Category Archives: bushfires [Australia]

Warrandyte – burning off in the rain

That pile of ash and charcoal is all that’s left of a huge pile of dead branches, windfall and prunings that I’ve been collecting all winter.

I know it doesn’t look like much now, but that pile was becoming a real danger so, it had to go. And what better time to burn it off than when everything’s nice and wet!

“But isn’t it too wet to burn?” you ask.

Nope. It rained quite heavily early this morning and at 7:00 am, everything was quite wet, including the outer layer of the pile. Inside, however, that pile was dry and ready to burn. I crumpled up a few sheets of scrap paper and shoved them underneath the pile. Then I put a couple of firelighters on top of the paper and set it alight. In an hour, the original pile and huge armfuls of very wet windfall were all gone.

I suspect most of you know where I’m going with this; branch and leaf litter burn extraordinarily well, so if you live in and around Warrandyte, clean up your property now, before everything dries out and the whole area turns into a tinderbox.

Okay, now I’m going to collapse and not move for a while. 🙂

cheers

Meeks

 

 

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Optus network and EmergencyAus – update

Just thought I’d let everyone know that I can now access EmergencyAus via my browser!

emergencyaus-on-pc

It’s in beta but the most important parts work just fine. You can find it at:

http://emergencyaus.info/map

No download required as it all runs from within the browser.

cheers,

Meeks

 

This morning’s post:

This is a bushfire danger post so if you’re not from Australia, or not interested, look away now.

Okay, my mobile phone carrier is Virgin. Virgin uses the Optusnet network. If the Optusnet network in a given area goes down, the Virgin mobile phones in that area become useless lumps of plastic and circuitry.

My mobile phone became a useless lump of plastic and circuitry this morning. Not just for a minute or two, but for over 2 hours.

What does this have to do with bushfires? EmergencyAus, that’s what.

The EmergencyAus app on my phone sends me notifications of ANY issues within a 5 km radius of my house in Nth Warrandyte. It is my early warning system. It is the one thing that has given me peace of mind since Black Saturday.

If you stayed to defend your house as I did on that horrible day, you’ll know that reliable information was next to impossible to find. I spent all day listening to ABC radio 774 [the emergency broadcaster] and haunting the CFA website. Some horrific reports did come in from people calling in to 774, but the reality was that no one knew what the hell was going on, including me.

It was the not-knowing that terrified me on Black Saturday, and it was the same sense of isolation that made me as nervous as a wet cat this morning. You see, EmergencyAus can’t work if there is no network connection. It relies on my mobile phone to warn me of danger. No phone, no warning. I do have a landline [thank goodness], but EmergencyAus is a mobile app.

According to the Virgin support person I spoke to, an Optus tower was experiencing an unexpected outage, and as it was the only tower I could link to [? how does that work anyway?] I’d just have to wait until it was repaired.

Waiting was not such a huge issue today because although there is a north wind, the temperature is still fairly low after a wintry night. But imagine if this had happened during a heatwave when temperatures reach 40 C plus? That one tower goes down and I’m…f…in trouble.

I suppose I should be grateful to get a wakeup call before we hit a code red day, but I’m not feeling much like Pollyanna today.

Not Happy, Jan 😦

Meeks

 


To the mothers of Yarra Warra Pre-school in #Warrandyte [1]

warrandyte mist at dawnLadies, I know you have small children, and I know you’re run off your feet. You never have a minute to yourself, and sometimes you can’t even go to the loo on your own.

Am I right? I know I am. Nevertheless, as a mother too, albeit a very old one, I ask that you have a look at the questions below:

  1. Do you live on a bush block – i.e. a block with a lot of native vegetation, including eucalyptus trees?
  2. Can you see dead fall [broken branches] in your garden?
  3. Has the wind blown eucalyptus leaves up against the house and fence?
  4. Does your partner work during the week – i.e. is your partner away from the house from Monday to Friday?
  5. Is your bushfire plan to leave?
  6. Have you ever tried to reach the bridge over the Yarra during peak hour traffic?

