PART 1 BACKGROUND INFORMATION

It has taken me some time to write this missive. Mostly the reasons for the delay are that there has been so much to do simply to get our property back into some sort of working order – preliminary fixing of fences, repairing infrastructure, tending to our cattle which were severely stressed and started calving a couple of weeks after the fires and also getting my building business operational again after $000's of irreplaceable cypress posts were burned. 

Also, another reason for the delay in writing my account has been because I didn’t want it to have an overly-emotional aspect. I wanted it to be as factual as I could possibly make it.

I have read a substantial amount of the literature which has been printed to date about these bushfires. And based on my first-hand experience I believe that some information may, quite understandably, be affected by emotional immediacy and consequently contain some factual errors.

I think that any mis-reporting of the event is likely affected by the immediacy and trauma of the event – I simply want to report what I believe to be as factual an account of what happened to me as possible.

There are several reasons for writing this missive.

Initially I didn’t want to write anything about it. But I was prevailed upon by others to write this account of my personal experience. The argument put to me has been that if it gets some limited distribution and as a consequence even one person is able to save their life and property in a similar event then it will have been worthwhile. Also, I learnt lessons in that firestorm that are not in any CFA literature that I have ever read. Finally it is part of a personal purging process.

I realise now that I did many things wrong – even though I thought I had a reasonable understanding of bushfires and a pretty well thought-out bushfire plan.

Hopefully this account may provide some insight into how absolutely terrifying it is to be caught in the kind of onslaught that occurs in a serious firestorm. It may also make it clearer to people living in bushfire-prone areas about what their mind-set and commitment needs to be if they intend to stay and fight and what they need to do by way of preparation, fire-fighting infrastructure, fireplans, etc.

Or alternatively to be really clear about leaving well ahead of the risk becoming critical and life-threatening. Once you choose to stay and fight all other options are closed. If you are indecisive and make a late decision to leave you may be cut off by such things as fallen burning trees. You may not be able to return to your home and you could be trapped. This may be a fatal outcome.

It is important to understand that in a serious bushfire event you will likely be cut off from the outside world with no power and no communication. And that the CFA, SES or anyone else may not be able to assist you. There are not options about giving up part way through the fire. Your fight will likely go on for many hours. If you can’t sustain this effort you may be burnt to death!

Plan on this scenario - YOU WILL BE LEFT COMPLETELY ON YOUR OWN TO FIGHT THE FIRE.

 

  

Our Main Barn and Shed Before the Fire

PART 2 - THE ONSLAUGHT APPROACHES

My Previous Bushfire Experience

I figured I had a couple of advantages over most people who were confronted by the recent fires.

After the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 I attended most affected areas to do insurance assessments for earth dwellings.  I also had friends whose homes had been destroyed in several of these areas.  And also others who had defended and saved their homes with often the most basic fire-fighting resources (in one instance nothing more than a laundry trough of water and wet bags to put out fire spots).

I believed this previous experience gave me a fair amount of insight into how bad a bushfire can be and had also taught me some basic lessons about what had worked for those people and houses that survived. On a very simplistic level it seemed to me that with proper foresight, property preparation and fire-fighting infrastructure in place the basic rule was - stay with your home, save your home OR ALTERNATIVELY leave your home, lose your home.

In addition I had a fire go through my bush property in Balnarring in 1990.  That fire event pales to insignificance compared to the Black Saturday fires in Buxton and surrounds but it did teach me a couple of salient lessons about preparation.

This will probably seem really stupid to most people but one really important lesson I learnt from the fire in Balnarring was that a little insect like the “green spider wasp” can totally compromise your fire plan.  This wasp builds a mud nest in every orifice.  And one of those orifices it likes is the exhaust outlets on a fire pump.  So when I tried to start my fire pump in the Balnarring fire incident it was a lost cause. So the lesson I learnt from this was to test my fire-fighting equipment regularly and to keep a plastic bag over the exhaust outlet when not in use.

My Basic Preparedness

With an eye to the possibility of a bushfire in this locality I had done a few things each year prior to and during the bushfire season based on my previous experience.

(a)  The pasture and grassland areas to the north and west of our buildings in particular were mown annually.
(b)  Around all the sheds and buildings were cleared of grass regularly throughout Spring and Summer with a brush cutter.
(c)  A petrol motor fire pump was installed, primed, tested and connected to a 45,000 litre water tank.
(d)  I had a written fire plan.

My Position

I believed that I had basically prepared for a bushfire by way of keeping the fuel load to a minimum around the main structures and in particular at least 100 metres to the north and west. Based on all prevailing information I was sure that the direction any fire threat would come from was the north to west quadrant. Also, based on my observations after the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the Balnarring incident with the above preparations in place I would never leave my home because it was defendable.

Black Saturday (February 7, 2009)

It was a hot windy day.  I can remember looking at my weather station in the mid-afternoon and it was 45C with 45kph winds. I had not heard any fire reports or the warnings about the extreme fire conditions on the day.  But it was pretty obvious to anyone that this was a day that the risk of a bushfire was extremely high.

