driveway! The car was pointed “out”. 

 THURSDAY 24 October

Nervous exhaustion. Couldn’t stand listening to the radio any more.
I decided to say ‘thank you’ to every single emergency worker I ran across.
At the hairdressers, I heard this story about Winmalee:
Two older people are in their home on Thursday, when the wife says to the husband ( who is quite fragile):
 Wife: “That’s funny, the azalea bush is on fire”.
Husband: “We’ve gotta get out of here!”
Wife manages to get him out of the house, into the car, backs out of the driveway just in time to see the house explode.
A pilot has been killed in the fires on the south coast.

L - R : Mt. Banks, Mt. Hay, Mt. Tomah.
The fire in Bell - Bilpin  area, called the State Mine fire, started by the army at Lithgow 

Up on Linden ridge, a boil of smoke over by Mt. Banks, Mt. Wilson, Mt. Tomah - like a witches brew boiling up something dreadful. A family of glossy black cockatoos  - with their one juvenile, scrawk their gentle scrawks to each other up in a tree. They are an endangered species, having a limited diet of Allocasuarina. As I stood having a conversation with Tony Lennon who is an artist, the smoke on Mt. Banks got darker and more purposeful. He’s worried, he’s lived here for twenty-odd years and seen the fire sitting in the Grose valley over there, like a malevolent dragon just waiting for the right conditions to roar along and up the side valleys to the houses. He told me a story about a couple - who sold their house in Singles Ridge Rd and moved elsewhere. The house they sold is now gone, burned.

He told me that many people in his neighborhood evacuated, and that he must cut down a dead tree near his house by himself.

 Friday 25 October

My yoga teacher Linda, from Winmalee, only has her house  because her son was at home when the fire hit. He fought the fire by himself, injuring his eye, and then some people who were trying to get to their home in Yellow Rock stopped to help. When they could move through, they did so, and he was by himself again. Linda could not speak to her son for seven hours. He’s seventeen, and in the middle of his Higher School Certificate, can’t concentrate any more.

 the Springwood fires seen from Linden

Talking to people on the main street of Springwood, I heard that Greg Hunt the new Environment Minister, denied the connection between climate change and fires, by referring to Wikipedia. Not a very reliable source, since anyone can post an article to Wiki. Wikipedia has since taken the article down from its site.

 I lost my car keys and spent two hours finding them again. On the way to the police station I saw Annie’s husband. They’re safe; their house was fine. 

A massive effort was put into saving homes and lives. In the future, will this be sustainable? Our local fire chief said that he had never seen the like of these fires ( personal communication). Will more firefighters lose their lives as these events gain momentum from a heating planet? Sunday 17 November is National day of Climate Action. If you go to the GetUp! website you'll find an event closest to you.

The fire which burnt down my friends' house, the Winmalee fire, was started by power lines. Variously, I've heard that branches fell on the lines - or that the lines blew together in the wind and sparked. Either way, from start to finish, that fire took only 15 minutes to reach the end of Yellow Rock. (It takes about 10 minutes to drive there from Winmalee.) The fire then took about 2 hours to burn everything down. If you want to see a video of the aftermath of the Buena Vista fire, it's on Youtube:

A mate in the RFS was working on the State Mine fire. He told me that during the course of a shift, the fire, which had a huge front, covered 26 kilometres. I'll find out how long a shift is for you.