Scary clouds on the horizon… about Sydney’s current bushfire emergency

Australia is, as everybody knows, highly flammable, and there is currently a large number of severe bushfires going on around Sydney; unusual for this time of year. A state of emergency has been declared across the state, and although the bushfires are of course spread across a vast area, the smoke is quite visible where we live. Well, in most of Sydney I think.

I have spent all afternoon today on the roof sweeping off branches and leaves from the roof and from the veranda roof as far as I could reach out (the veranda roof is not strong enough to carry me), and on a ladder clearing leaves and whatever else out of the gutters.

Then I swept the pavement and ripped up anything that looked dry and long haired and grew near the house. I was wearing my ear plugs all that time, because it is cicada season and the noise outside is deafening, probably somewhere between 120 and 150 DB, because these things really want to make themselves heard in their 6 weeks of adulthood (and then they die).

I haven’t been too specific about my location so far, but we live about an hours drive west of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia. I am not Aussie and don’t know much about bushfires except for what I have read in the news and on the NSW Rural Fire Service’s website and in the Bushfire Survival Plan. That’s why we cleared the gutters… the plan tells us to.

We are not done with everything the plan says yet, far from it. I don’t think we are in danger of being reached by any major bushfire front in the suburb where we live, but according to the plan, embers can travel many kms/hours ahead a front and start spotfires, and we do live just a few streets from bushland, which accordingly to the plan means our house should be prepared even if we don’t think it is in danger.

We are about 50 kms from the nearest major bushfire front that is currently burning. That fire alone has at this stage burnt well over 12,000 ha land (and counting). It was downgraded from “Emergency” to “Watch & Act” level after Thursday (the worst day so far), but the weather conditions are forecast to worsen again from tomorrow with high temperatures and gusty winds predicted.

Thursday I was in Sydney city. It was supposed to be a warm and sunny day, but instead a sickly grey haze covered the sky and made the sun look small, red and faint. It was surreal. Sydney is a big city far from the fire fronts, but the fires out there are so massive that it can darken the sky in Sydney when the wind comes from a “helpful” direction.

 

NSW BUSHFIRES
17 October 2013 – Photo from The Conversation

 
When I drove home westward on the highway that day, the huge dark smoke clouds were looming ahead in the distance all the time. The mobile traffic signs informed that the highway was closed further west due to the bushfires.

When I drove off towards my suburb, the traffic information sign there rolled 3 messages over and over on the screen: “Total Fire Ban”, “Report Suspicious Activity”, and “Activate Your Bushfire Plan”. Activate Your Bushfire Plan? Like, what now? There wasn’t any emergency warning on for our suburb, so that was confusing. Our bushfireplan is to drive to the city, but that seemed like a bit of an overkill since there was (and is) no acute threat to our area.

 

460949-deans-gap
Approximately what I imagined when the sign said that the highway was closed due to bushfires…. Hopefully my imagination overreacted wildly. Photo from news.com.au of bushfires in January 2013

 
I came home and watched the news with my husband and it was all about the bushfire situation of course, but not very informative. Basically, nobody knew much. They just kept repeating how severe the threat was and how tragic it is for the many people who have lost their homes, and kept replaying the same interviews over and over.

Next morning there was a strong smell of smoke everywhere outside and inside the house, and the view we usually have from our veranda towards west (where we can usually see the hills or mountains in the far distance) – was replaced by the eerie dark grey haze. The weather had calmed down and a few hours later the smoke cleared up. Every morning since then it has been smokey in the morning – the local suburbs covered in haze – and then clears up when the day starts to heat up.

Bushfire weather is deeply unsettling. It feels as if a giant maniac hair dryer blows on the landscape all the time trying to ignite something. The wind is so hot is feels like it burns in the face. When that weather is on and the vegetation is all long haired, bushy and dry, like … I can’t come up with a metaphor, I don’t know anything else as dry as dry Australian vegetation … then the fact that most of the time, in most locations, nothing is actually acutely burning… seems like a bunch of miracles.

As for the smoke in west, it is saddening. I have actually been doing interviews in several of the suburbs in the area, so I’ve visited a number of homes out there and people were lovely and have lovely kids and pets, horses, farm animals… Some of the rural households are literally in the bush. It is beautiful where they live, and I can fully understand why people would want to live out there. However, they must be so worried right now, and some of the homes could be gone now or in the near future. Most certainly, they’ll know people whose homes have burned.

