This article comes with a preamble. The below contains personal experiences during the Australian Bushfire Season. It is written in the hope that we can start a discussion regarding failures in practice that are getting worse with each year. Everyone is extremely grateful to the volunteers and individuals who risk their lives to fight dangerous fires. This is predominately about logistical practices and departmental responsibilities and will be followed by Part 2 which will go into depth about what should be included in a Royal Commission, if one is launched.
I was sitting at the desk, about to go on air at the SkyNews studios, when I looked across and saw the news headlines playing before the broadcast. The newsreader had cut to shots of the bushfires raging across the Mid North Coast – where I live…
It was late October 2019 and things had been a bit dicey up our way for a few weeks. There were two large fires burning in a remote mountain range – one started by a lightning strike that was left to burn unattended and the other, the product of a concerted effort of three teenagers joy-lighting up and down the highway. These fires were chasing each other, driven by wind that changed direction almost every day, blowing the fires around like some incendiary crop circle.
The police have a sort of ‘catch and release’ programme going with fire-lighting youth that helps fuel a hostile public reaction to frequent arson. Everyone who lives near the bush knows full well how prevalent and under reported arson actually is. Every single time a reporter comes onto the screen to drum up a bit of tension for ‘catastrophic world ending doomsday fire conditions’ the rest of us open the ‘Fires Near Me’ app and wait for spot fires to randomly start along highways, roads and park tracks. Most of these are quickly put out. I doubt any of them are correctly logged as attempted arson.
When social media convinced mainstream media to run a ‘no such thing as arson’ line, people were rightly furious at such blatant disregard for reality. Such was the digital peer-pressure that even the police tried to backtrack and retract their own findings. It was a bizarre display of total spinelessness from our public institutions and did absolutely nothing to instill faith in their accuracy. Why should we believe them about anything if twenty-four hours in the throes of a Twitter storm can convince them to deny reality?
Anyway, this pre-apocalyptic bushfire show appeared to be in a holding pattern when we left to go to Sydney, but over the course of that day, those fires got caught up in a Westerly and spread down the flanks of the ranges, sprawling out into the surrounding farmland that doesn’t normally burn. These were joined by new fires which mysteriously sprang up along the highway, culminating in a monster blaze that, at the time, was thought to have annihilated a housing community and service station area.
Ash, cremated leaves and pieces of bark were raining down over our property while our workers were finishing up for the day, which was many miles away from the front. They were being sucked up into a vortex created by intense heat – instantly cooled by the altitude – and then left to rain down over vast areas. Images of the nearby town were emerging of an orange, Mars-like sky deepening to blood red as the afternoon wore on. Even the ocean had shifted into a hostile veneer of steel, driven into a swell by the sudden wind.
Apocalyptic? Yeah. A little. The smoke was so thick the world transformed into an impenetrable, choking blur with black, dry rain falling in the form of Eucalyptus leaves. When the sun managed to cut through, it was an angry, brutal red that spied over the valley.
Unprecedented? Ah – no…
It was only two years ago that the other side of the bush was accidentally lit by crabbers and burst into flames, creating a different version of the ‘end times’. The difference being, no one was trying to get a bit of political traction on a Climate Change narrative, so our week of Doomsday never made it to the national papers. On that occasion there was a fair bit of fury from residents when a relatively safely burning fire marauding up and down the coast away from human settlement was turned into a catastrophe by seriously ill-advised ‘back-burns’. Despite residents lining the road, screeching at the RFS not to set the bush alight in these conditions, the RFS proceeded to do so – lighting many kilometres along the road right next to private property.
This was a disaster. We all knew (from lived experience) that fires in the park rarely crossed the swamp. Lighting containment lines on the road side with an Easterly wind almost cost everyone their homes and it did damage thousands of dollars’ worth of crops and fencing. Worse, the back-burn was lit then abandoned leaving residents to police the fire themselves with small water tanks, hoses and barn shovels.
