Demonic Wildfires and Weather Extremes of NYE 2019 – and lessons learned

The last time I remember being scared of dying:

Bega Valley Fires, Early 2020: Bega District News($)

The beginning and the end

At the end of December TV weather maps revealed a brick red Australia with a big purple patch signalling violent wind driven heat over lands beyond the black stump. That prophetic image dulled our psyches, a purple wet blanket, a quencher of summer solstice festivities.  Mindlessly ignored by some, TV meteorologists warned of impending ferocious incendiary destruction of droughted landscapes; this time Australia’s maligned BoM got it right, alas ‘twas a Pyrrhic victory.

Fluorescent greens replace seas of bone–dry crunchy silver–grey grassed pasture. The welcome arousal of kikuyu root hidden in ancient black peat soils fertilised by orange bushfire smoke’s potash and nitrogen, this green emergence was triggered by a magic ingredient. Rain! 

What happened

Intense heat and pitch–black clouds of bushfire smoke dominate fear–dumbed senses as our eyes seek reassurance from red and blue flashing fire trucks and ears strain to detect sirens wailing in the pea-soup smogs choking a smoke engulfed highway. That’s the ten AM blackness of 2019’s New Year’s Eve.

Forests neglected for decades are now stricken by drought and bereft of Indigenous cool burns for 200 years. Predicted 40 knot 400C westerlies, 30% turbocharged by anthropogenic warming, are harbingers of possible ruination. Blasting ember storms effortlessly across colonies of proud eucalyptus, stinging our unmasked cheeks and ears as this monstrousness incinerates all before it.

Choking chemical smelling grey smoke rises thousands of metres into orange-black skies as huge anvil shaped pyro-cumulus clouds portend despair. Thunderous booms and electric blue zaps of moisture–deprived storms bring no salvation, only fire and fear. Can we do this, what if it turns to catastrophe, will we live? Death by fire must be excruciating.

We stand and fight

Sprinklers festoon rooftops, corrugated iron and gaffer tape bulwark windows and firefighting pump hoses slurp from water tank and swimming pool. Desiccated drought denuded paddocks are ploughed, feeble refuges for 500 cows and calves—big bore firearms and extra ammunition are locked in the gun safe, awaiting a grim task.

The farmer reads my mind, or maybe face; a harsh ‘if you want to go, go now’, cranky Scorpio males, an Aquarian, I stay. The two–metre deep channel draining the Infinity Pool’s® eastern edge is deemed refuge of last resort. The fireproof steel chairs and woollen blankets give me hope.

The team

Hope for all—two grandsons tall, skinny and capable, two grandsons big, broad and physically powerful; a noble and righteous granddaughter and her artistically inked lover du jour; a long–time family friend who came to holiday with us trapped by closed roads; the farmer and his wife who rebuilt this property from tumbled down to 500 milkers; three children; and me, resident grandfather—while we sprinklered, swept, raked, hammered, blocked, dug, sawed and screwed, fireproofing the farm on that last scary day of 2019.

Fear and apprehension wracked faces as the 100 year–old fulsomely girthed Cyprus tree that flanks the farmhouse was dropped. That 40–metre high Ent was habitat for many diverse beasties and shade for hot day beery relaxations. Doomed by location and flammability its demise was accompanied by howls of chainsaws sawing and thumping of sledgehammers driving orange nylon wedges; the crescendo, a massive ground shaking thud and the thrum of a tractor dragging shattered timbers to the forest edge to burn with its fellows.

Tension, a sprinkler pump died in a cloud of steam. The frantic shout, ‘sprinkler’s just shit itself’, racing, stumbling and bumbling to fix it. In the blackness, ‘fuck this PPE’, peeling off goggles to drain the fuel tank, refill … first pull and it crackles and pops into life, woohoo!

With dumb faces and empty eyes, cotton clad and fireproofed with PPE— unbreakable red framed googles clamped under head-lighted hardhats wearing once white now grey N95 masks to block deadly nanoparticles—we lamented this terrifying day.