The “General  Summer Fire Season Preparation” part of our fire plan (refer details at the end of this web entry) had been implemented at the beginning of the bushfire season.  Because of the extreme conditions on the day I had already undertaken most of Stage 1 of our fire plan. Earlier in the day I had also moved our cattle to a paddock that I thought would provide them with a bit more protection in the event of a fire coming from the NW direction. I had retreated inside because it was such a hot and unpleasant day.  Our barn/temporary home doesn’t have any other real outlook except to the north.

My wife Noleen had rung earlier in the day before leaving Melbourne to drive to Buxton.  I had looked at the CFA website.  It said that there was a grass fire in Yarra Glen which was under control.  So Noleen left Melbourne at about 5.00pm to drive up to our property. Subsequently the power went off and I had no contact with the outside world.  I didn’t have a battery radio – this was a mistake!

Some time later at about 6.30pm Noleen rang on my mobile phone to say that she had been stopped by a police roadblock at Coldstream (about 40kms away) and couldn’t get through because there was a fire in the area. So I walked outside the barn and looked around to the west and saw a massive smoke plume from the Black Mountain Range (no fire was visible) coming from a north-west direction.  The smoke plume was very high and going well to the south of our property.  I didn’t feel under any particular threat.  Wrong!!

I got on my quad bike and went to a high vantage point on our property to get a better look at the smoke plume.  From this vantage point I could see fire on top of the Black Mountain range about 3kms away with what I estimated to be 100 metre high fireballs erupting. I took some photos (still feeling pretty relaxed that the fire would pass well to the south of our property) and drove back to the barn and implemented the balance of Stage 1 of the fire plan.

    


During this time I heard sirens in our road so I knew that our property might be at risk.

We have a spray irrigation system for our plantation trees approx 200 metres to the north area of our barn and one of the jobs on my original fire plan was to get this operating to wet down the area to the north to provide a fire “buffer”.  Wrong again!!  The eventual ember attack which occurred enveloped the entire property so any kind of wet area buffer except in the immediate area of the barn/shed was useless.

Because there was no power to run this irrigation system I loaded the generator into a trailer on the quad bike and set it up next to the pump at the dam and got the irrigation system operating.  This was probably the most stupid thing I did in this whole bushfire event.  I will explain later what happened but my advice is keep any genset equipment inside your premises and safe – you will likely need it later as things unfold.

Shortly afterwards (I estimate about 20 minutes after I first went to the vantage point on our property) I set off again on the quad bike to see what was happening. When I arrived at the spot where I could get a better view of the approaching fire it was obvious there had been a menacing change in developments with the fire front. The firefront had moved down the east side of the mountain range at a rate that was beyond my belief and had enveloped Buxton township.  It seemed to me at that time that our small local village was devastated.  I just hoped that residents had been able to escape.

I didn’t even stop the quad bike.  I did an immediate U-turn and headed back to the barn as fast as I could to prepare for what I knew was now going to happen - a serious bushfire onslaught on our property.

BUXTON FIRE PLAN

GENERAL  SUMMER FIRE SEASON PREPARATION

1.  Install fire pump & connect to water supply
2.  Fill fire pump and electrical generator with petrol
3.  Test fire pump and generator (test regularly during the fire season)
4.  Have fire clothing bagged & ready for use
5.  Ensure an adequate supply of fuel for generator and fire pump is stored inside

STAGE 1 - FIRES IN VICINITY

1.  Roll out fire hose
2.  Charge mobile phone & LED torch
3.  Bring all domestic garden hoses and electrical leads inside
4.  Install ladder onto roof of main barn/shed
5.  Bucket of water & towel into other shed

STAGE 2 - EMBER ATTACK POSSIBLE

1.  Install gutter covers and fill gutters with water
2.  Wet down sawdust in cutting shed
3.  Close all doors & windows
4.  If power off start generator
5.  Install buckets of water around each shed with dispenser (metal mug)

PART 3 –THE FIRESTORM ARRIVES

A couple of significant things had occurred in that short interval since I had last gone to the vantage point on our property about 20 minutes earlier.  The fire on top of the Black Mountain Range a few kilometres away had moved much more rapidly than I would have thought possible and had come down the hillside.  Buxton township was now completely blanketed in smoke and flames.

However, of much more immediate concern to me was a new fire front now coming over the mountain range.  This front was several kilometres wide towards the north and it was obvious to me that this fire was going to roll right over the top of our property.

I didn’t even stop the quad bike.  I did a U-turn and high-tailed it as fast as I could back to the barn.  There was not time to even take a photo.

I immediately started to implement Stage 2 of the fire plan (refer details at the end of this web entry).  The first activity was to start the fire pump.

I hosed down the timber walls of the barn on the west side which was the direction the fire was approaching from.  I then dragged the fire hose about 50 metres to the other shed and wetted down the interior.  This shed contains the farm machinery and is also where I cut my kit homes.  The whole floor area is covered with about 300mm of sawdust – just waiting to catch on fire.

