it's BUSHFIRE season!

Brooklyn's close encounter with bushfires, December 2002
by Nick Gleitzman

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pic 1: click to enlargeWednesday, December 4, 2002
Three thirty in the afternoon; just another day in the office—with a couple of notable exceptions. We'd only been back from the USA for 48 hours, and were still feeling the last effects of jet-lag; were still trying to get reoriented to being home, and back at work. 35°C, after the novel experience of sub-zero temperatures, didn't help. Working my way through the mountain of mail that had built up during a month away, I noticed that the light outside my window was strangely diffuse, and golden, and... glowing. A partial solar eclipse was to occur sometime after 7pm that day, but this was nearly four hours early—? A stroll out onto the verandah revealed the reason for the eerie conditions: a pall of smoke, rising from beyond the western horizon and neatly bisecting the entire sky. Bushfire—and a big one!

pic 2: click to enlargeThe six o'clock news confirmed what was already obvious, and expanded upon it. A serious bushfire already threatening property in Glenorie, some 20km to the west of Brooklyn, was only one of thirty fires that had sprung up right across the Sydney metropolitan region in the space of less than two hours. Fanned by hot, dry westerly winds gusting up to 80, 90 km per hour, several fires were already burning dangerously close to houses; some had already been lost. It became very obvious, very quickly, that this situation would seriously test the capabilities of the "Firies"—the Rural Fire Service. We never got to see that eclipse; it was totally obscured by the dense smoke which was the harbinger of what was to come.

Thursday, December 5, 2002
During the night, the cooling air filled the entire Hawkesbury River Valley with the smoke that, the previous afternoon, had been blowing high overhead, leaving the air clear at ground level. Visibility was down to a couple of hundred meters; the smell of burning eucalypt was all-pervading. We spent the day trying to work, as normally as was possible, with one eye alternately on the TV news and the Internet, trying to get up-to-date information on the fire's progress. It was burning eastwards, still driven by a strong westerly wind, towards Berowra and Cowan, up on the main ridge above the Hawkesbury. The forecast was for continuing high winds, turning southerly on Friday. This was not what we wanted to hear. For the second day running, we went to bed with a clearly visible glow in the sky to the west.

pic 3: click to enlargeFriday, December 6, 2002
Another morning dawned with the River valley filled with smoke, as thick as a winter fog, but... dirtier. Over breakfast, we discussed our plans for the day; our strategy for protecting our home, and our livelihoods. We agreed that, whatever happened, priority should be given to being able to continue to make a living, with the minimum of interruption. We identified a couple of places where the car should be reasonably safe—if we could get it there. One was on the breakwater, down at Parsley Bay. Surely having water on both sides would afford some insurance?

pic 4: click to enlargeWith our attention divided between news reports and the demands of our businesses, we tried to work for a couple of hours. But the news that the fire had jumped the freeway, and was burning across the National Park towards the River to the south of us, made concentrating a hopeless task. When the wind swung around to blow from the south, and a neighbour dropped by to tell us that the fire was three ridges away, it became obvious that for the third time in nine years, we would see the bush around Brooklyn burn. The big question was, how much damage would be done? Could we—would we—lose our home, our possessions, and possibly our livelihoods?

pic 5: click to enlargeIt was around 12:30 when the power went out. It was like a sign that, yes, this is for real. This is no longer something happening on the news, to other people, somewhere else—this is here, and now. It was also the signal for us to swing into action with our plan for protecting our most valuable possessions. All four of our computers went into the car, along with a box of data CDs, the most important of the camera equipment, around 5000 35mm transparencies from the library, and some hastily sorted personal documents. We added a change of clothes, some sandwiches and water—and felt frustration, and despair, at just how much of our lives was still inside the house. How do you choose what's important? How do you decide what, out of the sum total of your possessions, you will choose with which to start again—and what you'll leave to burn?

pic 6: click to enlargeWith the car loaded, there was just one more job that needed to be done: preparations around the house itself. Charred leaves and even twigs had been dropping out of the sky ever since the wind had turned southerly; the very real risk of spot fires started by glowing embers blown ahead of the main fire front needed to be addressed. This is how a lot of houses get damaged, or are even lost completely—not all danger comes from a raging inferno. Garden hoses uncoiled and connected front and back. Gutters cleared of debris, and filled with water. (Well, hosed out, along with the roof. We're actually fortunate—our house, in the main, doesn't have gutters. The two short lengths of plastic guttering that are there would be physically torn off the building in seconds, if necessary...) All available buckets filled with water, and a handful of tea towels left soaking in a bowl for makeshift smoke masks. A change of clothes—long pants, and a heavy, long sleeved shirt. Gloves to hand. And then there was nothing to do but wait, and watch.