Is some of the animosity beginning to make sense? We ended up with a koala in our laundry, seeking shelter from the National Park until the rains came.
There was nothing remarkable about the conditions during the October firestorm or, if you’re a Climate Change fruitloop, the ‘weather’. For the onset of Summer, it was remarkably cool. In fact, the nights were actually cold. The winds were average and if not for the stain of smoke on the horizon, it would have been listed as ‘flawless holiday beach weather’. The exception comes with the state of the National Parks themselves. In 2018, the area experienced several floods followed by an extended period of drought. The combination caused a huge amount of thick, dry undergrowth to build up. One season of this would be alright but for the last thirty odd years, there’s been a lock on the National Park gate. The bush was ‘re-classified’ by a team of ‘experts’ who then used this to reduce required hazard reduction burns. This is a bit of a nifty trick to ‘meet’ hazard reduction quotas by effectively re-defining the bush based on pencil-pushing-bubble-logic. Combined with burn windows being changed from Winter to late Spring, almost nothing gets done.
It was all a strange position to take considering our particular patch of bush used to be burned near on every year – at most, every five years for the last two centuries. Council policy to cordon off the park like an environmental crime scene all but wiped out our famous wildflowers which used to draw tourists from all over the country to photograph stunning sandy flats of colour. Now, if you go looking for the endless fields of Christmas Bells, all you’ll find is eight feet high Banksia, brown grass and a few sad looking, strangled outbursts of colour trying to peak out. Ironically, they survive mostly on the private wildflower farms who – yes – burn off every year to recreate the conditions the plants evolved for.
National Park mismanagement is a problem that other Australians have written many inches of commentary on. I have a few different bones to pick with the handling of this bushfire season.
After my little TV stint finished, the plan was to have dinner, stay the night and drive home early in the morning to be back in time to feed the cattle breakfast. Halfway through dinner it became obvious that the entire Mid North Coast was turning into the surface of the sun. Pretty much everything from Coffs Harbour to Newcastle had been set alight with blazes moving East near Taree threatening to cut off the freeway North. Local fires had also sprung up and cut off our workers from the property meaning that our farm was suddenly unattended. We had animals that needed us to manually pump water and feed them (still a drought!!!), a terrified puppy and my three baby WillyWagTail chicks that were close to fledging. There wasn’t really a choice – we had to get home before the roads were closed, so we left immediately, forfeiting the hotel cost.
The radio was typical doom and gloom but for the first few hours, there was nothing remarkable about the drive. There was a bit of smoke around, but most of the fires in the Southern part of the state were off to the left, deep in the mountains or to the right along the coastal fringes. At the Central Coast, signs started popping up advising of road closures but no further information could be found and the six lane freeway was still running. When night fell, there were only a couple of red glows on the horizon. It was deceptive. As we drove in and out of reception (yes, despite the promises of the government, there is still next to no reception on the main freeway North), we reloaded the Rural Fire Brigade (RFS) app that shows the progress of fires and found none of them on the road. We were also still travelling with a steady stream of traffic, which is usually a positive sign.
As we approached the small rural town of Nabiac, things started to turn sinister. It rained. Not normal rain – macabre droplets hit the windscreen and smeared into a greasy film spread by the wipers. This is the sort of hellish thing that precipitates in front of a blaze when the moisture from the incinerated forest condenses into rain and mixes with natural Eucalyptus oil. Struggling to see through it, we noticed lines of trucks parked like a swarm around the petrol stations – abandoned. There was no one on the street and everything was eerily quiet except for the scratchy broadcast of an almost out of range radio.
There was a snap. At the exact same time, we lost the radio, our phone reception and all of the fog lights that had been triggered by the smoke laying over the road. We guessed what had happened. There was a tower not far off to the left on a mountain top that had been devoured by the fire. It was almost certainly a twisted wreck of glowing metal. The convoy of cars on the highway kept driving – this time, blind.