At this stage there was no fire on our property.  While I was wetting down the interior of this shed I looked up the hill to the south and I could see a raging inferno about 400 metres away.  The sky was iridescent red with a deafening roar like standing next to a 747 jet.  I remember thinking that if Kay & Nora (our neighbours) are in their home up there they will not survive this – it was white-hot intense.

I then dragged the hose back to the barn (this is a fire procedure that I will change in the future – dragging 100+ metres of hose full of water is extremely time consuming, difficult and tiring).

I got up on the roof of the barn to put sealing plates over the gutter outlets so that I could fill the gutters with water.  This involved squirting a bead of silicon sealant around each of the 4 gutter outlets and sticking a flate plate (previously prepared) over the outlet – about a 5 minute job.

By the time I was installing the fourth gutter outlet plate it had become so dark with the smoke that I couldn’t see the gutter outlet.  I had to run my finger around the outlet as a guide for where to squirt the sealant.

I then clambered down the ladder and donned my fire gear – wool beanie and woollen jumper (I was already wearing work boots and pants).

I then saw the first fire on our property.  The pasture to the north of the barn was alight and flames were moving up the incline towards the barn.  This fire had obviously been started by embers ahead of the main (second) bushfire front.

Our barn has two balconies (front and rear) which I also wet down because I figured that they would be a repository for embers which could potentially cause the barn to catch fire.

I got  my LED torch (don’t ever be without one!) and placed it outside but near the barn doors in a place I would be able to find it in the dark which had fallen.

It had become so dark – night was approaching but the smoke pall also added to this.  It was like being inside a cocoon of smoke with a maximum visibility range of about 30 metres and the whole of this hemisphere in every direction was glowing cherry red.  I had no idea of where the fire was coming from.  It was all around me.  It was everywhere.

And there was a deafening roar which continued to increase in intensity.

I was starting to suffer from smoke inhalation.  It was becoming very difficult to breathe.  I retreated inside the barn and with the LED torch found my respirator mask.  I donned this and returned outside.

The wind increased very substantially (estimates are in excess of 100kph).  It was so strong that when I tried to put up the ladder to get on the roof to hose it down the wind would blow it over – something I have never experienced in 30+ years of using these same ladders in the construction industry.  The wind velocity was so extreme that trying to wet down the roof from the ground was useless.  Normally the fire hose stream would spray about 15 metres.  In this extreme wind tornado it was blown away about 1 metre from the hose nozzle.

Red hot embers were swirling everywhere.  It was like being sandblasted - but with burning embers.

I had to shelter beside the barn posts flattening myself against the roller doors at the front of the shed.  This  gave me about 20cm of protection from the blasting embers.  It wasn’t much protection but it was enough to save me from being severely burned.

The wind direction continually changed (it was like what I would imagine being inside a tornado) so I would run between the posts on each side of the door to gain shelter each time the direction of the blasting embers changed.

Between ember blasts I had to run between both sheds to put out spot fires in the sawdust of my kit-cutting shed and keep dousing down the roofs and decks of the main barn.  I couldn’t maintain the effort of dragging the hose between the sheds and the grass between both sheds was alight so the hose would have burnt.  So I filled buckets with water, grabbed a saucepan to splash water on fire spots and took these to the cutting shed.

Running between the sheds (about 30 metres) in the open was my greatest risk of exposure in the fire storm.  I had to try to judge the time to do this when the blasting embers and extreme heat subsided just a little.

In and around each shed I could get some protection from the radiant heat and ember blasts.  But in the open I was very exposed.

I misjudged the time to run between sheds a couple of times and was nearly overwhelmed by suffocating smoke and blasting high velocity embers and super-heated air.  It brought me to my knees.  I distinctly remember thinking on two occasions that I was going to die.  But as luck would have it on each occasion the wind subsided for a few seconds. Just enough time for me to scramble upright and run to shelter.

The Open Shed where I cut my Kit Homes (with it's floor of sawdust)

When I was down at the cutting shed (see photo above) I could see that several stacks of the large stockpile of cypress posts which I had accumulated over many years had caught on fire.  There was nothing I could do to save them.  But in front of one stack of posts was a pack of pine framing that had been purchased recently for a building project that was due to start in the near future.  I could see that this pack of pine would be ignited very shortly by the adjacent cypress fire.  I poured a couple of saucepans of water over myself, started the forklift and picked up the pine pack (smashing some pieces in the process) and moved it into the open shed where it would have a bit more protection.