pic 7: click to enlargeWe joined our neighbours at the top of the steps up from the village centre. Ours is one of about fifteen houses on a rocky outcrop, Flat Rock Point, that sits high above the level of the River, and affords a good view in all directions. It was interesting to note the difference in attitude that various householders showed. We felt a good degree of trepidation; the memory of watching a twenty-metre high wall of flame, roaring like a hundred locomotives, come over the ridge in January '94, just three weeks after we had moved in, was still alarmingly clear, so we understood how our newest neighbours, themselves only weeks-ago recent arrivals, were feeling. pic 8: click to enlargeBut the locals (and you're only considered to be a local if you've lived here for thirty years) were far more relaxed and philosophical about the whole thing. Make the necessary preparations, sure. But they seemed far less agitated, far more accepting of 'just another' bushfire. But then, they were born and raised here; this was probably their twentieth experience of the threat of fire. Their attitude seemed to be, "Well, it's Brooklyn; we're surrounded by bush. It's summer, it's hot; of course there's going to be a fire—sooner or later. What did you expect?" To them, the biggest inconvenience is keeping the beer cold once the power goes out!

pic 9: click to enlargeTo put some perspective on the situation, I should point out that because our house is up on that rocky outcrop, the chances of a raging firestorm buring right up to it are slim. There's a 'buffer zone' of a couple of streets and other houses between the bush and us. But it's still hard not to feel distinctly uneasy as a wildfire bears down on you.

Then the fire reached the top of the ridge, and in seconds, we were engulfed in smoke. Thankfully, there was no raging inferno this time; even with a following wind, a fire won't pic 10: click to enlargeburn downhill nearly as readily as it will uphill. The wind had already started to abate, but was still gusting, swirling—by turns revealing an incongruously fine sunny day and reducing visibility to a few metres. The air was filled with ash, charred leaves and small twigs. Eyes stung, and throats felt the effects of breathing smoke. A couple of spot fires sprang up, frightening quickly, from embers blown in the wind; but the Firies responded, and they were dealt with promptly and efficiently. A couple of tense hours later, we saw that the wind had finally changed in our favour, blowing from the north, and was taking the bulk of the smoke away from us.

idiotIdiot of the Day Award
One of the more thoughtless, unprofessional acts I've seen has to be that of the ABC TV producer, who, while her crew was setting up for a short piece to camera by the reporter with the burning hillside in the background, was talking on her mobile phone to her office, and smoking a cigarette. Smoke break over, she dropped the butt and stepped on it—but left it alight as she walked away, still talking on her phone. Seemed ironic that just 24 hours earlier, the media (possibly even this same crew?) had been reporting the State Premier announcing penalties of lengthy jail terms for people doing just that under conditions of Total Fire Ban—that they would be considered arsonists. To complete her ignorance of the psychological strain that bushfire threat places on people, her 'apology'—after I had pointed out her irresponsibility in no uncertain terms—was negated by a sarcastic grimace after she turned away from me, but visible to other onlookers. Ah, the media. Don't you just love 'em?

pic 11: click to enlargeDuring the afternoon, it was evident from watching the smoke pattern, and from the actions of the big Erickson Aircrane water-bombing helicopter, that there were houses back along Brooklyn Road to the west that came under real threat. The Rural Fire Service in Brooklyn, backed up by Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteers, spent the afternoon protecting houses along the full length of Brooklyn Road—about 3 km. As soon as it became apparent that the wind had shifted favourably, about an hour before sunset, the Firies began backburning, or 'containment' burns. Starting close to property under potential threat, pic 12: click to enlargethey set fires which they could control with hoses, and with aerial water-bombing when necessary. The now northerly wind took these fires away from the houses and up the hill towards the wildfire still burning on the ridgetop—and provided us with a spectacular evening's entertainment.