As we exited town, we saw our side of the road lined with semi-trailers. Not a few dozen. Hundreds. Parked end-to-end with their drivers settling in for the night. If I’m honest, this is not a brilliant sign… The dangerous fire threatening the road at Taree was now within shouting distance and yet there was barely a smudge of red interfering with the pitch sky. Something else we noticed: There was no longer any Southbound traffic.
By this point, we’re pretty sure we’re going to run into some form of temporary road block while the fire crosses the freeway. In Australia, this is not unusual and it is not cause enough to turn around and go home. There is a special responsibility to keep Australia’s major road arteries open so usually when a fire creates havoc, the disruption is short-lived – a few hours at most while the fires are quashed and the front moves on.
We’re still driving past a line of trucks when we start noticing cars parked haphazardly along the nature strip on our right. That’s an even worse sign. We are now a narrow snake of tail lights processing past people who know something that we don’t. Out on the coast to our right, there was a red glow making itself known above the shadows of the forest. Instead of having our questions answered, we are faced with something a driver on a major freeway during an emergency should never run into – two inept, abrupt members of the RFS standing in front of a firetruck they’ve parked across the freeway. That part – the blocking off of the road – is fair enough, but what they were doing was blindly hand-waving the entire freeway into the small coastal town of Forster – the source of the ominous red glow. This is a town whose only route North was already cut off by fire and the remaining road out, the road we were being told to go down, about to face the same fate.
It wasn’t a detour; it was a death trap. And where were the Roads and Traffic Authority? Not there. Not anywhere. Directing traffic on a freeway should not be the task of RFS members.
We were one of the few cars that stopped next to these two and questioned them about why we were being directed into Forster. It took several goes to get them to reply with an unsatisfactory answer that amounted to, ‘because that’s what we’re doing’. We then asked how long they expected the freeway to be closed. They were annoyed by this. I mean, how dare a motorist trying to get back to their property under threat of fire ask how long the delay was? We were informed it would be, ‘a few hours’ but – upon further prompting we managed to get solid confirmation that yes, it would open again.
Well, that explained why there were hundreds of people parked by the side of the road waiting it out. We came to the same conclusion as everyone else and drove back to join them. It’s about ten-thirty. Under normal conditions, there’d be a few more hours to go in our four-hour trip. So far, this is annoying, not dire.
After the demise of the communication tower earlier, there was no radio and no internet. We opened the windows (only a little – Australia remember, there are still plenty of things willing to sneak in and commit murder) and turned off the car to save fuel. Strangely, there was almost no smoke in the air. It took a while but a few hours later, we noticed a new red glow building above the shadow of scrub along the left hand side of the road where all the trucks were parked. It was now on both sides of us and in front. A hot wind sprung up from that way. Dry leaves, exhausted from the drought, were plucked by the breeze and left to tumble threateningly across the cars.
Before we parked, we did a quick risk assessment. The most important thing to remember in a fire is, ‘can I get out in a hurry?’ We deliberately parked next to the turning bay where we could drive across a bit of grass and straight back onto the Southbound lane. This luxury was not shared by the hundreds – perhaps thousands of other drivers who would have found themselves trapped between the bush on their left, and a nature strip on their right. It was only later that we found out how dangerous this situation actually was and how close the trio of fires had come during the night.
Completely unaware of the properties burning down nearby, we slept on the road for the night. At no point did anyone from the emergency services, the RTA or the RFS drive down to offer information about what was going on. That should never happen in a first world country. If there is going to be a Royal Commission, it should be into situations like this that could have easily turned into a major loss of life.
When dawn finally faded in and we levered ourselves from bone-breakingly-awful sleeping positions, we noticed the blokes in front of us raiding the boot of the car they were towing for an air compressor so they could pump up the flat tyre of the car they were driving. (I’m guessing they had more problems than us). With my hair still fastened up with half a kilo of bobby pins and hilarious raccoon eyes from my TV make-up, I leaned out the window and asked groggily if they had any idea what was going on.
Turns out, they did.
