Whole tree burning with flames at baseAs I wandered outside on my way to bed a few nights ago, I noticed a speck of red light on a hilltop.

A star?  I’ve been tricked before by how bright they can be in the bush.  A red star?  Venus?  Wrong direction. Definitely not a car tail-light, on the top of a rocky ridge.

As I dithered, the single speck became two, one above the other.  Definitely a fire, probably caused by the lightning storm that played around us all evening, making the tv signal jump and flicker.  Still uncertain, I consulted the only other person awake at that time, my brother Andrew.  He at least has had some experience with fire fighting.coals at foot of burning tree

“Definitely a fire.  Definitely too wet to do any damage.”  The rain was still pouring down.  “Go to bed and look at it in the morning.”

Okay, useless consultation over.  That ridge is at the back of my Box  Gum woodland planting area, full of long summer grass and baby trees.  No way was I going to leave it until morning.  Although the ground was wet now, a few hours of wind would dry it off to a flammable state.  We had a similar lightning struck tree three years ago that smoldered for two days, then took off, burning about forty hectares before it was put out, needing several trucks and firefighters.

long grass young trees weed in box gum planting
Flammable long dry grass and young trees (taken when we were removing weeds)

I shook Craig.  No result.  I called our neighbour Andrew and he was instantly awake and taking action.  “Yep.  I’ll go and have a look.  You stay by the phone.”

I finally managed to wake Craig and he decided to go and have a look as well, tossing a couple of shovels in the back of the truck after hunting futilely for the fire rake, which was probably left out in a paddock weeks ago.  At the last moment I decided I couldn’t bear not knowing if it was one of the few live trees or in my planting area, so I hammered on the door and got Craig to take me.  So much for waiting by the phone.

Flaming inner coreBecause of the rain, the tracks that we had worked on in 2014 were slick with mud.  The rain had stopped, however.  I was aware that I was really sightseeing, and not only that, I hadn’t stopped to put my shoes on.  Let alone fire boots.

Up the top, having confirmed that, yes, it was indeed a dead tree on fire and throwing sparks into the wind, Andrew had called our local fire captain Steve, who was bringing a Mullion brigade tanker to put it out.  He also called Frank who decided to bring another tanker from the Jeir brigade on the Adnamira side of the river.  Except he couldn’t find the key to the fire shed.

“If he doesn’t find it, there’ll be a lock-sized hole in the door pretty soon.”  said Andrew.
Meanwhile the fire was raging unstoppably up the hollow inside of the old yellow box tree.  The rain had stopped and the wind was fanning it to a frenzy.  The hollow trunk was one I’d noticed looking like a Roman column at the very highest point of the hill.

slope to lightning tree
View to top of hill in 2014

It has been dead since at least 1980, when most of the other trees along that box gum ridge were still alive.

Esdale  Ridgeline 1980 edited
Graham Harman with baby Kate 1980-81, and lots more big trees, living and dead.

It was frustrating waiting around unable to do much.  I realized that everything I knew about fire fighting concerned grass fires.  Putting out a tree requires a lot of water and more specialized equipment than a shovel. I couldn’t even kick the few weedy Bathurst Burr plants out of the ground because of my bare feet.  The trucks eventually appeared and we watched their headlights approaching, with Frank and the Jeir truck in front,  then disappearing around the back of a knoll.

Mullion truck arrival 1

Then the headlights stopped. We heard revving.  They stopped again.  The muddy track was obviously making things difficult.

Mullion truck arrival 2“Can you hear the swearing yet?”  asked Andrew with interest.  “If Frank’s stuck it must be pretty bad.”  He went closer to see what was going on while I sat on a rock trying to think of similes for “useless”  – starting with ” as tits on a bull” and failing to think of any others.  Later I remembered “useless as a chocolate teapot”  which I rather like.  After some time the Mullion truck appeared, having been guided around the Jeir truck among the grass and rocks,  but as it got to the last pinch, it also began to slip and slide away to the side.  Steve backed it up and decided to take it directly up the unbroken grass, with Craig and Frank guiding it between the big boulders.  One large rock had to be heaved out of the way.  Then Steve said “That’ll do.  Close enough, ” and went to unroll the heavy fire hose.  “Happy Australia Day” he said cheerfully as the water finally reached the fire.

