“I have been adapting to climate change for a long time. I have been too busy surviving, starting to clean up the chaos and feeding starving wildlife to write, as well as just unable to put the words together, and had problems with power and internet but it’s now time to start trying to make some sense of it all. This is what I have learned from surviving the bushfire that swept through my area on New Years Eve in SE NSW Australia. I was relatively lucky and saved most of my house, with extensive damage to a lot of stuff, and was uninjured. Many, many people I know were not so lucky and whole communities from the entire east coast and far inland were mostly wiped out, with well over a hundred fires burning at once forming massive fire fronts. It is remarkable that there were not more people killed.
My house is part of a communally owned property inside a large National Park, part of a vast area of forest along the east coast from NE Victoria to well past Sydney. The closest town is Cobargo, about 45 minutes drive by 4WD. I always knew a fire would come one day and had already had a close call nearly 15 years ago, when I spent a week preparing for a fire that never came because of a change in the weather. This time, we were in the grip of the worst drought ever, no rain at all since winter, and the bush was full of fuel after a decade or more of good wet seasons, tinder dry ready to explode. It was so dry it had been too dangerous to do much fuel reduction burning in winter or spring, although I constantly rake up and burn sticks and leaves around the house as cooking fuel in an outside fire place. Where possible I built using non-flammable materials – stone, concrete, a bit of mud brick, but with a bush pole frame, wood framed windows and roof structure, with corrugated iron roof. In the bush, wood not only burns, but is attacked inevitably by termites, so the longer I lived there, (45 years now) the less I used timber, and developed the design of the house to be as fire resistant as possible, although it is still unfinished.
The house is not far above a small creek, about 20 metres up on a flat section of a ridge. For years I have been reducing the fuel load below us, doing cool burns in winter months, collecting and burning endless piles of sticks, and using the trees I cut down around the house in the open fireplace and wood stove. I had heard that this changes the fire behaviour, having far less fuel on the ground, and it was the case that the heat of the fire that hit the house was far less than everywhere else around, leaving sections of ground unburnt in the lee of the house, while almost every other bit of ground on the property burned. I also had built some low stone walls downhill in a semi circle, just stacked stones, (we have plenty in very barren rocky country).
The other good idea I had was to build a 10 x 10 metre chicken wire cage for the garden attached to the north side of the house, so that you walk straight out into it from the kitchen. This shielded the vulnerable windows facing the winter sun and reduced access to burning embers. I also built stone terraced garden beds which helped break up the force of the fire.
Uphill and directly behind the house I built laboriously by hand a 65000 litre concrete tank, and had this mostly full of water with a fire proof line into my bathroom where I had a petrol-powered fire pump. These were what saved the house after the fire front passed through. So it was these preparations over many years that made the place defendable I thought.
On the most vulnerable side facing downhill to the NW, I built a stone room, 300mm thick walls, double face, meaning separate stones on the inside and outside of the wall, with concrete and rubble in the middle. This was my fire shelter, and the roof is a sandwich of corrugated iron, fire-proof insulation, fibre cement sheeting, and more iron on top.
It is a long story and I can’t write it all at the moment. But in a nutshell, it was those good decisions I had made in the past that saved me from the bad decisions I made later on when things just happened unbelievably fast.
The fire started probably by lightning in a very remote and inaccessible area and had been burning for some 3 or 4 days, 20 kms or so NW of us and moving slowly NW. I had been watching it via internet and the weather predictions and forecasts etc. Luckily, a few weeks before, my fire pump had broken down, and the day before NYE I had bought a brand new one. I spent several days trying to prepare in case the fire changed course, leaning corrugated iron roofing sheets over windows, and on the 30th December I learned that the weather predictions were very dire for the next day, with very strong NW winds bringing hot air from inland.
I read the predictions that night and saw the forecast fire spread, and it was not good, but thought I had a least another half a day to finish preparing the house and could then decide if I would stay and defend, or leave. Along with everybody else, including the most experienced fireys and the worst case scenario computer models, I was very wrong.
