Oops- the tail light is out- better get that fixed! Fast forward to King St. Mechanical in Warwick. John came out and promptly fixed it- ‘No worries, mate. No charge’! It would have been the perfect introductory day in a new town, had it not been for the pall of bushfire smoke hanging over Warwick and communities to the east. At Yangan, 18 kms East, smoke from two fires burning in inaccessible country around Swanfels infiltrated the town. Residents closed windows and doors and tried to stay indoors as much as possible.
A tired looking bush fire brigade chap having a cold ale at the local pub told me he’d never seen it as bad in this district, Yangan and Swanfels were not alone. As today’s photo attests, the fires are still burning. It is probably overkill, but we have packed an emergency evacuation bag.
Bushfires, grass fires and controlled burns that got out of control have been burning all over South- East Queensland and Northern New South Wales for weeks. When we drove from Maleny to Warwick via the Lockyer Valley, the mercury peaked at 40 degrees Celsius, which even a Kiwi could tell you is unseasonably hot for Queensland in early October. The Lockyer Valley, ostensibly the region’s premier vegetable producing centre, looked brown and dead, bar a few irrigated fields. Up in the hills, fires were burning. A friend rang us while we driving through Ma Ma Creek.
“Why are you in the Lockyer Valley? Don’t you know there are fires burning and you need to leave there at once!”
We saw the smoke plume to which she referred and had heard on the radio news that a house was destroyed in Laidley.
So we kept on driving and emerged on the Toowoomba-Warwick road, just as a blood red sun was setting behind a shroud of smoke.
People who know about such things were predicting a long hot summer and an early start to the ‘bushfire season’ back in August.
As Yangan residents fretted and waited for a possible call to evacuate, I mentally prepared an emergency kit: phone, charger, keys, wallet, essential medications, scrips, passports, journal and pen, change of clothes, water bottle, dog food (and bowl). Strange feeling it is to compress one’s life into one essential package.
This is second nature for residents of Australia’s more bushfire-prone areas such as the Blue Mountains and the uplands of northern New South Wales.
The Guardian’s Lisa Martin wrote that fire authorities were bracing for a challenging bushfire season across the continent. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre’s seasonal outlook warned six States they faced ‘above-normal’ potential fire threat because of very warm and dry conditions and below average rainfall.
Queensland and New South Wales bore the brunt of it in September, when gusty winds and high temperatures fanned relatively small grassfires into uncontrollable bush fires. In Southern Queensland and Northern NSW, fire authorities dealt with 1,200 fires in the first two weeks of September, with 130 fires erupting in just one day. Fifty-five homes were lost and the iconic Gold Coast hinterland tourism attraction, Binna Burra Lodge, was destroyed.
Travel journalist Lee Mylne wrote about the determination of Binna Burra’s owners to rebuild. Amidst the rubble, the bell which hung in the lodge dining room since1934 has been found intact – a symbol of hope, Lee wrote.
The adjacent campground and café was spared and the Binna Burra board says it plans to open for Christmas holidays. It is also hoped the Sky Lodges can be repaired in time for the summer holidays.
Coincidentally, I am reading The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, a blunt instrument of a book which beats you about the head with unassailable facts and frightening scenarios about what will happen to our bodies as the planet warms. So I was more sharply concerned to read an ABC story yesterday which asserts that Australia is not prepared for what lies ahead. Key points of the story are:
- The national aerial firefighting centre (NAFC) still awaits a Federal Government decision about its urgent request two years ago for $11 million in funding;
- The Government has not guaranteed funding for the only national body researching the future of bushfires;
- Emergency services experts who asked the Government to consider the threat of climate change in fire planning have not received a response.
Australia’s former chief scientist, Ian Chubb, said it was clear the climate was changing.
“It’s not just some passing phase that it didn’t rain this decade,” he said. “The implications of that for fire are pretty obvious.”
Recent fires in NSW ushered in a new phenomenon in firefighting dubbed Black Swan events. This describes what happens when a bush fire has reached such a point of ferocity that it interacts with extreme weather events.
The Sir Ivan fire near Dunedoo burned through 55,000 hectares, creating its own thunderstorm about seven kilometres high, according to a report by the NSW Coroner’s Court. Clouds of smoke shot lightning bolts up to 80 kilometres away, starting more fires.
Emergency experts and senior scientists have told a joint ABC investigation that a comprehensive national plan is needed to tackle the fires of the future. They are concerned about the lack of financial commitment from the Federal Government for resources and research.
The ABC’s Background Briefing cited documents that show the proportion of federal funding for NAFC has more than halved since 2003. Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management David Littleproud said he would raise the business case at the next Ministerial Council meeting.
“We haven’t made a decision around the aerial assets,” he told Background Briefing. “We’ll continue to work with the states in a mature way.”
Mr Littleproud told Background Briefing the Government did acknowledge the role climate change had played in escalating fire risks.
“I haven’t seen this in my life before and I don’t know where it’s going to end,” he said. “I think it would be remiss of anybody not to suggest that it is not climate change that has caused a lot of this.”
As I write, a storm has brought decent rainfall to the Yangan district, which should help firefighters no end. Nevertheless, given my asthmatic tendencies, I’m staying indoors today, curled up with a good book. The choices are (a) persevere with The Uninhabitable Earth or (b) Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy Weather, a satirical yarn about a couple of con artists trying to capitalise on the aftermath of a hurricane sweeping through Florida.
In Chapter two of Wallace-Wells’s book he reminds us about a deadly European heatwave in 2003 which killed as many as 2,000 people per day. On page 47 he cites research that by 2050, 255,000 people are expected to die from direct heat events. Already a third of the world’s population is subject to deadly heat waves on at least 20 days of the year. Blimey, so let’s hope the old folk’s home has air conditioning for 101-year-old me.
Meanwhile in chapter five of Stormy Weather, a Rhesus monkey has stolen Max’s video camera, on which he had filmed the aftermath of the hurricane (with the aim of selling footage to a TV station).
His new bride, Bonnie, who is beginning to go off her exploitative husband (who has mysteriously vanished), is befriended by a strange fellow scouring the Everglades for (escaped) monkeys.
It’s no contest, really.
FOMM back pages, August 2017: