Southern Tasmania Bushfires – more lessons learned

I like to think my family and I are pretty well prepared. We try to produce as much of our own food as possible, we have supplies, we have skills that are useful.  Yet all this can be rendered useless without useful and current information.  I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news lately, mostly due to the rubbish they keep broadcasting and my feeling that it was a waste of my time to watch.  It was when I was contacted by a friend who advised me that there was a significant risk of bushfire in my region that I realised there was an issue.

 

Of course, there were clues; there was the smell of smoke in the air… it had be lingering for many days due to fires further into the interior of Tasmania.  We had been checking the Fire Tas website every day or so, just so we were abreast of any issues.  When I received the news of the fire danger, we leapt onto the Fire Tas site, to verify the location of the fire and the areas which were currently under threat.  It appeared that the fire was moving across towards the east, endangering a town called Geeveston.  The winds seemed to be pushing the wind to the river, which could potentially block the highway.

The highway north was our main route to civilisation, so with a high chance it would be unusable, we made plans that we would escape to the south if a getaway was required.  There is very little to the south of my home… some camping grounds, some lovely scenery, and then a long stretch of water till you reach Antarctica.  With this we had to make some amendments to our plans.

We have had our bug out bags prepared for some time.  If we needed to go immediately, we could have left, yet as there was no immediate need to evacuate we had plenty of time to organise.  We all threw a few extra clothes into each bag, as it seemed that our bug out plan would most likely entail camping until we could return home.  As we would be camping, I also included tents, sleeping bags, some cases of water, food and other items (such as a gas stove and cooking equipment) that would allow us to rough it till things improved.

 
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-28/judbury-residents-door-knocked-over-fire-danger/10754640

Then came all the things the kids decided which they couldn’t live without… we obviously have home and contents insurance, yet my kids needed to put their Playstations and Xboxes, etc. into bags… they were worried about loosing save game files.   Kitty and I agreed with this inclusion, as life would be easier if they had their devices.

With all the items we needed packed away we needed to secure them.  We decided that we should pack the majority of our bags in to our small car, in which Kitty and our daughter would ride.  Our cat would be in the little car too.  Our two sons and I would be in our large van, which would hold a few extra bags and our dogs.

With all the packing taken care of it was now a waiting game.  Kitty and I are used to this… we have been through a few bushfires so we are content to wait.  Our children on the other hand were restless.  The kids had enough information to be worried, yet insufficient experience to know how to deal with the situation.  To rectify this, Kitty and I had to show them evidence from the Tas Fire website that we were safe, that we didn’t have to evacuate yet.  This was possibly they hardest part, dealing with children who wanted to leave.

“The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl.” – Dave Barry

Bushfire season… we are not yet into Summer and we have just experienced our first threat.  Thursday was a day no different to many others, it was forecast to be a warm, possibly hot day.  There were warnings that extreme wind could fan any possible fires, causing a fire ban to be in effect for the state of Tasmania.  I came to work, as I usually do, and kept myself busy.  Around 12:45 in the afternoon, Kitty emailed me, telling me that there was a reported fire that was out of control on the road between Hobart and our home.  The route to my home has several sections that, should one of these areas close, would mean that I have no way to get home.  The fire was approaching one of these sections, which meant that I could be in trouble.  While I started to call Kitty to discuss, I checked the Tasmanian Fire Service website that had a warning stating that the fire was expected to close down the whole section in an hour.  I also checked the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, to check weather conditions.  I could see that the wind was high, and blowing in a direction which could mean the fire might reach my home.  Kitty and I had a quick talk, and we decided that I needed to come home.

 

I needed to act, so I left work immediately (I work in a place that permits me to do this, from time to time… one of the reasons I like to work there).  I quickly walked to my car, and set out to get home.  Once I passed over Vince’s Saddle I could see the huge plumes of smoke in the distance.  My stomach dropped a little when I saw this, bringing back memories of previous bushfires.  I kept driving, formulating plans as I closed the distance between the fire and me.

 

As I came closer to the bushfire, I noticed an increase in cars driving towards me, away from the fire.  I was a little concerned about this, yet I comforted myself in the fact that I didn’t see any helicopters as I drove… this told me that the fire could not be as bad as I had read.  As I approached one of the roads I take to get home, which was a couple of kilometres from the fire, I noticed that the police had closed off the road and they were turning away vehicles.  I had expected this and didn’t bother joining the queue of cars that were being turned away, driving around them on to the alternative route.  Three minutes after leaving the closed road, I approached the dangerous section of the road.  I was going to be driving close to the fire so I was on the look out for animals fleeing the flames, or any vehicles acting erratically.  It was at this point that I spotted a Helicopter in the distance.  It was quite a distance away, yet there was no mistaking it.  Suddenly, my car was momentarily cast into shadow, I looked at the road before me and I could see the shadow of rotating blades.  I quickly took my foot off the accelerator and I looked up.  A Helicopter had just passed over my car and travelled to the right.  It was incredibly low to the ground and it was preparing to refill it’s water bucket from the dam that was just off the side of the road I was driving.  I was immediately impressed with the pilot’s ability to fly so low, yet also a little concerned… if the chopper was filling up here, the danger was closer than I expected.

I continued driving for another minute before I turned a corner and encountered what appeared to be another police road block.  I slowed to a stop and tried to work out what was occurring before me ( I wish I took a photo of this to show how confusing it seemed).  In front of me… to the right, perhaps 30 metres away, there were huge tongues of fire that were moving through the bushland.  Firefighters were there in force.  There was another car right in front of me, which had stopped on the road… from it emerged a woman from the passenger side, who walked over to the nature strip on the left side and watched the actions of the firefighters.  I was focused on the policeman.  He was standing on the road, talking into his radio.  I couldn’t work out what was happening… was the road closed?  Was he here to oversee the situation?  I didn’t know, and the policeman didn’t approach any of the drivers (a couple of cars had now driven up behind me).  I decided that I would try to continue down the road, yet as I started to move, the policeman signalled at me to stop.  He approached and told me that this road was closed, and I would have to take the alternate route which had just now reopened.  I thanked him for letting me know, and turned around.  I felt a little relieved, having been given some clear directions on where to go to get home.  As I travelled along the alternate route, I could see the helicopters moving amongst the smoke.  The remainder of the drive was uneventful, there were few cars driving towards the fire, and I only had the radio and the smell of smoke to keep me company.   Before too long I reached home.

 

Kitty was already at work, checking our Bug out bags, and ensuring that she had everything sorted and packed.  I went over my bag and added a couple of items before Kitty and I discussed possible scenarios that we might encounter.  We learned over the radio that the road between our home and Hobart was now closed, due to the fire danger.  This, for me, validated my decision to leave work early.  After this, there was little to do but to work in the garden (why waste the afternoon).

 

The next day, the situation was under control, due partly to the great work by our Firefighters, the wind dying down, and an evening downpour of rain.  I drove to work and I came across a section that was severely burnt… which would explain why the road was closed.  Several of the signs on the side of the road had melted.

 

Lessons learned?  I don’t know if I did anything wrong here…. Or if I can see an area for improvement.  At this stage, we are old hands at the bushfire game… or at least, the preparing for bushfire game.  The few things of which I can think that could be done, we can not afford.  A caravan would be welcome… meaning we could evacuate towards the south and stay in relative comfort (currently we have a tent and sleeping bags), a boat would mean that we could leave to safer waters (I can’t even afford a kayak at the moment).  Hopefully in the future we will be able to afford these.

“I am a man, and whatever concerns humanity is of interest to me.” – Terence

We have our first Strawberry!  At least, I am pretty sure it is our first… I can’t remember another one at this property.  After many being lost to whatever wild animal is eating them, I secured the area and managed to keep one safe till it had ripened.  I, of course, gave it to Kitty to eat.

Please enjoy this picture of our first Strawberry.