At around 3am during the night, half the trucks had pulled out of their spots, crossed the nature strip and headed South. Enough to arouse suspicion but not to confirm that all hope was lost. Still – we’d absently thought about what they were up to. Well, these boys had heard from one of the truckies that the road ahead of us wasn’t going to open for – wait for it – days. (They were right, too). This little fact had been known from the very start as there were melted semi-trailers fused to the tarmac.
Needless to say, pretty much everyone was furious about being left by the side of the road all night under false pretences. The truckies weren’t going home – they were headed toward a large roundabout where it was possible to cross the Blue Mountains and travel up the Western side of the ranges through Armidale and then find another way to cross back.
Okay so I’ll admit it wasn’t the most appetising plan. For those who don’t know, Australia is massive. Irritatingly huge. It was a good half an hour back to the turn off, several hours across and then another – gosh – hour and half until the next mountain crossing – that’s two hours – and then after all that you had to drive back down the highway two hours toward home. With roads closing off in all directions from a bewildering number of fires, we gritted our teeth and set off on an unwelcome eight hours.
At the roundabout, we came in range of a tower and were rewarded with internet. I immediately opened the app and saw just how absolutely screwed we were. Many fires had been lit over night while the existing ones had done a good job of fanning out into impassable fronts. Worse still, all the roads across the mountains were in immediate danger of being overrun by fire. And so began the alarming game of ‘tag’ with bushfires.
The first crossing we knew we’d make. We could see the fires but they were hours from the main road and well attended in farm land, rather than bush. Of greatest concern was the final path across the mountain which we already knew by reputation was narrow, dangerous and had enormous beasts of fire approaching from both sides. This meant that it didn’t matter which way the wind turned throughout the day, we were going to be within minutes of disaster.
I might add that we were absolutely exhausted by this point and setting out on a day’s drive was dangerous in and of itself. As we drove up the highway, spot fires were starting out of nowhere right along the road in what looked like a pretty good attempt to exasperate the drama. Arsonists like attention. The more chaos that unfolds during the fire, the more gratification they feel. Cutting off roads and expanding existing fires is pretty typical behaviour and it was certainly happening on this occasion.
With none of the apps being particularly up to date, I used a combination of the FiresNearMe, LiveTraffic and GoogleMaps (which ended up being the most accurate) to guess when particular fire fronts were crossing different roads. If you think that sounds mad, it was, but we had no choice. The thing with these fires is that there was no useful news coverage. What we got instead was wall-to-wall broadcasters standing next to a fire team back-burning or a chopper taking half a second of footage which is of absolutely no use whatsoever to an active emergency situation. The ABC like to use the ‘vital local rural radio’ line as an excuse for their existence well bollocks to you lot of useless time wasters. The information available to people on the ground was best classed as hearsay, guesswork, experience and dumb luck.
I would like to add that we were just one of a convoy of people from the Mid North Coast desperately trying to make it home before being cut-off from our properties, potentially for days. Some were clearly from as far North as Queensland.
By the time we approached the turnoff to the crossing that travelled through Bellingen, we’d been watching the terrifying crowns of smoke and ash rising up from both fires. They were so large that their smoke looked more like a pair of Summer thunderstorms rumbling in the distance. You could hear them accompanied by the constant muffle of emergency sirens racing through the valleys. The electric sign sitting at the entrance to the road advised us that the pass across the mountain was closed. This looked like ‘fake news’ because there were a few cars exiting that same road next to us. Considering it was a one-way ride, this traffic had either been turned back or more likely, the sign was a bit pessimistic.
Helpfully, the FiresNearMe app hadn’t been updated for several hours and LiveTraffic didn’t really have an opinion on country roads, so we took a risk.
A third of the way into this wager we came across a recently burned patch of road that wasn’t even listed on the map. With both sides smouldering, we climbed up the snaking hairpin turns until altitude and a snap of clear scrub gave us a view of both fires. The one on our right was the closest. It was racing along behind an open-cut mine with a light breeze, white smoke and a single helicopter dodging in and out of the fray. If nothing went horribly wrong, we’d get around that with half an hour to spare however it would certainly trap us on this road meaning that we had to think very seriously about whether we could make it through the second fire encroaching up ahead on our left.