A bushfire’s journey

 BoM’s big purple spot on the red map moved into millions of hectares of parched eucalypt forest west of us. Dry–lightning starts embryonic spot fires, sometimes extinguished by challenged RFS volunteers manning mist-sprayed fire engines. Over 450 homes and nine lives succumbed to this unprecedented and uncontrollable fiery maelstrom.

Badja Creek fire, our nemesis, was started by dry lightning strike. Its destructive power disguised by vapid wisps of blue smoke coiling up from a valley floor. Impossible to access are those steep rocky landscapes, 30–metre high forest canopies arch over dead Gondwana tree ferns in dried–out understories. Unchallenged, the fire invaded and overcame all before it.

Low black skies almost touched hard-hatted heads in the pitch darkness of ten o’clock that January morning. Towers and poles burned, communications dead, electricity failed, and roads closed by irritable masked coppers fronting black–striped yellow barriers. Half of evacuated Cobargo had suddenly immolated at three AM belying a predicted four PM blaze. People died, shops, machinery, farm fences and wooden bridges burned, pets, livestock and wildlife cooked, homes exploded, and roads melted.

New Years Eve but joyousness emerges

New Year’s Eve, a time of Harbour Bridge fireworks, of revelry and Auld Lang Syne, of love and festive substance abuse? A New Year’s Eve torn by angst; we were reluctant players in a live landscaped performance of the Hundred Year Fire Storm.

The Badja fire burned to within a kilometre of Misty Glen farm– then a stroke of fortune, a strong cold–front arrived to blow it back onto itself. We were subjected to, and survived, another two threatening fire events, then flooding rains came. Do I have survivor syndrome? Not yet!

Farm Fire Risk Mitigation Strategies

After a year or so, there’s no corrugated iron or gaffer tape left on now sparkling windows, pastures are lush and green again, decorated with stacks of big green plastic covered hay bales and happily grazing jersey cows that remember none of it. Those unfortunate 100 year-old Cyprus trees of the farmhouse’s garden, we subsequently felled both of them, are replaced with less flammable species and mowed lawns. Farm magpies had to find another meeting place for their warbling operas. They did, in trees beside my home, I hear their beautiful caroling choruses every day.

Soon, insecure grid-energy is to be replaced by swathes of shiny north facing solar panels in the sheep paddock. Linked inverters with twinkling LEDs will be hooked up to old-fashioned, but dependable, lead-acid storage batteries. This will be supported by clattering diesel generators topping up drained storage batteries during cloudy periods common to this area in a storm season.

An industrial off-grid system designed to power the farm’s built-environments. Refrigeration, milking machines, high energy bull-proof electric fences and mysterious digital agricultural technologies, as well as habitation.

During the firestorm there was no mobile phone or Internet, towers failed when their batteries drained or exploded, power poles supporting electricity transmission lines were piles of charred wood. There were no situation updates broadcast from melted and buckled dish-towers, our only source of the local TV and wireless services.

It came down to sitting in a vehicle listening to scratchy ABC AM disaster reports from Wollongong drifting in and out of the ether on a car radio. The listener then shared the doom and gloom with the mob, sometimes over a libation. We are considering a smart phone satellite sleeve to access emergency reports in times of disaster.

After a couple of days of wildfire, fuel was unobtainable. Approved containers were hard to find, and keep, and roads to town-centres with fuel supplies were impassable.

Global heating ensures decades, if not centuries, of intermittent unstoppable wildfires raging through drought affected villages, agricultural landscapes and thousands of hectares of adjoining eucalyptus forests. In South East NSW highly flammable eucalyptus populate vast national parks. These are considered, by many, to be poorly wildfire-managed; due to lack of trafficable fire-trails and limited hazard reduction burns.

Petrol driven fire fighting pumps will be replaced by electric powered models connected to roofs festooned with sprinklers spraying water pumped from storages. One key purpose of the off-grid electrical energy ensures reliable firefighting and twice daily cow-milking.

This is not enough, we were lucky two years ago. I thought I was going to die in that worst of ways, immolation, I suspect others were similarly fearful. It has been decided to protect the boundaries, pastures and livestock with barriers of low-flammability tree and shrub species, not necessarily all Australian natives. A mammoth task, still in planning stages.

More to come on how we intend to mitigate failed infrastructure impacts and other challenges at times of fire and flood.