View of my Cutting Shed as 20 + Years of Cyprys Posts Burn

I ran back to the barn and grabbed the fire hose to douse down this building again.  But there was no water pressure.  I ran about 40 metres through the blasting embers to the fire pump, thinking that something had happened to the pump.  The pump was still going but the fire hose was wrapped around the base of a tree and embers had accumulated at the tree base and burnt through the hose.  Water was spraying everywhere.  I ran back to the barn, grabbed a roll of duct tape and wrapped up the hose leak.  This gave me about 2-3 minutes of fire hose output before it burst again.  But it was enough time to wet down the barn and fill 20 litre water buckets.  I must have repaired the fire hose at least 10 times during the night.  I had to turn off the fire pump on each occasion when the hose burst to conserve water.  This whole process was time wasting, a huge effort and dangerous.  It is something that I will definitely change in the future. 

BUXTON  FIRE  PLAN - STAGE 2

STAGE 2 - EMBER ATTACK POSSIBLE

1.  Start fire pump
2.  Install gutter covers and fill gutters with water
3.  Wet down sawdust in cutting shed
4.  Close all doors, windows & roller doors
5.  If power has gone off start generator

PART 4 - THE NIGHT WATCH

Each segment of this bushfire story has taken a fair amount of emotional energy and time to put together so this fourth part has taken a bit longer to complete. Around midnight (about 4 hours after the firestorm first hit) the intensity of the flames, embers and earlier extreme wind velocity subsided somewhat. But the wind was still quite strong and ember showers continued. Certainly with less velocity but still quite ferocious, very dangerous and property and life threatening.

All night I was constantly running between both sheds, putting out spot fires in the sawdust in the kit-cutting shed (which occurred continually from wind-blown embers) with saucepans of water and getting up the ladder on the main barn to see whether embers were causing any fire on the roof.

During this time I was severely dehydrated. Luckily I had co-incidentally purchased a number of bottles of Gatorade (an electrolyte drink) a few weeks before the fires. I would duck inside the barn, skol a 600ml bottle and return outside. These drinks replenished me and kept me going. I will never be without them again in the bushfire season. They kept my energy levels up more than plain water could ever have done.

I was also pouring saucepans of water over myself all night to keep my body temperature down and to enable me to run between the sheds in the extreme heat and ember showers which persisted.

Just an ancillary story. We have a lovely, timid, very old (19 years), frail cat named Squeak – because that is the noise she makes – not a meow. At her age understandably, she normally sleeps most of the day and night. But on the night of the bushfire she sat bolt upright just inside the shed roller door that I kept coming in through to get Gatorade drinks. Each time I came in she would give a slight welcoming meow (squeak). She never moved all night. She was my best mate that night - the only other living thing. The next night after the fires I lay on the concrete floor so that I wouldn’t fall totally asleep and could keep getting up to check for fires in the continuing ember showers. She lay down next to me and stayed right by my side whenever I was lying down.

On one occasion during Saturday night (I estimate about 4.30am) when I came inside to get a drink I noticed a glow outside through the rear glass door. I immediately grabbed a bucket of water and sprinted around to the rear of the barn. A doormat had been set alight by the embers and the timber wall and door had caught fire. Luckily I was able to put it out with the limited water I had (the fire hose was no longer working). If I had not noticed this fire for, say, another 5 minutes I believe it would have reached a critical point that I would not have been able to extinguish and the barn and all contents would have been lost.

    

The fire damage to our back door which nearly destroyed the barn       

My precious piles of cypress posts burning (the white blobs are swirling hot embers)

Inspection revealed that many of the piles of posts in this secondary storage area were also alight. But some piles had so far miraculously survived. However, because the posts were stacked in adjacent piles a sort of domino effect was occurring. Post piles were burning and then causing the next pile to catch alight.

The absolute last thing I wanted to do at this time was to move posts. I was totally exhausted and as far as I was concerned right then the remaining posts could all burn. Quite frankly I was absolutely buggered. However, I thought better of it and I ran back to the equipment shed, started the forklift, doused myself with water again and drove the forklift through the fire gauntlet (the paint on the forklift was blistered) to where the surviving posts were located.

I picked up the pile of 16 posts next to the burning pile and dumped them away from this area. This was difficult with only the light from the fires to see by. But it did the job. It provided a break in the burning chain. Many $000’s of my precious Cypress posts were consequently saved.

My memory is that dawn on Sunday morning occurred at about 6.30am. It was the first time I thought I could relax a bit and that the main fire threat had passed. The fire fight had gone on for about 11 hours. I sat in the cutting shed and looked out at the carnage which had occurred. Although the intense smoke pall limited the distance I could see to about 50 metres I could see the glow of the intense fires still burning all around in the nearby forest. My stockpiles of cypress posts burned for over 48 hours. The forest trees were still burning over 72 hours later and ember showers continued during this time and even longer.

  

 

  Our barn in amongst the devastation after the fire

hazydawn

About a week later a hazy dawn breaks over a completely burnt landscape

The bent and buckled corrugated iron is all that is

 left of irreplaceable cypress posts accumulated over 20+ years. The posts just seemed to have vapourised!

I was unable to leave the property for 3 days. Trees had fallen across the road. And also there was the continuing fire threat from ember showers. When I did leave for the first time several days later I had to cut my way out with a chainsaw through trees which had fallen across the road.