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I am a bit behind with listening to episodes of the Survival Podcast, only having listened to episode 1426 today (It was recorded on 15 September 2014… so I am pretty far behind).  I have been considering Jack’s Monday Prepper Scenario, which was:

There is a knock on your door, it is a sheriff deputy or local police officer.  He tells you there is a chemical spill just up the road and mandatory evacuation has been ordered.  It is about 8pm, your spouse is in the shower, your kids are in PJs in front of the TV.  The threat is real and you understand and will comply with the order to evacuate. 

The officer doesn’t know how long it will last, he says likely at least a week and you need to move NOW, ten minutes to get out tops, what do you do?  The evacuation area is relatively small, about a mile in diameter.

Kitty and I discussed this and as we have previously prepared for Bush fires, we already have a bag of clothes packed for each member of the family, stored in an easy to access location in the house.  We also have several small storage boxes with medical supplies, toiletries, food and camping supplies.  With the above scenario, we decided that we could easily pack the children, the important documents, and the dog/cat into the cars.  This would probably be the easiest part of the whole exercise.

While Kitty is loading the children into the car, I would have to take car of our Ginger, our Rabbit.  We wouldn’t take her with us, so I proposed that I give her sufficient food for a week, aim the hose to drip water into her hutch, and hope for the best.  Hopefully the chemicals wouldn’t effect her.

Finally, the main problem we would face would be where to go.  We live in a location that is pretty isolated, there is one main road in and out.  If the hypothetical chemical spill was on that road, we would be unable to use it!  Discussing this scenario provided us with a great reason to look over the local maps and find an alternative route that may be used (although it is not a main road).  At least we would have a way out.

Considering this situation gave us a great chance to discuss our thoughts and come up with excellent proposals.  Even our children were involved, telling us that they would have to make sure they packed their Nintendo 3DS, games and chargers.

 

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Ziggy sleeping on a straw bale.

 

“Music should strike fire from the heart of man…” – Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Checking the damage

Part 3

In the morning we heard over the AM radio that the roads to our property were still closed to all non-emergency traffic.  We were due to check out of the motel in the morning, and we were glad to leave.  As I mentioned previously, the staff were nice and friendly, yet the rooms appeared that they had not been decorated since the 1970s.  While we were packing to check out we made the decision that if the house was still in danger that evening  we would make a booking at Wrest Point again.  At least the rooms were nicer and they had a pool for the kids.  This decision did a lot to improve our moral which had really taken a hit since we checked into the Lindisfarne Motor Inn.  Both Kitty and I, at different times, had felt defeated and felt the need to give up.  When this happened to me, Kitty helped to cheer me up and brought me out of my funk.  I did the same for Kitty when she felt depressed, pointing out things such as should the house go we are insured, that the kids and dogs are safe, and that at least we are together.  As we departed the motel we heard on the radio that there would be a meeting at our town before lunch, for all local residents, to learn of the details of the fire and other issues around it.  We drove up the mountain to attend the meeting.  As I had learnt the majority of the details the day before I stayed outside and entertained the children while Kitty sat in on the meeting.  When the meeting was over, Kitty came out and told me that they were opening the road to residents, so we could go home. This was welcome news… I had been worried about my livestock and I wanted to check the property.

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We drove home and were shocked to see the large areas of burnt bush.  Smoke was still think in the air and we were stopped several times, by Police as well as having to wait while fire fighters worked ahead.  It was such a relief to pull into the driveway and see our home.  I immediately grabbed some water containers and rush to my rabbit cages.  In one cage I could see that two had died, and in another I could see that one had died.  I removed them from the cages and examined the bodies.  There were no injuries of burn marks so I assume that they died either from lack of water or the heat.  I fed and watered the chickens, rabbits, geese and ducks, before doing a quick check of the property.  I was relieved to find that apart from the strong smell of smoke in the house, everything was as we left it.  While I was checking to property I was constantly reminded of the danger by the presence of water bombing helicopters.  I counted four helicopters collecting water from a property over the road (and up the mountain a little), and another that seemed to be scouting out the terrain.