The more times you answered ‘yes’ to these six questions, the more this post relates to you.

Questions 1 – 3 relate to how bushfire prone your house and land may be.

Questions 4 – 6 relate to what you intend to do if a bushfire threatens. In a best case scenario, the bushfire strikes during the weekend when your partner is home. You all evacuate early and the traffic moves in an orderly fashion. The fire has been an inconvenience, but it never even got close to the house so after a couple of hours, life continues as normal.

But fires do not respect human schedules, so it is far more likely that a bushfire will threaten you on the five days of the week your partner is not at home. You still plan to leave with your children, but you get stuck in the bottleneck around the bridge, along with all the others planning to leave. What then?

Or in an even worse case scenario, what if you’re human like most people, and decide to ‘wait and see’ whether it’s worthwhile packing grumpy kids into the car along with even grumpier pets. By the time you do decide to leave, getting stuck in the bottleneck over the bridge may be a million times more dangerous than staying put.

But…you always planned on leaving so neither you nor your partner bothered reducing the fuel load around your house. Now you’re stuck. You can’t leave and you can’t stay. To my mind, this is the worst possible scenario and it happened, on Black Saturday.

I’m not trying to be a scaremonger, but I am trying to burst the ‘she’ll be right’ bubble. If you want to live in Warrandyte you must plan for the worst case scenario, not the best.

And that brings me back to questions 1 – 3. Even if you plan on leaving very early on every single high fire danger day over summer, you must make sure you have a fighting chance in case things go pear-shaped and you can’t leave.

In order to have that fighting chance, you must make time to:

  1. gather deadfall into heaps – in clearings, not under trees, and
  2. burn the piles off while the weather is cool, damp and NOT WINDY!

Yes, ladies, I’m using the word ‘you’ for one, very good reason – no matter how conscientious your partner may be, he is only going to be available on weekends. That’s 2 days out of 7. What’s the chance that the wind is not going to blow on the day he has free? This year? Less than 50/50.

I don’t know what’s happened to the weather this year but it seems to have been blowing a gale every second day. That, or it’s pouring with rain. Clear, calm days on which it’s safe to burn off have been rare, so it’s become vital that burning off happens whenever the weather allows. Sadly that may only be during the week…when your partner is at work.

What? You expect me to light fires with tiny children hanging around my feet? Are you crazy? Not possible!

Sadly, I’m not crazy, and it is necessary. It is also possible, but not without effort.

I don’t have a small child anymore, but at 63, I know exactly how tiring this job can be because I’m the Mama-Papa in our family. In your family, you may need to ask slightly older children to help Mummy pick up sticks and put them in lots of little piles. You may have to light those tiny piles while the kids are having a nap, or are at pre-school, or with Grandma. You may have to form groups with other pre-school Mums and help each other with child minding while the rest of you do the burning off.

However you do it, though, reducing the fuel load is a must because Warrandyte is a tinderbox waiting to burn. Most of the area is densely covered in Red Box and we are only allowed to clear trees in a ten metre radius around the house. To clear any further out, we have to apply to Nillumbik council for a permit and those permits are never granted.

Red Box are eucalypt trees, and like most gums, their leaves contain volatile oils that burn exceedingly well. The idea behind this evolutionary development is that the oils help the fire sweep through quickly, burning the branches and leaves but leaving the trunk intact. Once the fire is over, eucalypts can re-grow from the trunk, not just the roots. Great for the trees, not so great for us.

The following excerpt is taken from gardening advice developed for NSW but is appropriate for Victoria as well:

Plants in the Myrtaceae family, such as Eucalyptus, Melaleuca and Leptospermum, contain oil glands in the leaves and are more inclined to burn and to spread fire. Plants such as these should be well away from houses. Tall trees, at an appropriate distance from a house can make good barriers to ember attack. The key is to not plant a grove of the same species, but to have trees such as a gum tree or tea-tree in isolation with a well-cleared area below.

