The problem with hills is that when there’s a fire, you can’t really see anything.
For one thing, there’s smoke.
Tuesday started with a rolling thunder and scattered rain. Lightning struck somewhere, but who knew where?
On Christmas Eve 2012, while we were in Melbourne, there was a lightning strike that hit a log that smouldered and only flared up days later. We were lucky that fire crews going to another flaming yule log saw the smoke and pounced on it. They complained about the rough track and Wallaroo brigade broke a sump on one of their trucks. But it was out.
I was over at Adnamira on Tuesday early afternoon, with the lovely Ben Hanrahan from Greening Australia looking with disgust at the cattle which had (again) broken into the Whole Paddock Rehabilitation making it a No Paddock Rehabilitation.
Then we saw a plume of smoke on the horizon behind us.
I assumed it was from a lightning strike. The smoke plume grew a little, then died down a bit.
I hoped that the volunteer fire crews from the Mullion had got there and were putting it out.
But then the wind got up. A howling 40km/hour blast of hot air whipped up the smoke and spread it right across the sky.
By the time I got home the world had gone an eerie orange and the smoke was all over us. So I started the bushfire drill, making sure that things on the verandah and in the carport were put away, filling the bath with water in case the power went off and we needed the extra water, getting Charlie to move the remnants of the woodpile, and helping load the fire pump onto the truck and filling it.
It was a huge relief to know we have gravity feed water from the big tank now, and that we’d just made sure the house gutters and downpipes were clean. I tried not to think about what could happen to all the trees we’d planted, not to mention the house. The wind was roaring and gusting, spattering us with bits of dry eucalypt bark.
I was still thirsty from a morning walking around the hills looking at future tree possibilities, so it was hard to think. I was glad I’d considered what I would need to do ahead of time, so I could just do it and not go into a dizzy spin.
Our neighbour Lea called and said “If the smoke’s thick over your house, you should leave. You’ve only got one way out. ” She thought the fire had crossed Mountain Creek Road (it had). That put it only four or five kilometres away, with a forty kilometre per hour wind.
I loaded the family photos into the metal filing cabinets and put my computer, some food, the dogs and Charles into the car. We all went up to see our neighbour Leonie, who was closer to the smoke. Anything that happened to us would happen to her first.
Leonie’s husband Andrew had been home sorting ewes and lambs for weaning, but he and his two assistants had taken off at the first sign of fire. I’d called Craig and he was on his way home to collect his brand new Rural Fire Service uniform and then head up. Charles was frustrated there was nothing he could do without the official fire fighting training.
So we went on watching the sky and answering phone calls.
The smoke cleared from overhead as the wind changed from Northwest to West. It could of course change back, but it put us a little less in the direct line.
Rumours abounded of stock losses (young steers from along the road, 150 wethers in the Gap Paddock where the fire jumped back and forth from hill to hill).
As the afternoon went on we found more information and photos on the Yass Tribune website than the Rural Fire Service. The RFS didn’t update their reports from 2.38 pm (when the fire was just crossing Mountain Creek Road, labelled “out of control” 225ha) until 8 pm, (fire “being controlled” 1214 hectares).
I called Craig and he was still waiting to be sent out. He eventually got onto a truck from the Fairlight team, from closer to Uriarra Crossing.
By six o’clock the smoke really appeared to be dying down, and I was getting antsy and wanting to see what was going on from a higher vantage point. But actually the fire was at its closest just then. Andrew Leonard was sent home to do whatever needed to be done to protect his place, such as moving animals out of the way. It’s tragic when animals are caught in a grass fire, because although they may survive in the short term, their mouths and feet are usually so burned that they have to be shot to avoid a lingering painful death. That’s a nasty post fire job.
I met Andrew on the road, his eyes red from smoke. He thought I was evacuating rather than sticky-beaking. On my way up the hill I saw a Marchmont truck heading down toward the Glenrock Road, lights flashing. It had probably come from fighting the other lightning strike on the Barton Highway.
Returning, I could see a firefighting plane laying down a plume of water just over the ridge. It looked so tiny going up against the huge billows of smoke.
The planes are impressive to watch because they leave a long stream rather than the more effective dump of water and fire retardant from the helicopters.
Charles and I went back to the Leonard’s and helped test pumps and set up hoses, but by then the smoke was really dissipating and after another hour we got the message that it was officially contained. That meant the edge was out, but the centre was still burning.
In the end, lots of grass was burned but no stock killed. We, along with many others, would have been toast, burned toast, if the fifteen crews, the water bombing choppers and planes, the RFS co-ordination, the early warnings, the sandwich and drink making crews and all the rest hadn’t been on the case.
It was great that we didn’t need our tree-watering fire pumps after all.
The cleanup went on until today, water bombing and hosing the remnants and burning embers.
I never did see any flames, just smoke.