Trees across the road. Photo courtesy of our neighbour Laurie Woods

On the Tuesday evening 3 days after the fires Noleen was finally able to get through the police roadblocks to our property. Seeing her drive onto the property was just the absolute best thing. At last my mate was back with me!

During the night of the main bushfire onslaught my heart had gone into an abnormal rhythm (apparently because of the adrenalin rush) and had been running at 150 beats per minute for 3 days. There was nothing I was able to do about this problem until Noleen arrived. We rang a surgeon friend and he said this was life-threatening. We immediately rang for an ambulance and I was ferried out to a hospital in Epping and my heart was reverted by shock treatment to a normal rhythm.

But I was then stuck in Melbourne with no car. Even if I had been able to organise alternative transport I would not have been able to get back to Buxton through the roadblocks.

So late that night it occurred to me to hire a helicopter. I went through the Yellow Pages and finally contacted a private company “The Helicopter Service Australia”. They were very understanding of my plight and extremely helpful. They ferried me into Buxton early the next day. They solved a huge problem for me because Noleen was stuck at Buxton by herself defending the property against the continuing ember attacks from nearby burning trees and she didn’t have the know-how to run generators, fire pumps, etc. She and all our buildings were still in grave danger.

The cost of the helicopter trip was about $3,000 which seems very expensive. But compared to the danger to Noleen, the real possibility of losing our barn, shed and equipment after all the effort that had been put into saving them, this cost was inconsequential. As it turned out our insurer very generously reimbursed us for the helicopter trip.


PART 5 - THE AFTERMATH

As I write this it is now March 2010, over 12 months since Black Saturday. But in some ways it still seems like it happened only yesterday.


I have been really surprised and gratified by the amazing amount of interest and positive feedback I have received from people all over the world about the fire story I have posted on this website.

Thanks very much to everyone for their supportive comments. As I said earlier in this account, if this story helps even one person to survive a similar event it will have been a worthwhile effort.

I thought for some time about what the final parts of this story should contain. In the end I decided that it should be in 3 parts.

(a) The consequences to the land. And also observations of human reactions to this traumatic event as I have interpreted them from a purely non-professional point of view.

(b) An explanation of the many things that I did wrong and suggestions about corrections/improvements.

(c) A revised fireplan based on my experience from this fire event.

Firstly as a bit of background I thought I should mention that since I started posting this story. The Bushfire Royal Commission has heard evidence that fires in this area were driven by winds in excess of 200kph and the actual fire was travelling at over 100kph over pasture and through forests!!

It has also been stated in evidence to the commission that on Black Saturday the bushfire danger index in this area was the highest ever recorded by a substantial margin. The bushfire danger index (based on temperature, humidity, wind and a number of other factors) generally falls between 0 to 100 - the 100 index being the conditions which existed in the 1939 Black Friday Fires. Ash Wednesday in 1983 the index was 120.

On February 7, 2009 the temperature in Melbourne was the hottest ever recorded – 46.4OC. The bushfire danger index in this locality was over 200. This should provide some understanding about how diabolical conditions were on that day. In our road, which is about 8km long, only 6 of the original 20 odd homes survived. Four of these were defended by their owners and the other two were surrounded by well mown gardens and paddocks.

There were 34 deaths in nearby Marysville and four at Narbethong. Approximately 530 properties in Marysville and 95 per cent of the retail businesses in the commercial centre were destroyed.

Only one Marysville business (the bakery) miraculously survived and has managed to remain open throughout the recovery period. Just about all employment in Marysville has been lost with most of the hospitality and tourism jobs gone. The primary school, kindergarten, retirement village, community centre, post office, medical centre, hotel and police station were all destroyed. As were all historic guest houses, most accommodation places and conference facilities. In the Murrindindi Shire alone nearly 1400 homes were lost.

So now to land consequences, etc.

My general observations are as follows.

Huge tracts of treed land on our property, in the surrounding forest and on the nearby Cathedral Mountain range are showing no signs of recovery. It has burnt so hot that it is obvious now that the great majority of trees are not going to regenerate. Also the heat has been so intense that the grass and tree seed stock residing in the 150-300mm of topsoil has been totally destroyed. In these areas not even grass is re-growing. The soil has become a sort of sterilised black sand/sludge because all organic matter has been sterilised.

Photos of the absolute tree and soil devastation – one year later

On the human reaction level.

Many local residents have just given up, locked the gates to their burnt properties and moved out. This is totally understandable. The devastation is so complete and there is no chance of recovery in their lifetime. A primary reason they built their homes in this area was the lovely lush bush valley and stunning views of the nearby Cathedral Mountain range. That is all now gone. Replaced by a totally ravaged landscape with little chance of even medium-term recovery.

I have heard that about 60% of Marysville residents who survived the bushfire have moved on and bought property elsewhere.    I have also been told that none of the numerous large guest houses lost in thes fires (some over 100 years old and which have been natural tourist destinations and major local employers) will NOT be re-building. Naturally this is devastating for the recovery of a small township and residents in the surrounding areas.