Here in Warrandyte, we don’t have the option of not planting ‘a grove of the same species’. For this reason, clearing the fuel load beneath the trees becomes vitally important. If we can stop a fire from getting up into the canopy, we have a fighting chance.

In the next article in this series, I’m going to assume that many women with pre-school children are as clueless about burning off [safely] as I was. I’ll explain about the best weather conditions in which to do domestic burning off, and I’ll detail how I do things.

cheers

Meeks

 


Fire season 2015, Warrandyte – it begins

The authorities have not yet declared fire season open for 2015, but the weather is thumbing its nose at our attempts to tame it with calendars and calculations.

ENSO status graph

We are in the grip of a strong El Nino and it is bringing unseasonal hot spells, dry spells and fire.

Looking out over my property, and Warrandyte in general, I see mostly green, but there is not as much of it as there was last year – i.e. the grass is not knee high and heading for Everest – and the alpacas are having no trouble keeping it manicured.

The downside of this is that I’ll have to give my four-footed lawnmowers some supplementary feed much sooner than I’d like. The upside is that there ‘may’ be less to burn once everything turns summer-brown.

One thing is for sure, we are having a heat-wave in the first week of October. The temperature is forecast to hit 35, which is not that bad, but it will be accompanied by strong north winds.Those winds are the real danger, plus the pattern of north wind turning to southwesterly as the cool change comes through. Any fires still going at the time of the wind change can easily get out of control.

I don’t really believe today will be a super bad day because the ground is still fairly moist. Nevertheless, we’ve already had one 20 minute power outage from a tree down which shows how strong the wind is. It’s really howling. I’m glad I did these jobs early this year:

  • Burning off. I did the worst of my burning off during the cold, damp days of the last two weeks. There’s still quite a bit to do, but the area around the house is clear.
  • I also had the area just outside my fire-fighting pumps concreted so I can sweep or blower-vac the leaves away.
  • The pumps themselves survived the flood I caused during winter and have been checked and topped up. They are ready to go.

fireseason 2015 1

Speaking of that flood, you might like to see the landscaping that was inspired by it:

fireseason 2015 2

Once I found where the agricultural pipe from the pump housing area came out, it seemed silly to have all that potential water go to waste so I dug a lateral channel with a shallow-ish pit up above the quince tree [top third of the picture]. The original channel I turned into a pretend creek bed.

Then I thought, why not extend the creek bed down into the orchard area?

The spindly looking trunks [mid picture] belong to the two feijoa trees. Now half of the ground beneath them is kept cool by the big river pebbles and the other half can be mulched with heaps of mushroom compost. And it looks rather pretty, imho. 😀

And just because I am paranoid, I dug two more pits and filled them with pebbles. Both are deep enough so that I can fill them with water if need be. The seepage will keep the ground moist and the trees happy.

Right. -cough- Fire season jobs still to be completed are :

  • Some mechanical mowing using my electric lawn mower. I only have a few smallish spots to do [where there are weeds that the alpacas can’t eat], but it’s still not something I look forward to. I’m obsessively careful with the electric cord attached to the lawnmower, but that necessary care does slow the job down just a tad.
  • Fixing of one fire-resistant shutter. The cable has become ‘stuck’ so I can’t lower it past the half-way point. Not great as the window it’s meant to protect faces north. Not being able to close the shutter completely also means my poor little office heats up quick smart [it faces north too]. Luckily a nice man is coming out from Eurotec on Thursday.
  • Last on my to-do-list will be a complete test run of all sections of the roof sprinklers.

After all that, the Daughter and I will be back to ‘practising’ our fire-plan. We both have to be competent at getting the pumps started and the sprinklers turned on otherwise what’s the point?

