March 2009


The burning bush

By John van Tiggelen
A house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex in Steels Creek, photo taken with verbal permission by the owners, February 2009 © Nick Carson
A house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex in Steels Creek, photo taken with verbal permission by the owners, February 2009 © Nick Carson

In the populated spots of the North, where the surrounding savannah woodlands burn off as readily and regularly and safely as sugar cane, cyclones are the worry. You prepare for the season as well as the event. Cyclones arrive with notice, a name and neatly categorised; a One or Two will have you huddled on the bed with the dog, a Three requires you move to the bathroom, and beyond that you’re well advised to sit the thing out in the cyclone shelter – every town has one.

Bushfires aren’t classed by temperament: the daily incident list of the Country Fire Authority rates them only as small, medium or large. Their potential to rage out of control and turn into a firestorm, or a mega-fire, or a monster, depends on the day. Such “fire-weather days” traditionally do come in categories, but only to a point. They remain familiar to most of us, in the form of the rainbow signs that once fronted every country town. On summer days, the black pointer of danger would generally be dipping into the red zone, labelled Extreme. It didn’t really mean much, other than that it was a good day for the beach. As a kid you’d actually experience a twinge of disappointment if the pointer was stuck on orange. If the pointer tilted all the way, to the extremity of Extreme, it meant a Total Fire Ban.

Most towns have done away with these signs, in tacit recognition that they contribute zip to public safety. In practice, no graded warning system of fire danger exists in Victoria, other than a simple cut-off: it’s either a day of Total Fire Ban, or it’s not. It either knocks the cricket off the radio, or it doesn’t.

On Thursday, 5 February, Claire Yeo, the Bureau of Meteorology’s “severe-weather expert”, spoke on ABC Radio of the imminent threat. She’d obviously read the forecast in a way we couldn’t. There was fear and awe in her voice, yet the language at her disposal had been cruelled into cliché. How extreme could Extreme be? She had no way of categorising, of quantifying, of communicating the risk. Instead of listeners being left under no illusion that there was going to be the flaming equivalent of a Category Five twister, we took home the message that Saturday was going to be hot, bloody hot. Too hot for the beach.

Faced with the direst weather data he’d seen in 40 years of firefighting, the CFA chief, Russell Rees, briefed the premier. John Brumby duly and emphatically warned Victorians that Saturday’s weather would be “seriously bad” – hotter, drier and windier than Ash Wednesday. We were advised not to travel, by road or by train. We heard him. In country Victoria we’d just endured a record run of 40-plus temperatures. Saturday would definitely be a day to stay home. To be sure, the fire risk sounded extreme, but not unusually so because the usual applied: as repeated ad nauseum by authorities and their parrots on the radio, in the event of fire we were to “stay and defend, or leave early”. At the same time, the premier’s warning involuntarily issued a sense that the state was on red alert, and thus fully prepared. Any fire that did eventuate – and who was to say one would? – would not catch us by surprise. In a nasty twist of communication, Victorians were left to expect a horrible day, when the forecast was for a day of horror.

Three years ago, I got my first glimpse of the accuracy with which we can now predict catastrophic fires. I’d been invited to spend the worst fire-weather day in three summers in the control room, better known as the war room, at CFA headquarters. Over the course of the day, as fires started all over Victoria, staff obsessed about the Forest Fire Danger Index, a composite measure of the humidity, wind speed, temperature and combustibility of fuel at a given time and place. The formula is calibrated so that a score of 100 reflects the perfect-storm conditions of Black Friday, 1939, when 71 people and 5% of the state were laid waste. The index has been in wide use since the late ‘60s. Burn-offs require values under 12. Total Fire Bans are triggered at 50.

On 22 January 2006, the FFDI peaked at 86. Roused by northerlies, wildfires lit by lightning overnight erased much of the Grampians, the Brisbane Ranges and the northern flank of the Latrobe Valley. Three people, 30 homes, 1000 cows, 63,000 sheep and 170,000 hectares were lost. (There was a fourth forest firestorm that day, bearing down on the town of Kinglake. In a beastly irony, the violent cool change that delivered the killer blow in February saved the town three years ago.)

The next day I toured one of the worst-hit areas, around Anakie, north of Geelong, with a very tired and slightly unnerved local brigade captain. Some 30 homes had been in the direct path of the fire, most of them belonging to tree-changers. Many of these people had attended a fire-plan workshop he’d arranged some months earlier. The captain, a local farmer, wanted to see if the stay-and-fight-or-leave-early policy had stood up to the terrible conditions. At first glance, yes – only abandoned buildings had been lost. But it soon became clear that a number of those who’d defended their homes had been extremely lucky. Had it not been for helicopter water drops, they would have been incinerated. “The policy’s all right if the FFDI hits 50 or 60, but I don’t know about 80,” he said. “The weather’s the killer. A fire plan’s like an extra layer. It will stop a shotgun, but not a .303.”