There had been a glow on the horizon the night before, and a lot of smoke. Unable to sleep, I got up many times in the night. Around 4.30 am the wind suddenly changed and soon blew hot and smoky. The glow quickly became very bright and I realised fire was coming. Soon. Suddenly I saw huge sheets of flame on the ridge to the south and realized it was too late to leave, as the access road was in that direction and I faced the risk of being caught high on a ridge of a big mountain in a car and unlikely to survive.
Fire then came over the small mountain to the NW and I knew I only had minutes to prepare. I parked my vehicle in the shelter of the house, covered it as best I could with roofing iron, moved some fuel cans away from the house, grabbed a few things and saw a spot fire burning uphill from me and realized this was it, I’d better get inside. I did not have time to wet anything down, and didn’t do a lot of things I should have in retrospect, but it just happened so fast. When the front came through it didn’t make a lot of noise as I had expected, and wasn’t burning high up in the trees, a crown fire, in fact there are two very large trees just below the house, a black box and a stringybark, and these trees shielded the house from a lot of heat and wind. It was pitch black and very very smoky, but I was safe inside. A couple of windows cracked in the heat but did not break, protected by the sheets of roofing iron. Unfortunately I had an unfinished workshop/solar power room on the outside of the stone room, and fire got into it and began to rage fueled by building timber, plywood, oil and fuel, paint etc and it went up and toxic smoke began to seep into the fire shelter and I had to bail out into the rest of the house.
I started the fire pump and began trying to save the house from the fire that I had created. The actual bushfire had passed and if I had had more time to protect the shed from embers and burning leaf litter on the ground I would have been fine. Eventually I got the fire out but not before losing my solar power panels batteries, tools and a lot more, but the main structure of the house was undamaged. Everything plastic, plumbing and drainage pipes melted or burned. 2 Plastic water tanks almost full of water melted and let loose 8500 litres of water in a mini tsunami in the middle of the fire. I was going to build and enclose these but never got to it.
This happened at about 6 o’clock in the morning, by which time the town of Cobargo, 20 kms further away from the fire souce had already been on fire for 2 hours, destroying half the shops in the main street and many houses and sheds. Cobargo is surrounded by cleared farmland for many kilometres, but the fire apparently roared along river beds and gullies and moved and spread at an astonishing rate. Luckily I had phone coverage long enough to tell my family that I was safe and made a few calls to check on my friends, then the mobile network went out all over NSW, and there I was with no internet, no phone, no power, no lights, no fridge, no plumbing. Both roads out of the property were blocked by hundreds of fallen trees and branches. There was no-one within 15 kilometers of me. The smoke was unbearable and I just lay down most of the day, it was very dark, visibility about 10 meters, the sky an awful eerie orange/yellow, trees crashing down all round every few minutes, apocalyptic.
The next day I managed to salvage an undamaged solar panel and battery from a neighbour’s place, all that was left of it, and rigged up some lights and got the 12 volt fridge going. I always have several months of food, as we can get flooded in, potentially for weeks. I have a store of dried food like rice, pasta, beans, some bottles and tins, powdered milk, nuts and seeds etc, so I wasn’t worried. I soaked some mung beans to sprout, and made some yoghurt with a powdered packet yoghurt mix. My garden had been cooked so no food left there, the fruit trees baked. I still had plenty of water and a ceramic water filter to purify it if necessary. I had a rechargeable head torch. My diesel ute was largely undamaged and still ran so I could use the 2 batteries in it to power and recharge things and run it to keep the batteries charged. The solar panel would not do anything because there just was no sunlight due to smoke. My generator had burned also, but I had just enough power to keep the small 12 volt fridge running and 2 LED lights. I had a battery powered radio in the house and one in the ute, and the ABC, the public-owned broadcaster, was my only link to the outside world which was in complete chaos.
It was peak holiday period in an area with tens of thousands of visitors who had been evacuated to coastal towns like Bermagui, where there was no power, no communications, no food, no water and no nothing. Nobody knew what was happening, authorities were giving out conflicting information and people were panicking. This was occurring in many towns up and down the coast with huge fires laying waste to vast areas, 130 or so, absolutely out of control.
The scale of the disaster was astonishing, all roads and major highways blocked by fire and fallen trees, complete breakdown. So I felt pretty lucky. I have learned a lot of survival techniques from bushwalking, camping and kayaking trips, and also how to focus and look after myself when I am isolated. When the fire came I did not have time to be scared, I knew what I had to do and did it. I am also a meditator with many thousands of hours of practice, and the acquired skill of focusing the mind, concentrating on what is happening instead of listening to the chattering voice of fear, and all the horror stories you have stored up in your mind really is life-saving.
Some weeks later now, still sorting out power, communications, trying to sort out priorities. Exhausting, in a word, chaos. I live now in a world of black, brown and grey where once was green green green… I was stuck for over a week until part of the road out was cleared as it is to the top of a mountain with communications towers, all out of action because the wooden power poles up to them burned. I walked 3 and a half hours up to the top to meet my 2 sons who drove me to Cobargo through an alien landscape of blackened pastures, destroyed farms and houses. Where I live I expected to be severely affected by bushfire, but this was mostly very cleared farmland and a town I had been shopping in only the day before the fire. No-one would have believed that a day later half the shops in the main street and quite a few homes and sheds etc would be on fire at 4 in the morning.
The fall out is gathering momentum from these ongoing disasters, and they are not over because February is traditionally the worst month, particularly in the most fire prone state of Victoria. It has been fascinating to watch, and I will write more soon, but it is a taste of the future unfortunately. A lot of people are very, very angry about how totally we have been let down, particularly by a denialist government who were warned in April last year by a group of retired fire chiefs and heads of various emergency services that the disaster we have seen unfold was likely. The Prime Minister, an arrogant bully, refused to meet with them and fobbed them off to an underling who ignored their warnings. Since then the government has been trying to shift the blame onto anyone, at the same time clinging to its stance of refusing to discuss anything but its policy of appearing to meet Australia’s Paris climate targets with the aid of dodgy accounting. Reality is cracking and vast holes are appearing while crazily the last pockets of denialists in the government and right-wing media are desperately parroting their deranged rubbish . Strange times indeed.
I stayed and defended my house because I thought I was well prepared, but also because I had no choice: I had underestimated the threat of the fire spreading and it was too late to leave in the morning as I have written. 4 people died that morning within 20 kilometres of me, one person died in a vehicle trying to evacuate too late, and 3 others died trying to defend their homes built in reasonably cleared farmland. I was lucky that the fire came through early while it was relatively calm and cool.
As I have written, after the fire came through I was stuck there and 3 days later came a day of catastrophic fire weather: 40 degree heat and gale force winds destroyed many more communities and killed a number of people in many places. I was lucky that there was not another fire that day. I would not encourage anybody to stay and defend their house on such a day unless they were extraordinarily well prepared, it is truly terrifying to imagine a fire roaring through on a day like that. I was lucky and it was a wake-up call to me to stop being complacent, to finish off projects before starting new ones, and other lessons I am still coming to terms with. 9 hours after I had put out the fire that entered the ceiling of a room, fire flared up again from a smoldering timber rafter creeping through a 30cm stone wall and re-igniting the plywood ceiling, and again I was lucky to see it before it was too late to put out. I was complacent and will be paying for that for a long time with money, energy and time. Fire does not heed your expectations, it roars in whether you are ready for it or not.”
Dinesh is an experienced Bush walker, amongst other interests. He has written a book about some of his experiences which you can learn from his about page on his website.
Dinesh wrote a few months before the bushfires started, that he had not seen conditions so hot or dry in 45 years.
He has written many songs about Australia, the culture and the land. This is just one of them… I thank him deeply for sharing his experiences. ❤️