Well, that’s it for now, Warrandyte. If you haven’t already started your preparations for this year, I strongly suggest you get off your butt and do so.

cheers

Meeks

 


A [small] flood with big consequences

warrandyte mist at dawnWarrandyte is a very hilly area, and my house is near the crest of a hill so even heavy downpours simply flow away from us. See exhibit A to the left.

Thanks to my poor photography, the land in the photo looks flat, but it’s actually very steep. If you click on the photo you will see a much larger version in which you can just see the roof of the house down the bottom of my block. That should give you some idea of the actual lay of the land.

Unfortunately, even a well-placed block cannot compensate for owner stupidity [mine]. Explaining what I did wrong will require a few more pictures :

warrandyte pump housing

This first photo is of the area leading to my firefighting pumps. To protect them, I had a pump-house built. Nothing wrong with that. To further protect them I had a wall built in front of the pump-house with an earth berm on the other side [the idea is that fire will rush up the hill and be deflected over the pump-house]. Also not a bad idea, especially as I had an ‘agi’ pipe laid to carry away any water that might flow into the pump-house area.

So what went wrong?

Well, late last year I had this idea of laying flat paving type stones in front of the the pump-house. My reasoning was sound; every north wind deposited heaps of eucalyptus leaves and branches in front of the pump-house. This debris was not only a potential hazard during a fire but also a real pain to clear. [I’d originally covered the ground in a layer of big pebbles, and you can’t sweep pebbles].

Long story short, I thought the drainage in the area would not be affected if I simply placed paving stones on a thin bed of sand…

I was right, and I was wrong. Light showers drained away without any dramas, but as I discovered to my horror, two days of solid, pouring rain just collected in the pump-house area as if it were a very big bucket.

I don’t have any pictures as it was 2am and I was too busy bailing water with a bucket to remember my camera. To give you some idea though, I was wearing gumbies [knee high rubber boots] and the water reached above my ankles.

When bailing was not having an appreciable effect, I tried pulling up the paving stones in the pitch black… Needless to say I eventually gave up and went to bed.

Since that awful night I’ve pulled up the pavers and dug up most of the agi pipe to check if it was working. It was. See exhibit C below:

warrandyte earth berm end

[Note: agi pipe is agricultural pipe that has holes or slots cut into it. The idea is that water seeps in through the holes and then flows away through the pipe]

So what went wrong? The sand, that’s what. I’d used very fine sand and it basically just clogged up. Water did seep through but very slowly, and so when the flood happened, the water could not drain away fast enough.

Digging all this out has been a back-breaking job, and I still have not been game to test the pumps, but I think they’ll be okay. -fingers crossed behind back- Once I finish, I’m going to hire in someone to install a grate the full length of the agi pipe [in front of the pumps]. Then I’m going to get the rest of the area properly concreted. I shudder to think how much it will cost, but DIY got me into this fix in the first place so I’m not game to learn concreting as a hobby.

Anyone else with DIY horror stories? Please tell so I don’t feel quite so alone [and stupid]. 😦

Meeks

 


EmergencyAus – great tech support!

I recently wrote a post about a smartphone app called ‘EmergencyAus’. It was not a happy post because I was not getting all the available notifications about potential bushfires in my area.

[Note: one of the things I’ve always hated about summer/fire season in Warrandyte is the fear of not knowing when a fire is nearby. By the time ABC radio 774 broadcasts a warning, you’re already on the back foot. What the EmergencyAus app does is send SMS warnings to your smartphone whenever a fire starts anywhere in your ‘watch zone’, i.e. 5 km around my home. But in order to relax a bit, you have to trust that the alerts will get through to you.]

As well as ranting here, on my blog, I also sent off an email to the EmergencyAus tech support people.To be honest I did not expect tech support to do much – email support is very hard at the best of times.

Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I discovered that EmergencyAus tech support really do provide support. Not only did they finally sort out my problems, but they stuck with me through 28, yes TWENTY-EIGHT emails [I know because I just counted them]. That …is patience with a capital ‘P’!