The magnitude of the destruction is hard to comprehend. Where I come from (Denmark), if a farmer has 300 ha of land then that is quite a big farm. He would typically have bought up at least 3-4 farm properties to get that much land (at least that is how it used to be). The biggest bushfire currently burning, the “State Mine Fire”** North-west of Sydney, covers 38 thousand ha. An almost unimaginable vastness of fire and ashes. Like Hell, just bigger and totally unfair.

 

8352064853_56e4dd0efb_c
A sight I hope I’ll never see in real life (this is Tasmania in January 2013). Photo from the Australian Emergency Management Knowledge Hub.

 
That is not really what I wanted to write about, but the bushfire situation is hard to ignore since it is so acute and dire and all over the news, and also visible in the horizon (well not right now, because it is dark outside). So, this is the post I wrote instead of the post I planned to write.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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26 thoughts on “Scary clouds on the horizon… about Sydney’s current bushfire emergency

  1. “Like Hell, just bigger and totally unfair.” Word.

    I noticed the same thing in Australia, lots of news about bush fires, but no actual practical information. Like everyone already knows what to do. I hope you and your husband and the dogs will be OK. Stay safe!

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    • Actually, there is heaps of practical information about the bushfires readily available on websites run by the various fire authorities (a huge body of knowledge in Australia, for obvious reasons). I didn’t mean to give the impression that relevant emergency “need to know” information is not readily available.

      An absolute key information sources for bushfire emergencies is Current Fires and Incidents by the NSW Rural Fire Service. It is a constantly updated map that shows the location and size of all the current fires, their danger level (Red = Emergency, Yellow = Watch & Act, Blue = Advice), and it is clearly explained how to behave for each danger level.

      If you click on the flame icon for a fire, a pop-up window displays the current details for that fire, including the type of vegetation that is burning, size in ha, location, newest updates and the name of the fire fighting agency working on the fire.

      There is a search field to put in one’s suburb, and then the map will display that area to give a quick overview over the fires nearby, if any. Major Fire Updates on same website is also essential, and very structured, well organised. And there is a lot more important info on the website of course.

      Apart from that, there are many instructions available about how to generally prepare for and cope with bushfire emergencies, such as the Bushfire Survival Plan I linked to in the post (to its website… can’t link directly, it is a pdf link). Much of that type of information is managed by the local councils.

      Then there is also plenty of background information available about the nature of bushfires and how they behave, made available by the plethora of fire agencies and other fire-interested organisations across the states (Victoria, NSW and South Australia prob. being the main ones). For example CFA’s How Fire Behaves, CSIRO’s Fire Front Characteristics and free bushfire research publications, and so on…

      What I meant was, when watching the news, it seemed like the journalists didn’t know much. They probably don’t get told much in that situation. Probably all the “people in the know”, the firefighters, are too busy fighting fires to talk with, them and people in the areas are too busy safeguarding their houses. Also, no one really has an overview so all numbers are vague and cautious, “should” and “may” being used all the time.

      I guess that is a good thing… in an emergency, what would be worse that a sensationalist press using resources needed for emergencies (even just the roads in and out), dramatising numbers and pretending they know more than they do. … So I am not complaining. It is just a strange situation to have all these huge disasters going on and not really have numbers, not really know what’s going on for other people (more is known now though). Although as my point is, the essential emergency information like precisely where the fires are and how big and dangerous they are, and whether I should leave the area, is at hand at all times. I think Australia is exceptionally experienced and competent with handling bushfire emergencies:-)

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      • Ah OK:-) I just realised it may also have to do with the fact that I so rarely watch TV so I don’t really know where to look:-) I just browsed some random channels and judged what I saw. It turns out the news on channel 7 is very informative, they also have their own news chopper flying around over the bushfire zones.

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  2. I grew up in So California. We had the Santa Ana Winds every year. That is when the wind reverses from West to East and goes East to west. The winds heat up over the inland ares and desert. They pick up speed. The air is hot and sticky and gritty from the dust. Any spark will set them off. Your home preparations sound like good ones. Between clearing the roof and gutters, ensuring you don’t have bushes close to the house . Stay safe!!

