Australian Bushfire

wildfire-1105209_640This is a personal account of Dinesh Moylan, an Australian singer-songwriter and performing artist, who writes soulfully about his survival of the New Year’s Day Bushfires in New South Wales.

“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.”

Go to Dinesh Moylan’s Website

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. ❤️