With another hot day coming up, I’d like to say thank you to EmergencyAus for helping me get my peace of mind back. Thanks guys. 😀

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the problem seems to be an older version of Android teamed with Google apps that haven’t been updated since the year dot.

cheers

Meeks

 


SP Ausnet to Black Saturday to dollars

Around this time last year, I wrote a post about the houses lost to fire here in Warrandyte, and the possible role SP Ausnet had played in those losses.

marysville fire picAt the time, even I felt as if I was doing a bit of conspiracy theorizing. Today, however, I know I was spot on the money because it was just announced on the media that the third, Black Saturday compensation claim against SP Ausnet has been settled out of court. This particular compensation case referred to the township of Marysville [see photo to the left].

Apparently all three Black Saturday compensation cases concerned some kind of equipment failure. The equipment was/is owned by SP Ausnet, and the utilities company has denied all liability. BUT. Counting the three, separate compensation cases, the company has agreed to a total of $648 million dollars in out of court compensation payments.

At some point I expect to hear that the families involved in last year’s Warrandyte fire will also receive hush money from SP Ausnet.

To be honest, I consider that $648 million to be cheap. The survivors whose lives were smashed by the Black Saturday fires will receive approximately 60% compensation for their losses. 60%. Think about that. Where is the compensation for living the rest of your life with nightmares?

And what of the rest of us? If the worst bushfire in Victorian history was caused by equipment failure, and possible negligence, then what hope do we have that the same perfect storm of events will not happen again?

I’m not optimistic. Even people around Warrandyte have become complacent, and that is likely to get worse as the years go by. People forget, perhaps because it’s easier to live out here if you bury your head in the sand.

The only sign of optimism I can see is that the insurance companies that underwrite companies such as SP Ausnet will not be happy. They may demand an investment in safeguards that the victims themselves can never achieve.

I hope so, because with no legal liability recorded against them, SP Ausnet is under no legal obligation to lift its game. Think about that.

Meeks


Warrandyte swelters… and we all hold our breaths

Temperatures of 41 C [105.8 F] are forecast for today, with strong northwesterly winds pushing south before a cool change tonight.

What does all that mean for us? Very, very high fire danger, that’s what.

As always, it’s the northerly wind that turns an unpleasant day into a dangerous one. Add a dry summer to the mix, and the potential for lightning strikes, and suddenly a dangerous day can quickly become fatal.

Here, in Australia, we are told we are responsible for our own safety during bushfires. We are not forced to evacuate, which can be a good thing if, like me, you have systems in place to protect yourself if all else fails. Unfortunately, not many people are prepared to spend their hard earned cash on fire fighting equipment they may never use.

Those people often say they will leave if a bushfire threatens, but few have any idea of when they should leave. Most stay at home, monitoring the situation and doing a ‘wait and see’.

I can sympathize with that very human reaction. None of us want to leave unless we really have to. Where will we go? What will we do with the animals? The kids? Elderly parents? And beneath it all is something we all know but avoid facing – if we leave, will we have anything to come home to?

That human response is the elephant in the room, and the fatal flaw in the current bushfire strategies. It may give the authorities a legal ‘out’ should something go pear shaped, but it’s of little use to actual residents.

So in case you’re reading this, here are some facts :

The time to leave is either the night before a bad day, or early in the morning – i.e. before there is any danger.

Why? Because once a bushfire does threaten your area, being on the roads is the WORST place to be.

Why?

– Because smoke can make it almost impossible to see where you’re going,

– Because trees can fall across the road, trapping you in your car,

– Because other drivers will be panicking just as much as you, and they can run into you, leaving you both stuck with no shelter.

Or, if you live in a place like Warrandyte, you might find yourself in an almighty traffic jam as every man and his dog tries to cross the bridge over the Yarra at exactly the same time.