At the time, the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology had just released a study modelling the effects of climate change on fire-weather days. Unfortunately, their crunching of data was limited to the terminology at hand, the one that holds that Extreme begins at 50. Truly extreme fire-weather days were lumped together with Very High fire-danger days (25-50) as well as regular 50-plussers, and the findings, while grave, were undercooked.

The authors addressed the oversight two years later. They proposed two more categories: Very Extreme, for days peaking between 75 and 100; and Catastrophic, for the once-in-a-generation 100-plus days. Assuming conservative projections of global warming, they found that by 2020 regional Victoria would experience a Catastrophic day every five to seven years. By 2050 it would be every three to four years.

Such is the predictive power of the FFDI, it’s a sure bet that the day that peaks at 100 will earn itself a name. There was 1898’s Red Tuesday in South Gippsland, 1939’s Black Friday, Hobart’s Black Tuesday of 1967, 1983’s Ash Wednesday and Canberra’s Black Weekend in 2003. Victoria’s original Black Saturday occurred in 1977, when grassfires ravaged the western districts, including the town of Streatham.

On Black Saturday II, 7 February, the FFDI was tipped to exceed 150 in central Victoria. Values greater than 100 are largely academic, in the same way that cyclones rating stop at Five, because the destructive power is already absolute. But 150-plus was unheard of. From Russell Rees down, no CFA officer could have failed to grasp the implications. (It is no coincidence that, unlike on previous disastrous days, not one firefighter died.) They knew what was coming, and they knew that when it came – not if – there was no way it could be stopped. The one thing they did not know was where.

That Saturday in central Victoria dawned orange and ominous. Air-conditioners were kept humming, windows were sealed, blinds pulled down, curtains drawn. Filthy northerlies flailed the blinds. Dust from the interior gusted under the door. The glowering sky turned the colour of zinc as temperatures climbed to 45, 46, 47. At Kilmore, near where the most devastating fires originated, the FFDI reached 189.

What happened next will happen again. Arsonists or no, there was going to be roadside ignition: a butt tossed out of habit, sparks from a detaching muffler, a crackly power line. (That a discarded glass bottle can start a fire by focusing sunlight is likely a myth – although on a day like this, who knows?) With or without prior fuel burn-offs, the fire was going to fly. Crews watched swarms of stringy-bark embers seed fresh fires up to 10 kilometres ahead of the ravenous main front, racing each other south-east. When the south-westerly arrived, around 5.30 pm, the inferno’s eastern flank struck those towns it had bypassed with a howling ferocity. Enormous licks of flame roiled up laneways, trees snapped, cars and homes ignited. It was a massacre.

Right now, everyone in country Victoria is feeling more vulnerable. In the past few decades there has been a city-led run on blocks with a view, secluded valleys and small heritage towns ringed by bush. From Mallacoota to Natimuk, thousands of forested ridges have been subdivided. Real estate rules in the Strathbogies, the Otways, the Strzeleckis, the Dandenongs, the Macedon Ranges.

We can tinker with safety procedures: building codes, community alarm systems, town bunkers and fuel reduction. Perhaps more tree-changers will sign up as CFA volunteers – at present it is too often left to the farmers, those of the open country at the base of the hills, to risk their lives for the sake of the lifestyles of those above.

Yet even the most deadbeat climate sceptics must recognise that the bush is going to burn more often and more fiercely. At the same time, controlled burns are going to get trickier. The already narrow windows for safe burn-offs have been closing steadily. Take the approved fire-operations plan of the Murrindindi Fire District for 2008-11. The list of proposed sites reads like a memorial to 7 February: Wandong, Clonbinane, Pheasant Creek, Mount Disappointment, Kinglake West, Arthurs Creek, Kinglake, Hazeldene, Flowerdale, Buxton, Taggerty, Narbethong and Marysville. The plan reveals an enormous and possibly damning backlog. An improbable 28,162 hectares, involving 62 separate burns, were either due or overdue for burning off this year – roughly a quarter of the area lost in the district on 7 February. Tragically, two of the proposed burns, comprising 32 hectares, were “immediately adjacent” to Marysville township, and another two were within a few hundred metres to the south. Marysville was king-hit from the south.

Just as there are storms and there are cyclones, there are fires and there are firestorms. Black Saturday II is the new extreme. The old extreme, the 50-point trigger for a Total Fire Ban, was never more than a starting point – a Category One fire-danger day, say. At this level of risk, there’s little debate: as long as your fire plan’s up to scratch, you have the option of staying to implement it. Where the stay-or-leave-early policy starts to look decidedly shaky is at an FFDI of around 75 points, a putative Category Three. At 100 points, the policy is murder. The next Category Five day there’s smoke – and there will be another, probably within the next eight summers – get the hell out.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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