   

    

Some of my neighbours destroyed houses  

 

 

 Main Street of Marysville with nearly all businesses destroyed

It was tough enough for everyone in the local area with the Global Financial Crisis before the bushfire. Now it is diabolical. Some people have not only lost their homes and jobs but many have also lost family and/or friends.

There is also little prospect of the forestry and tourism industries (major local employers) recovering in the short term. At a human level there have been many interesting and sometimes understandably negative reactions to the bushfire. Some of these I have observed are as follows.

(i) Many former residents will not re-build because of the bleak outlook and this is totally understandable.

(ii) Some people have absolutely freaked. Their property may not have even been directly affected by the fires. But many owners in nearby areas of both vacant and established properties have suddenly realised that living in the country has some inherent risks (in this case a bushfire) and they have put their properties on the market.

(iii) Some people seem to be stuck in a sort of “victim” mindset. One example is a family I have known for some years in Kinglake West who chose not to stay to defend their home in the bushfire and it was lost. Initially it was crucially important to them to be able to build the same home and re-create what they previously had. Their concrete slab was OK so this would seem logical. They had bushfire risk assessments (now mandatory in Victoria) done by different experts (these assessments sometimes vary from one expert to another). Rather than accept the lower risk assessment that would enable them to re-build quickly they now seem immobilised and unable to move forward in a logical way with their project.

(iv) A local business I know had a quite mature employee who had worked for them in their Melbourne office for many years prior to the bushfire. Instead of offering appropriate support during their crisis (they stayed and fought the fire) he behaved like an immature child. He kept telling them that they were very lucky (I can only suppose his reasoning was because they hadn’t been burnt to death) because he had read the newspaper reports and believed he understood everything about the bushfires and consequences. His employer told him that he had absolutely no idea what their level of loss and personal trauma was and that he should behave in an appropriate manner. He was totally immovable about his position. His employment was terminated shortly afterwards.

(v) Many people quite understandably panicked and left their homes as the bushfire approached. As luck would have it some of their homes miraculously survived. Some residents in this situation now seem to be paranoid/resentful toward others that stayed with their properties to fight because they feel it reflects badly on their internal fortitude.

(vi) Often one partner in a relationship initially exhibited great stoicism and resilience to the trauma that occured. Whereas the other partner was obviously having trouble coping with the stress of this event. However, 12 months later I am seeing the partner who was the stronger initially now exhibiting a number of negative symptoms (eg. sleeplessness, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.). Sometimes they have had to seek counselling.

(vii) I am told there has been an increase in bushfire ravaged areas with problems of increased alchohol and drug abuse and also domestic violence.

On the other hand there have also been some amazing positive things that have come out of this disaster.

(i) The community spirit amongst those residents that have decided to stay in the area and re-build is amazing. The support networks that have grown are lovely to behold and be part of. In many ways it has made the remnants of the community stronger.

(ii) The gob-smacking generosity of Australians via the Bushfire Fund and other support from volunteer groups has been a great help recovering.

(iii) The huge effort by the police, SES, CFA and other emergency services (many of whom are staffed by volunteers) has been beyond belief.

(iv) There was a huge immediate support effort by DHS, Centrelink, Rural Finance and other state and federal agencies which has been a great help in the recovery effort. This support is still going on.

About wildlife.

To my surprise the populations of kangaroos, wombats, deer, etc. seem to have been largely unaffected. But the smaller mammals – sugar gliders, echidna and other less obvious nocturnal animals I am sure will have been decimated.

One of the things that has been most sad for me has been the loss of local birdlife. Prior to the fires the huge variety and number of birds was a real delight. It is now only a fraction of what existed previously.

In particular a really special bird (a King Parrot) who visited me for some years has not returned so I can only assume he perished. This wild bird was a real character. He was so tame he would fly inside the barn if the doors were completely open or confidently strut in under the door curtains if they were down and follow me around squawking at me until I got his food ready.

If I was down in the other shed cutting timber for my kit homes or in the orchard working he would land nearby and let me know quite plainly that I should get his food for him without delay. At other times he would just hang around for hours on end – as if he just enjoyed the company.

Before I got his seed bowl ready we had a little routine we would go through. Firstly he would land on my head. He would then hop onto my hand and gently peck my fingers four times to demand his feed. Bear in mind that this was a WILD bird. He was truly exceptional. Losing him has been a real tragedy for me.

PART 6 – SOME SUGGESTIONS & THE MISTAKES I MADE

What follows is an explanation of the many things that I did wrong and suggestions that hopefully will help others to be better prepared for a bushfire.

1.  Fire Plan

Quite frankly the fire plan we had in place (inadequate and wrong though it was in some important respects) saved my life.  It also enabled me to save all our buildings.