 

At one point in the afternoon I heard a fire truck driving on the road below my house and broadcasting on what sounded like a loudspeaker.  I couldn’t make out the message apart from the words “fire” and “evacuate”.  This caused me to become very nervous.  I rushed down to the road to look for the truck, but it had already driven down the road.  While standing on the main road I noticed my neighbour was near his fence.  We approached each other and had a chat about the fire.  He told me that the truck actually communicating with someone else and they were pulling the fire fighters from another area of the bush to go fight another fire front.  While we chatted, 18 fire fighting 4x4s drove past on their way to the new front which was further to the south.  My neighbour had stayed at his property and he told me about the prevention of the fire spreading to my land by the fire fighters, about a helicopter crash landing on a nearby paddock, as well as inviting my family and I to a BBQ in a few weeks (to which I accepted the invitation).

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That night we all went to bed early, looking forward to sleeping in our own beds again.  We learned a lot about our level of preparedness and some changes which we would have to make to be better prepared in the future.  We also learned that our home meant a lot more to us than we thought.  We had moved into this house around 5 years ago and we had done little to improve the inside.  We decided that we wanted to do some work to the house to make it more like the home in which we want to live.

“…there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion” – Dalai Lama

Fire on the mountain
Choppers flying while we load the car

 

Part 2

We woke early the next morning and, while listening to the radio over breakfast, we heard that the fire was getting worse and the area was still evacuated.  During the night both Kitty and I felt terrible that we had to leave the dogs behind.  We were also not sure where we would be staying that night.  As I mentioned, Hobart was pretty much booked out due to a festival in town.  We checked out of the caravan park and drove to Kitty’s mother’s house in Sandy Bay, just outside Hobart.  We went there for several reasons:

  • We wanted to check in with her as she was worried about our safety.
  • She had internet access (which Kitty and I did not have) so we could book accommodation and find a dog kennel to take the dogs.
  • We had brought too many things from the house.  I wanted to unload them to save carrying them everywhere and risking them to loss or theft.  We also needed room in the boot of the van to carry the dogs to the kennel.
  • I wanted to leave my little car at her house.  Both to save on fuel and to ensure Kitty and I could travel together.

The kids relaxed and watched some cartoons while Kitty and I got to work.  I booked some accommodation out at Port Arthur (having a large family can be a hassle for booking rooms) and Kitty found a kennel out at Brighton that would take the dogs, although we needed to drop them off shorty.  After lunch we started the drive home to get the dogs.  I wanted to grab a couple of additional items while at home as well as check my livestock.

The drive up the mountain was very intense.  It was difficult to see very far due to the large amount of smoke in the air.  We passed many areas of blackened bush as could see the fire crews working hard.  We also passed two police officers checking IDs to ensure only residents gained access (as well as attempting to warn us from going up to our home).  We drove slowly up the roads to ensure we could stop should we need to due to the limited visibility.  When we were 50 metres from our driveway we had to stop as 4 fire vehicles were blocking the road.  I had to get out and check with them.  They advised me that the fire was very close, yet the way ahead was safe enough.  While talking to them I noticed the whole area on the other side of the road to my home was blackened and smoking.  It looked like they had worked hard to stop the fire from crossing the road.  I learnt later that the night before, the fire had charged towards my home.  The fire trucks made a line up the road and stood their ground.  They sprayed the bush constantly and prevented the fire from jumping the road to my property.  The reason for this was apparently due to the fact that if my property went, there would be little chance to stop it before it hit Hobart city.

Loading the car

I drove past them and came to our house.  The dogs were overjoyed to see us and we were relieved to see them.  As I unlocked the house and started to gather the items I wished to take, as well as send a message to my friends/family that we were safe,  I could hear helicopters starting to fly over the house.  I looked outside and I could see the choppers collecting water from a neighbouring property and dropping them on or next to my property.  This was very scary and caused me to rush back into the house and complete my work.  As I started to load the car I noticed that ash was starting come down like snow, which was freaking me out.  I was thinking that if ash was falling, embers could easily do the same.  I loaded the children and the dogs into the car, telling everyone we had to go.  I then noticed smoke coming out of the forest on my property.  This was enough for me.  We drove off and counted ourselves lucky.  It was one of the scariest things I have ever encountered… with the roar of the choppers and seeing them drop water so close to my house, with the smoke and ash, it was very intense and I am sure I will remember it for the rest of my life.