This one was a true demon of a thing. It filled the horizon as far as you could see in both directions. According to the app, it was actually two fires that had recently merged on a ridge with flanks on its East and West lounging over the entire Great Dividing Range where it had closed off the freeway above Coffs Harbour. Its back end was all the way up in Queensland threatening the last road across unless you wanted to end up in Brisbane.
This thing was roaring along, clambering up over farmland and dense forest with pitch black clouds that dwarfed the landscape. There was half a day before its body hit our road, but there were fingers of advance fire fronts started by embers that were far closer than we were comfortable with. None of this was helped by a dude who lit the bush behind his house to protect his drug crop. I mean – come on, humans…
My calculations were spot on. The fire crossed the road safely behind us. I watched it go ‘red’ on the map and disappointed cars driving towards us attempt to do million-point U-turns on narrow, mountainous landscape. Now travelling high up along the ridges, we had a great view of our nemesis. With every town we drove through, a flicker of relief passed which was tempered immediately when I widened the RFS app map to include the fires burning at our home. Last updated? Seven hours ago.
This drive through the countryside was surreal. The farms surrounding us were mostly hobby-sized with 70s-themed log cabins perched in the hills and a mixture of cows, sheep and goats wandering over the near-vertical terrain wondering why there was so much traffic. They were oblivious to the obvious disaster around them and it was impossible not to worry about their fate.
The lack of smoke at road level added to the bizarre nature of our trip. It wasn’t until we neared the end and happened upon the outskirts of Bellingen that things started to turn. There was definitely smoke here. The town was full with everyone taking stock of the situation in the gorgeous historic tea-shops and bars. For a while, there was a good chance that the whole place was about to be wiped off the map but there wasn’t really much anyone could do about it. The town was famous for its violent floods and deep river valley but after a year of drought, it was a dangerous mess of long brown grass and houses built, pressed up into the forest occupying indefensible perches. We continued through, keenly aware of a second fire on the highway that was getting a bit close.
It was such a relief to turn back onto a straight, multi-laned freeway but now it wasn’t only fire that chased us, it was exhaustion. Staying awake was a constant battle made worse by thick orange smoke laying all over the road. We couldn’t see these fires but we knew they were edging down onto the road threatening to thwart our plans at the last moment. There were scary stories of loss creeping out of the internet but we were focused on getting home to defend our property. Our workers were not only cut off from our property but now defending their own.
Spoiler alert, we made it home. Our part of the world was drowned in a blanket that captured all the smoke from the ranges in a pocket of air between the coast and the mountain range – something that got much worse as the days dragged on and the wind vanished. We couldn’t see the two fires bearing down on us but we knew they were there somewhere. It was now about nine hours since the app had been updated so I went back to LiveTraffic to see if the road near it was closed. That was about the only way to see which direction the fire was moving.
After reuniting with a petrified puppy – found my baby birds graduated from flight school without me – and looked after the cattle, we wandered around our brown lawn inspecting the horrifying amount of burnt debris, amazed that it hadn’t set anything alight.
Our normal four-hour trip home took nineteen hours. We could have easily halved that and cleared the fires had sensible information been available in a timely fashion. If we hadn’t taken the risk and tried to get through, we’d have been stuck for the best part of a week.
The ‘Fires Near Me’ app is a big problem. In theory, it is a great idea but in its current state it provides just enough information to look legit but not enough to aid people facing a bushfire. For those unfamiliar with the app, it basically overlays active bushfires onto google maps. Clicking on a fire provides you with information. Sounds great – and it should be. Problem is, there’s a very narrow band of information you want to know about a fire if you’re going to go into battle.
- Map of the fire. Tick, they got this one.
- Active fire front marked. This one is super important when a fire is a million acres in size and several weeks old. Not included.