Hosing the tree 1Then followed an hour with chains trying to pull the flaming top of the tree off so that Frank could hose more water and fire retardant foam down inside it.  “Foam’s really good on burning wood”  Steve explained.  Roman candle top with sparksFrank hosed the tree down as much as he could, then drove Andrew’s ute right up beside it (“What about my tyres?”  asked Andrew), climbed up on the side of the sheep crate and wrapped his arms as far as he could around the burning trunk to attach the chains.  The yellow box tilted and swayed, the ute dug holes in the damp ground, but the deep ancient roots kept the tree upright until the chains broke.  And were joined up again.  And broke again.  And again.

“Okay, lets just hose one more time from here.”  Frank managed to pour more water and foam into the hollow core at the top from his perch on the back of the ute.   “Then we’ll drop it with the chainsaw.”

But Steve’s chainsaw wouldn’t start.  Andrew’s had a slack chain and needed sharpening, but the file was missing from the chainsaw kit.  Frank managed to cut the first wedge from the direction he wanted the tree to drop, then began higher up on the back side.  Frustrated with the blunt chainsaw, he checked Steve’s again and found it only needed fuel.  Craig had gone home to get ours (why didn’t we bring it in the first place?), but when Steve’s started working, I told him to leave it in the car rather than carry it up the hill.

Finally we needed wedges, and Andrew had to go and fetch some from his house.  In the meantime Frank kept going at the trunk, using one axe as a wedge and slamming the back of the other to drive it further into the tree.  “These old yellow box are really solid”  Frank commented, between blows.

Frank with axe

After a great deal of whacking, and with the help of the wedges, the whole trunk came down and could be broken open and hosed out.  Then Frank took to the inside of the stump, energetically digging out the coals to find the hidden pockets of fire.  “Did you bring the jacket potatoes, Fiona?” he asked as the heap of warm charcoal grew.

We still weren’t done, as it got close to three am.  There were pockets of fire around the base of the stump, where cracks ran down from the main core.  Frank cut an access hole for each one and hosed them out.  Finally all the red glow was completely gone and we could go home.

I reminded myself that next time I see a flaming tree, I’ll bring the right supplies:  a chainsaw and kit and fuel, crowbars, wedges, really strong chains, axes.  Oh, and boots.

Tree next day





Add yours

  1. Hello,
    As the paddocks surrounding and beyond were quite wet due to the rain, why did you feel it necessary to go to such lengths to put the fire out and fell the tree ? Was there a significant risk in letting it burn itself out? Just curious (I don’t live on the land so am ignorant about these things). Thanks. Megan


    1. Hi Megan, yes, it does seems strange to fight so hard against a fire in wet weather, but fires can go from boringly safe one minute to wildly out of control the next. The thing is the hollow trunk, like the firework roman candle, shoots sparks out that travel for fifty metres or more. Our sheep farming neighbours really don’t like to lose their pasture to fire. Even less do they like losing their sheep, who can get penned against the fences if no-one’s watching and cutting the fences to let them escape. If the sheep’s feet and faces are burned, even though their bodies are protected by wool, they don’t recover and have to be shot, which is a horrible job they have to do afterwards. Plus, what was a small contained (although hard to put out) fire in a log one day, could be a raging inferno taking off across inaccessible rocky hills the next as the wind dries out the grass. That’s happened pretty often. These guys have fought a lot of fires in this area, and they know what they’re going to do, which gully a bushfire will incinerate and where it will jump. They were really happy I saw it. I can’t imagine how bad it must have been in 2003 when there were hundreds of such “roman candles” and terrible heat. They’re really impressive guys to watch.


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