We arrived at Brighton Park Dog kennel an hour later and it looked like a pleasant place, with large pens and water for the dogs.  While we did not want to leave the dogs at a kennel, it was safer for them than being at home.  Once they were checked in we were surprised when the manager advised us that we were not being charged for the kennelling as we were evacuated for the fire.  That was such a nice gesture and we thanked the manager for their kindness.

It was now time for us to take the 2 hour drive to Port Arthur.  As we were driving we received a call from the Department of Housing who asked us if we were checking in for emergency accommodation.  We had heard in the news reports that people who had been evacuated should check in at the Derwent Entertainment Centre for accommodation, yet we did not want to go there.  Both Kitty and I had visions of the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina in the states and we did not want a part of that.  We advised the caller that we were heading to Port Arthur for the night, yet when the caller told us that she had already secured us accommodation at Wrest Point Casino.  We immediately turned around and, over the phone, cancelled our booking at Port Arthur.  Wrest point was much closer to home, nicer, and it would not cost us anything.  We could afford to pay the $25 cancellation fee with the Port Arthur place.

Wrest Point was a lot nicer than the caravan park.  We had an adjoining room, with Kitty and the girls in one, and the boys and I in the other.   We enjoyed the best burger I have ever had from a local shop called “Burger got soul” and ½ an hour after dinner we went to the indoor pool at the hotel and the children relaxed in the water before bed.

View from Wrest Point room, looking towards the fires.

Listening to the radio in the morning we heard that the roads to my property we now closed to all traffic.  We had to check out of Wrest Point and our next accommodation was a place called “Lindisfarne Motor Inn”.  We drove over the river to discover that the motel looked like it was built in the 1950s.  The staff were friendly, which was nice, yet the room smelt of old cigarettes and was cramped.  The bathroom was tiny and there was no kitchen.  We decided to spend as little time there as we had to, and to spend the afternoon at the Aquatic centre.  I needed to go home first and try to get to the property.  I was worried about my livestock as they had not been watered for more than a day.  I encountered a police road block on the way to my home and I was told that I would not be able to get to my house due to the road closures.  I went to the local fire station and chatted with the people there.  The fire fighters were very friendly and helpful.  One of them showed me a map of the fire effected area and told me of the fire which they stopped from coming onto my property.  I was told stories of the dangers they faced and different experiences related to trees falling and missing them by inches.  I thanked them all for the work they were doing and travelled back to Kitty in the motel.  We took the children to the Aquatic Centre and I joined them in the pool.  As we had forgotten to pack swimmers in our bug out bags we all swam in shorts (our girls swam wearing their older brother’s shorts and no shirt).  The kids really relaxed at the pool, enjoying themselves and forgetting the problems of the bushfire.  While I was looking after the kids in the paddling pools, Kitty watched from the side.  While watching Kitty started chatting with one of the mothers whose son was playing with Riley.  As we were leaving the centre we were surprised when the woman that Kitty had been talking to came over and gave us an envelope containing two family visit to the Aquatic Centre that she had bought for us.  The woman had tears in her eyes as she handed the gift to Kitty.  Such a kind gesture and we never knew anything about her.  On the way home we bought some chips and ate them by the river before going back to the motel and to then to sleep.

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” – Robert Frost

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Wow, what an eventful week!  Last Wednesday Kitty called me at work to let me know that she could see a large column of smoke coming from far to the north west of our property.  While on the phone I checked the Fire Tasmania website and it advised of a bush fire burning out of control 3kms to the North West of my house.  I told Kitty I would leave work around 3:30pm so that we could check our preparations and be on watch.  At 3:27pm I received a message from the local primary school advising that, due to road closures, the school bus was not in operation and the children needed to be picked up by parents.  I called home and left a message for Kitty to let her know and then left work.  A short 30 minute bus ride later I arrived at my car and began the drive up to my home, expecting to see some smoke in the distance and nothing serious.

Cresting the first mountain I could see a large, billowing, plume of smoke coming from close to where my property was located on the other side of the valley.  I became concerned and quite nervous at this point.  While I continued down into the valley I divided my attention between driving safely, mentally going over my preparations for this situation, and looking towards the burning area (trying to deduce the location of the fire in relation to my home).  Just before I reached the road to my house I was stopped at a Police road block.  The constable advised me that the road was closed due to fire.  While I felt that I needed to get to my house to assist Kitty in any evacuation plans, I felt that arguing with the constable would be wasted time and as I knew of an alternate route there was no need to simply drive around him.  I turned the car around and drove along an alternate route that would deposit me further along the road to my house.  All the while I was starting to worry about my family and I was becoming very nervous.  Within a few minutes I arrived at my home and I immediately noticed that Kitty was not home.  The house was locked, yet it appeared that she had left in a hurry.  Near the front door, Kitty had stacked our Bug out Bags (these are bags which we had prepared previously that contained clothing, shoes, medicine, food, as well as hard drives full of photos and important documents).  I noticed that one of our UHF handsets was taken from the docking station, I grabbed another and began attempting to contact Kitty.  There was no answer from our channel so I assumed that either Kitty was on her way to our fall back location, or that she had forgotten to turn on her radio.  I then had to make a decision… as Michael Geoffrey Jones famously asked, “Should I stay or should I go”?  I decided to go to our regrouping location (a location which we had previously decided was where we would go should be we separated) and to that end I started packing my car with the bug out bags, all the while continuing to monitor the direction of the smoke and attempting to contact Kitty on the radio.

As I approached locked the front door and started to walk to the car I saw Kitty driving down the driveway.  Kitty told me that she had been at the school and was waiting for me to see her car and pull in on the way home.  I had been too focused on driving and the fire to notice the car so I had apparently driven past it.  When I asked Kitty about the radio she mentioned she had grabbed it as part of our preps, yet in the excitement she had forgotten to turn it on.  We called a local friend who knew details from high up in the Fire Service.  They advised that while it looked bad, there was no immediate threat to my property.  Later that evening I packed the bug out bags and other essentials into the cars and settled in for the night.

Things were looking worse on the next morning.  The Fire Tasmania website had escalated the threat warning to “Watch and Act”, which signifies that there is a significant danger.  During the morning we were once again in discussion with our local contact who told me that they were evacuating.  Outside the smoke was getting thicker and we could regularly hear firetrucks driving up and down our nearest road every few minutes.  The feeling that we needed to get out of there was growing stronger by the minute.  Kitty was walking around and seemed to be packing random items in the extra bags we had (she told me later that she was nervous and was packing by intuition).  Finally, we decided late in the morning it was time to go.  The car was already packed and there was no room for the dogs.  I felt that this would not be a problem as I hoped the danger would be over in a few hours and we could return home.  Kitty and I loaded the kids and ourselves in the cars, turned on our UHF radios and rolled out.  I had the radios as I expected there to be roadblocks, smoke, or we could be separated.  With the radios ewe were sure to be in contact.  The drive down to the city was mostly uneventful, apart from some young guy road raging on me (which I didn’t emulate, causing him to become even more angry).  It was strange driving through the city with so much on our minds, and everyone else was going about their daily business without any thought for our problems.  We took the children to a large park in Sandy Bay and discussed our next move.  While there we met another resident of our town who had evacuated.  She told us that she new the fire fighters and they had told her that this fire would take days to get under control.  With this new info we decided that we needed to arrange accommodation for the night.  After lunch we went to Kitty’s mother’s house and used her internet to look up hotels.  I had great difficulty in locating accommodation because nearly all hotels were booked due to a festival in Hobart that weekend.  The only place I could find for that night, for our large family, was a caravan park out at Rosny.  I booked the room and we headed there to check in.

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The caravan park wasn’t that bad.  The rooms were not crowded and the place was clean.  There was a children’s park and mini golf area so we had something to keep the kids out of trouble.  After dinner we had trouble getting the kids to go to sleep as they were sleeping in bunk beds and were too excited.  Eventually everyone settled down for the night and Kitty and I were hopeful that the event would be over quickly so that we could return home.