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  3. I am in Queensland and although the floods in 2011 were somewhat overwhelming, bushfires scare me so much more! I have grown up in northern Germany (and been to Denmark A Lot as a kid!) And its simply something I can’t get used to. Queensland doesn’t usually have as much bushfires but we live directly against a patch of bushland w bigger areas just over the street. It has been unusually dry in the last month and I am honestly scared. Especially when you see how many bushfires are actually started by people!! I have also been looking on the “get ready” website here, have to take that more seriously, even if you think you are prepared, once confronted with a natural disaster, I think people use a lot of their common sense to panic. I know I would.
    Those fires are massive, stay always safe, let’s hope there will only be material damage but so many people are concerned in those vast areas, it’s true, coming from Europe, it’s all even more impressive..

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    • I don’t know much about Queensland, I know it is far from bushfire safe although not as fire prone as the southern/eastern states. If you live next to a patch of bushland and there are bigger areas of bush nearby then I would definitely take preparation serious.

      It think the Bushfire Survival Plan available from our nearest council’s website is really good: Bushfire Survival Plan (if you click this link, the pdf will download). It explains all the key aspects of how to prepare and also how it feels to be impacted by a bushfire, the situation itself – like dark, noisy, raining embers, spotfires, to help chose a strategy. It provides strategies to chose from (2 options, basically)… and has a fill-form bushfire survival plan to make it easier to talk it though and make decisions as a family ahead of being impacted. It explains how to prepare the house and has little exercises for kids to prepare them too, like “circle what things you want to take with you in the event of bushfire”, to get them to think through what their most important things are.

      We haven’t done everything the plan says yet (regrettably), and some of the things are out of our budget right now. Anyway, our bushfire strategy is “Leave Early”, should it come to that. We love our house, but don’t want to risk our lives or our pets’ lives for it.

      I don’t think I can ever get used to it either. Currently, the largest firefront (the State Mine Fire in Blue Mountains) spans 300 km (38,000 ha)! I can’t even get my mind around how massive an area that is, it is such a terror. I feel sad for all the wildlife, it seems like such an incredible scary and horrible way to die, like Hell really, and so unfair.

      And yes, it is terrifying that people may start these things deliberately – arson, it is like an readily available weapon of mass destruction available to any kid with a bad day.

      I’m also horrified of all the ways bushfires can start. I have heard that in bushfire-prone conditions, even just an empty glass bottle carelessly thrown from a car window can act as a magnifying glass and ignite a fire in dry roadside grass. Not to speak of glowing cigarette buts, faulty electric wires, lightening, BBQs gone wrong, ….. when the weather conditions are “right” for bushfire then the whole landscape seems like a bomb just waiting for something to trigger it.

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      • Yeah, I agree on leave early too. We would have to pack 3 dogs, 3 pet snakes, one blue tongue lizard… And our cars are parked on the bush side, we should really have some sort of strategy. Not to mention my son who can get pretty panicky in situations of change (ASD)..
        300 km fire front? That would span across Denmark in certain sections, am I right? Omg.
        I know there is a regenerative value in the fires for nature but I hurt for all the animals :(

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      • 3 pet snakes? ;-) and a lizard… How do you transport those things…
        Yes I agree. What all the advice on the local website says is that the one most important aspects of bush fire preparation is to have thought through what to do and taken the decisions in advance. Because most peoples’ decision making abilities go steeply down once they start to panic.

        With your son, maybe making kids’ bushfire preparation exercises with him would be a good idea? An evacuation is highly stressful for anyone including pets, but for an ASD kid that may freak him out completely if he is not mentally prepared, so maybe having a set plan and regularly do a mock-evacuation “going through the moves” could help… plus have him practice if-then contingencies too, because you may not be able to follow your plan by the letter. Part of the preparation is to make lists and remember rules… he may like that part, and that could potentially help him prepare.

        We “only” have to pack 2 big dogs. And yes, if there was bushfires like this in Denmark then there would be much of Denmark left….