If you have ever tried to cross the bridge during peak hour, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. People caught in such a traffic jam would be …in a bad way if the fire came through over the top of them.

So if you are caught unprepared, you are more likely to survive in your house than in your car. In a house, you have a bigger ‘bubble’ around you. In a house, you have multiple points of exit if the house itself begins to burn. In a house, you at least have some chance of getting out in one piece.

But here is where human nature strikes again. Knowing something is not the same as feeling it. You may know that you are safer staying in your house, but will you be able to resist the urge to run? Especially when you know you’ve done nothing, absolutely nothing to make that house less fire prone?

Fear is pernicious, and few of us are immune to it. So if you know you’re not prepared, please don’t wait. Go now. The worst that can happen is that you’ll lose your house, or feel a bit silly when nothing happens. But at least you and the most precious things in your life will still be alive to start again.

stay safe and cool,

Meeks

 

 

 

 


App woes – EmergencyAus

emergencyausAbout six months ago, I installed an app on my phone called EmergencyAus. It’s supposed to provide an up-to-date list of every event, of any sort, that happens in Victoria.

More importantly, the app also allows me to set a 5 km watch zone around my house. In theory, if anything happens within that watch zone, an alert is sent to my phone.

Despite not being obsessed with ringtones, I set a special one, just for those alerts, and for a while there, I jumped every time I heard it go off. I’d grab my phone and feverishly tap the little red indicator to see what was happening.

But then an odd thing began to happen – I started to relax. I’d still check every warning about trees down, or accidents, or the odd fire, but I was no longer a mumbling mess. You see I was starting to trust that the app would give me that little bit of advanced warning no one got on Black Saturday.

The events of Black Saturday have dimmed in the consciousness of the general public, but for me, every summer since has been a repeat of the controlled terror I felt that day. Not because I’m terrified of the fire itself, but because I’m terrified of not knowing.

You see, that was the worst thing about Black Saturday for me, the not knowing. I sat here with the fire shutters down, eyes glued to the CFA website, with 774 blaring in the background, completely unaware that people were burning just up the road in St Andrews and Strathewen. I didn’t learn about those deaths until the next day. Only then did it become obvious that the authorities had not had a clue where the fire was, or where it was going. And because they did not know, no one received the kind of warning that might have saved lives.

The EmergencyAus app promised to provide the advanced warning we did not get on Black Saturday. And as I began to trust the app, I started to relax. I even began writing again because I could listen to my own music, instead of listening to cricket commentary on radio 774.

But that all ended this morning. The phone is still sitting on my desk, but I no longer trust it, or the EmergencyAus app.

Why? Because I checked the emergency.vic.gov.au website this morning, and discovered that a bushfire has been burning 4.7 km from my home since about 5 pm yesterday and I knew nothing about it.

The bushfire is in parkland to the west of me, and is listed as ‘under control’, but I’m still devastated. Why did I receive no warning? Did I simply miss it?

I checked back through all the notifications on my phone, and nope, no warning about that fire. Then I checked the app’s event list and yes, the fire did appear there. So why did I get no warning? And how many others have I missed?

I’ve emailed the company about this ‘problem’, but I don’t expect an answer any time soon. And I don’t expect to be reassured when I do receive one; computer glitches that mess with your work are one thing, glitches like this one are potentially life threatening.

I’ll update this post as soon as I receive a reply from the EmergencyAus company, but in the meantime, can anyone recommend another app that does the same thing, but better?

Oh, and it’s New Year’s Eve morning here in Australia so… Happy New Year in advance.

Meeks


Bushfires – Inside the Inferno [Episode 1]

I just watched the first episode of ‘Bushfires – Inside the Inferno’ on SBS, and the one question that baffles me is why isn’t it being shown on every TV channel?

The program is brilliant and I urge everyone to watch the next episode – SBS TV, 8.30 pm, Wednesday.

Night, night

Meeks


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