If you intend to stay and fight you absolutely need a well thought out logical sequence of things to do and this plan needs to be practiced by anyone who is liable to be on the property in a bushfire event.  If you don’t have a plan to follow there is a substantial risk that in the panic which naturally occurs in a traumatic event of this kind you will forget to do essential preparatory stuff as the fire approaches and also not undertake the tasks needed to prepare for the ongoing fight.  This could cost you not only your home but also your life!!

2.  Generator

Firstly you must have a generator.  It is highly likely that the power will be cut off during or before a bushfire (as happened in my case).  The capacity of the generator needs to be sufficient for the task it will have to perform.  At the very least it should have the capacity to run electrical pump/s that supply your fire fighting and/or household water supply.

A generator will also provide essential light if the bushfire arrives at night (as happened on Black Saturday).

A diesel generator is preferable because they can operate at much higher temperatures than the petrol equivalent.  And they generally use much less fuel than a petrol generator.  This is important because during the fire event you will likely be so occupied with other activities that having to refill your generator is an additional task to be avoided if possible.

And filling your generator with flammable fuel in the middle of a bushfire is not to be recommended – especially if it is outside.

If your generator is stationed outside it should be encased in a protective inflammable housing which should have an air inlet and an exhaust outlet.

3.  The Mistake I Made With My Generator

Part of my original fireplan was to start the spray irrigation system to provide a firebreak about 100 metres from our buildings.  This was totally wrong for two reasons.

(a)  The intensity of the bushfire and ember attack made any kind of firebreak useless.  This fire was driven by extreme winds.  Embers were starting fires up to a kilometre ahead of the main fire front.  But I feel now that it would have been a useless strategy for even a moderate bushfire.

(b)  When the power went off and the fire front was imminent I took our generator down to the pump on our property to run the irrigation system.  I know now that apart from the irrigation firebreak being a totally inadequate defence I put the generator at risk.  DO NOT EVER DO THIS!  KEEP YOUR GENERATOR SAFE AT ALL TIMES!

What I should have done with the generator (hindsight of course is 20/20 vision) is to have connected the generator to the house water pressure pump to enable me to use hoses around the buildings as an additional resource to fight the fire (especially as the fire pump hose was destroyed during the major fire front).

So in the morning after the fire, I was beside myself.  I still had no mains power (and didn’t have any for several days) and I was trapped on the property because of fallen trees across all exit roads.  I thought the generator would have burned like everything else on the property.  And I really needed a power source to operate fridges, freezers, charge mobile phones and all the other essential stuff you take for granted.

I also needed it to run the household pump to provide water to wash, etc. and also to use hoses to put out ember attacks which continued for the next several days from burning trees in close proximity to our buildings.

As it turned out by a stroke of major luck I had placed the generator on a patch of wet ground – and it survived.

So luckily I was able to run the house in an almost normal way for the 3 days I was trapped without help on the property – save all the food in our fridges, wash & shower, charge mobile phones, etc.

4.  The Mistake I Made With My Fire Pump

The main fire hose connected to my fire pump burned during the firestorm.  This was because it was out in the open.  Even though it ran across a very well mowed grass area. 

In future the water supply lines from the fire pump will run underground to standpipes of annealed copper near each building.  I will then be able to attach short hoses to each outlet to protect the buildings.

The advantages of this set-up are:

(a)  The chance of the hoses being damaged is far less, and

(b)   Heavy water laden hoses don’t have to be dragged between each building

(c)  The smaller hoses can be taken inside during the main firefront and brought out later for firefighting 

5.  DO NOT RELY ON ANYONE ELSE FOR HELP!!!!!

The previous summer before the Black Saturday bushfires I had to fly to Perth for several days to see a very dear friend whose death was imminent.

I never like being away from our property during the bushfire season but this was unavoidable.

I had made arrangements with some people who lived locally and who also worked for me that in the event of a bushfire they would come to our property to protect it, undertake the bushfire plan and use our property as a refuge.

Well luckily the bushfire occurred one year later and not when I was away in Perth in the summer of 2007-2008.

All these people panicked.  They left their own properties ahead of the bushfire.  They certainly had no interest in protecting our property or using it as a refuge as we had agreed.

In addition all emergency services personnel (CFA, SES, police) left the area as well.

SO I SUGGEST VERY STRONGLY THAT YOU RELY ON NO-ONE FOR SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE.

If you intend to stay to fight then design your fireplan and fire fighting infrastructure around this basic premise.

6.  Clothing mistake - eye goggles are essential!

I did not use eye goggles during the fire.  This was not a problem during that night.  However, the next day I was in extreme pain and basically totally blind.  I used saline rinses continually every hour and could finally see again about 24 hours later.  If there had been an ember attack problem during this time I would not have been able to deal with it.

7.  Survival Gear & Strategies

(a)  Fire clothes should be prepared in a bag in an obvious position and well marked.  These should include balaclava, hat, goggles, face mask (1 micron filter), heavy duty boots, jacket/jumper, pants.  All clothing should be of natural fibres (wool, cotton) and not synthetics.

(b) Fire hose nozzle – this should have variable spray settings (mist to wet you down, a direct stream & shut-off to conserve water).

(c)  Your fire plan must be practised each year and with anyone who is likely to be defending your property.

(d)  I advise that fire extinguishers (powder type) and/or knapsacks be in place for emergency spot fires and in case your other fire-fighting equipment fails.

(e)  Rather than using a long fire hose a much better alternative is to have several standpipe outlets connected by an underground pipe to your fire pump.  You will then only require several shorter hoses NOT one long hose.  Standpipes should be tempered copper or other non-corrosive heat-tempered metal (NOT PVC!).

(f)  Seal all gaps in corrugated iron roofs and walls with an expandable spray foam or other non-combustible material.

(g)  All garden hoses should be brought inside when there is a fire in the area.

(h)  I suggest that any torches should be LED.

(i)  If it is possible then install solar LED movement activated exterior lights.  These (and the LED torch) were a saviour for me because they provided light all night whenever I was outside

(j)  Battery (or wind-up) radio to keep in contact with radio broadcasts about the bushfire status

(k)  UHF receiver to be able to listen to emergency services radio traffic

(l)  Any exterior timber cladding on upper roofs to be set up above roofing 70mm with metal flashing so that ember buildup does not set them alight

(m)  Exterior doormats away from doors or inside

(n)  All openable windows and doors to have aluminium or bronze flywire screens/doors

(o)  Close all windows & doors on any day there is a bushfire risk

(p)  Keep a supply of electrolyte drinks

(q)  Have buckets/wheelie bins filled with water as backup around your buildings

(r)  Make sure your mobile phone fully charged early in the day

(s)  Think ahead of time what you need backed up and in a different secure location – computer files, photos & memorabilia, personal items, etc.

GENERAL FIRE PLAN

The following details are not intended to be comprehensive.  What follows below should be used as an adjunct to advice provided by the CFA and other statutory authorities.

BASIC  EQUIPMENT REQUIRED

1.  Battery radio
2.  Breathing mask (with a minimum 95% filtration)
3.  Eye goggles
4.  LED torch (they last longer)
5.  Fire clothes (beanie, ski mask, jumper, pants, heavy-duty footwear) all of natural materials (NOT synthetics)
6.  Fire pump & hose (preferably diesel because more reliable in very hot conditions) connected to 10,000 gallon (minimum) water supply.  Hose nozzle should be variable type enabling misting to jet spray
7.  Generator (5 KVA should be suitable for most general requirements)

GENERAL  SUMMER  FIRE  SEASON  PREPARATION

1.  Clean up and reduce fuel load around house in accord with CFA recommendations
2.  Install fire pump & connect to water supply
3.  Fill fire pump and electrical generator with fuel
4.  Test fire pump and generator (every 7 days)
5.  Have fire clothing, breathing mask, goggles, etc. bagged & ready for use and stored in a designated place
6.  Ensure an adequate supply of fuel for generator and fire pump is stored inside
7.  Ensure computer backup & other copies of personal stuff (like family photos) are stored in a separate location
8.  Have other equipment (radio, LED torch, water ladles/dispensers, knapsack, etc.) in designated place
9.  Have gutter outlet covers or plugs prepared and stored in a designated place
10. Practice your fireplan

STAGE 1 - FIRES  IN  VICINITY

1.  Roll out fire hose
2.  Charge mobile phone & LED torch
3.  Install ladder to provide access to roof
4.  If household water supply is via storage tanks and not main supply then set up electrical lead from generator to water pump (this lead should be covered with soil to protect it from fire damage
5.  Move all domestic hoses, doormats and electrical leads inside
6.  Position buckets of water (with wet towels), dispensers (eg. metal mug or saucepan ) outside around premises

STAGE 2 - EMBER  ATTACK  POSSIBLE

1.  Install gutter covers or plugs and fill gutters with water
2.  Wet down area surrounding premises particularly on prevailing wind side
3.  Close all doors, windows
4.  If power has gone off start generator

STAGE 3 - EMBER  ATTACK

1.  Put on fire protection clothing
2.  Start fire pump
3.  Wet down house (paricularly any timber walls, decking, etc.)
4.  Check inside house regularly (10-15 mins)
5.  Check outside house regularly (10-15 mins)

ADDITIONAL  PRE-SEASON  PREPARATION  NOTES

1.  No joins in any hoses.  They get stuck on things when being dragged around

2.  Fill roof corrugations & any other holes in walls, etc. with foam or similar

3.  LED torches last longer

4.  Consider installing external LED movement-activated solar lights – they lasted all night and were a saviour for me

5.  Fire pump plumbing should be 600mm underground with metal (NOT PVC) upstand pipes and fittings so shorter hoses can be used.  It is very difficult to drag a fire hose full of water around.  My fire hose burnt on very well mown grass area

6.  Enclose external generators, fire pumps in masonry or similar fire-proof enclosure to protect them from radiant heat (with proper provision for exhaust removal and air intake)

About a week later a hazy dawn breaks over a completely burnt landscape

© 2010 POST & BEAM