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      • Oh wow, actually the nearest front is only about 25 km away now when looking at the Current Fires & Incidents Map. We are located near Campbelltown, and if you put Campbelltown in the search field, then click “go” and then scroll down from there along Appin Rd, then it doesn’t take long to reach the black edge of the Balmoral fire any more (continuing straight when Appin Rd goes into Wilton Rd).

        It is not like there is forest and unkempt bushland all the way through though. A bushfire coming from east would be more of a threat to us, because we are 1 street from a pocket of bushland on the east side that connects up with a big area to the east of whatever it is (uninhabited and grey on the map). But if the front jumps Appin Rd and start spreading into the east side (don’t know enough about bushfire to say if that’s a likely – it depends on wind direction et.c.) then I’ll activate the “Leave Early” plan. So I guess I’ll actually make a box tonight with everything we need to take quickly, if so. Wednesday is supposed to be the worst day now.

        Thanks for listening:-) I am actually starting to get slightly worried and don’t actually have anyone to talk to about this right now, because the last thing I want is to dramatise it and make my family worried. So I’m glad to have the opportunity to discuss it here. I’m doing all this research anyway, reading bushfire information and following the situation on the Current fires & Incidents map.

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      • At the scale of things 25 km sounds not so nice…Yeah, I will really do some preparation, we usually don’t get hit too hard by storms either as the islands (bay side Brisbane) and the ‘mountains’ on the other side take the oomph away from it but you never know. Tackled highly venomous snake on the patio (on my own, dogs involved) and a car accident (w my son) but the natural catastrophe plan is sketchy in this house. Hope you don’t have to evacuate at any point, our dogs are also not small, even without it coming to the worst, it would definitively not be fun..

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      • Well done with the snake! Which snake was it?

        The Balmoral fire has calmed down know… the weather has eased and it is downgraded to Watch & Act again, it is contained in this direction I think. We had just made arrangements to temporarily relocate to the city with the dogs, but now we can stay home:-) We’ll still prepare to leave though, just so we are ready just in case. And clear the front gutter tomorrow.

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      • It was a small eyed snake. My dog had already almost killed it but could see it was not a python. So I kinda screamed a lot to get him off it. Which was effectful, thankfully, and surprisingly so, as he is completely deaf! (But very attentive to the other dog)
        Watch&act is still serious. Good on you to be prepared, no matter what.

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      • It is a lovely cool and overcast weather today, no smoke, fresh air, barely any wind, and right now we even have light rain …. That is just lovely. A very nice surprise break. All the bushfires are currently downgraded to “Watch & Act”. Tomorrow the weather conditions are predicted t oworsen again, although it is hard to imagine right now. Then Thursday, Friday and the weekend it should be cooler again. So all in all it is looking fine now… for us.

        Anyway… I’m spending today preparing for a worst case scenario tomorrow. One of the things I’m doing is to make a list of things to take with us if we need to leave urgently (even if just because of smoke), like key documents and dog things, work things, electronics and blankets et.c… If you like I can send you the list in Word when I finish it, so you can use it as inspiration for making your own “Evacuate This!” list.

        Besides that we’ll also clear the last (front) gutter today and cut down some long haired grass-like bushes we have in front.

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      • I don’t know about small eyes, but brown snakes have small heads. I saw 2 last week when running with my dog in the morning (highly unusual… I have seen 5 snakes in total in the almost 2 years we have lived here, of which these 2 were the only presumably brown snakes).

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      • I think we may be a bit wimpy, considering that we’re barely at risk compared to those living out in the firezones. Anyway, “Better safe than sorry”, and we are not experienced with this sort of environment. It is just very scary.

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    • All good:-) The weather has eased, and all the fires are downgraded and either under control or being controlled. The air is fresh & clear again around here, and the Southern Highland fire / the Hall Road, Balmoral fire is downgraded to “Advice” and the edge didn’t come closer than the 25 km.

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      • ah good. i don’t know NSW so much, but I am glad things seem to have calmed down a bit everywhere. still very impressive and scary. someone had a bbq last night in our estate, i was getting all nervous. it’s just SO little rain. have taken some little steps to prepare on our side, mostly for storm. our area is a bit prone to have electricity breakdowns…so will have to stock up on batteries and the like.

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  4. Pingback: To Pass or Not to Pass… | Mados

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