- Direction and rough speed of travel. The most important piece of information which is rarely, if ever detailed. Sometimes it shows up on an emergency warning listed fire but that is far too late. All fires need this information so people can make decisions about stock, evacuations and fire plans.
- Update rate. None of the above has a value whatsoever if it is not being refreshed within the hour. Fires near cities are updated frequently, rural fires are often left for a day or when people phone in with complaints.
What I cannot understand is that our taxes pay for an eyewateringly large force of public servants, most of them familiar with basic tasks like data entry. Why aren’t these people assigned a fire and given the job of making contact with a rep from that fire, asking a couple of quick questions, then posting the info up online? Whoever is doing the task now is clearly understaffed. Before someone chimes in with a ‘qualification’ argument, spare me. Asking basic questions and posting the answers is something an intern can do.
As for us, we were extremely lucky. After a dramatic return home, we spent the best part of three weeks smothered in smoke rather than flames. It was wafting through the house and choking our poor cows. When we went into town, the smoke had closed most businesses except Coles – who obviously didn’t mind the visible layers of smoke laying in their isles like mist out of a creepy horror film. Meanwhile, the gym had a sign taped to the door reading, ‘GYM OPEN! NO EXCUSES, YOU LAZY BASTARDS!!!’
I went to gym.
We forked out for another diesel generator to power the firefighting equipment and then got on the phone and started begging the water carrier to deliver a load of water urgently – because, you know, drought. We were completely out with nothing for our stock, ourselves or a potential fire. We were not alone with this problem, with water carriers rostering deliveries with waiting lists. A large amount of available water was being used by the RFS to fight fires so those of us still in drought were competing with a government agency for a vital resource.
Scott Morrison, I don’t want to hear any rubbish about not allowing the army to assist with water deliveries when there are entire communities waiting for water. This is why the comments on your interview regarding water deliveries went down like lead. If this sort of thing was happening in Indonesia, you’d have sent out an immediate aid convoy with a UN virtue sticker. As for Labor? Don’t even get me started on you lot.
Push really came to shove when the RFS released a scare-mongering map showing the entire coast, from the mountains to the ocean, predicted as being ‘wiped out’ by the end of the next day with a big, red mark. This did not seem accurate based on our experience with bushfires in the area and the behaviour of our two fires up until this point. Indeed, whoever drafted the map seemed to have taken a generalised fire spread for all fires.
This alarmist memo was followed by an RFS truck driving up our road informing whomever managed to come out to the gate in time to hear him, that there was no help coming for our valley and that we should all evacuate immediately. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. The valley set about preparing itself. Neighbours got in touch with each other. Trucks, caravans and boats were moved to a large, defensible paddock. Pumps were set up and we packed our cars ready to go if we had to. After that, everyone did the most Australian thing possible – sat on the balcony and opened a few bottles of red.
Our fires did exactly what everyone in the valley thought they would do. Meanwhile, my cousins up in the mountains had been told that their town was a lost cause – let alone their properties scattered through the ridge. A team of young men, equipment and a shit load of determination went up through the overgrown fire trails and fought the fire back, saving every single property.
The simple truth is, from start to finish – there is a problem with information, accuracy and an indulgence in widespread melodrama when what people actually need is calm, considered, accurate data. That way, when someone says that there’s an emergency warning, it can be believed and taken seriously.
Of course, to point any of this out makes you a ‘Climate Change Murdoch Media Demon Bogan Illiterate Hack’ or whatever hashtag environmentalists are trying to turn into a half-arsed pun these days. Alternatively, genuine criticism of unsafe practices risks Australians being labelled as ungrateful. It is the last great taboo in this country, but if we do not talk about what went wrong or what needs to be improved, these logistical near misses will turn into lost lives.
Rural communities actually want the same thing inner-city gluestickers want – to look after the bush. The only difference is that one gets their management plan from a pack of global socialists trying to flog share portfolios while the other group live in amongst the action.
Now, we need to talk about the Royal Commission… (part 2 coming soon)