Which is how our more fire-experienced neighbours now treated the situation. pic 13: click to enlargeWith the immediate danger vastly reduced, and the Firies taking action to prevent its return, something like a party atmosphere prevailed. With no electricity, it was time to think about dinner. So someone fired up their barbeque, available food and drink was pooled—sausages, steak, oysters, bread, and of course, beer—and an impromptu gathering enjoyed the catharsis of shared impressions of the day, while watching the hillside burn—but in a controlled way. There was even a 'production line' set up, for family photos taken against the backdrop of the burning hillside, to record the occasion for posterity!

Saturday, December 7, 2002
With the danger now passed, it was time to take stock. Our first visitors of the day were a couple of SES volunteers, doorknocking the area to check that all was OK; they brought us the news that the electricity was likely to be out for 48 hours. So, no fridge, no stove, no hot water. The SES guys also told us that there would be an ice truck in town all day; that would take care of the fridge contents. For cooking, we had an LPG camping stove; for hot water, we used the solar showers, also from our camping kit. Candles for lighting; we'd be OK for the weekend, at least.

pic 14: click to enlargeA walk around the Point revealed tree stumps and limbs still alight and smoking. From the Marina looking west, it was obvious that a sizeable backburn fire was still active out near the Highway somewhere. The Erickson Aircrane was still doing a round trip every ten minutes or so, scooping a small swimming-pool's worth of water directly from the River and ferrying it back to keep the fire under control. The village was strangely quiet; the trains had stopped running the previous day, and the normal weekend tourist traffic was nowhere in sight. pic 15: click to enlargeVehicular traffic along Brooklyn Road was limited to emergency vehicles only. But the Salvation Army had already set up camp in the car park at Parsley Bay, where they cheerfully dispensed ice, water and sausage sandwiches all weekend.

As I unloaded the car again, I found myself in a kind of slightly light-headed, almost euphoric state of mind. With no power, there was nothing electronic I could turn to for a connection with the outside world—and the normalcy of my life only 24 hours previously. No TV, no Internet. Only the car radio for news and weather forecasts. I found myself considering what life might have been like in the short term, if the contents of the car had been all that I had to start again from scratch with. A sobering consideration—that there exists forces that could, and do, wipe out people's history, or the physical manifestation of it anyway, in minutes.

pic 16: click to enlargeYet, in Brooklyn as elsewhere, the threat of such destruction brought people closer together. During the afternoon of the fire itself, no-one even considered leaving when advised by the Police to evacuate. We would stay, and protect our—and each other's—houses. When the danger had passed, the heightened sense of community stayed. Neighbours shared what they could. Those able to cook or to heat water offered the facility to others. Those who had phone connections made them available to those whose were cut. We Brooklyn residents share a feeling of privilege to live here; it's a special place. It's as simple as that.

By Sunday night we had electricity again; by Monday morning we were able to come and go freely. A drive up the Highway towards Cowan revealed the extent of the fire's effects—and what might have been. pic 17: click to enlargeStill smoking in many places, the bush looked like a war zone. Where the fire had burned hottest, whole hillsides had been reduced to blackened sandstone and charred tree trunks—a stark reminder of what might have happened to parts of Brooklyn, had it been in the path of an uncontrolled firestorm. Half of Muogomarra Nature Reserve was just... gone. From the top of the hill at the Pie Factory, looking across Ku-ring-gai National Park and back down to the River, there wasn't a green tree to be seen anywhere. In a cruel parody of the autumn colours of northern hemisphere deciduous forests, every leaf was russet, golden, yellow, brown: scorched.

pic 18: click to enlargeFinally, on Monday night, the firefighters were brought some relief: rain. Almost 24 hours of continuous, light but soaking rain. Even this was not enough to extinguish the fires completely, but lower temperatures, higher humidity and an easing of the wind meant that containment and control became a viable option. While the worst fires continued to burn, the threat to life and property was considered to have ended.

pic 19: click to enlargeThe fire which reached Brooklyn was just one of around eighty that burned across New South Wales that week. It burned out over 40,000 hectares of bushland; at a third of the total 120,000 hectares burnt across the state, it was one of the largest fires of the season. At the peak of the outbreaks, there were over 4,500 volunteer firefighters deployed across the state. Local crews were backed up by colleagues who travelled from Victoria and South Australia with their equipment and expertise to help. Over forty houses were destroyed (thankfully, not one in Brooklyn), but the Firies took each and every one of those as a personal affront; countless hundreds were saved by their unfailing efforts.

Remarkably, the bush will recover. Over the next year, we will again witness its phoenix-like rebirth; literally, a return from the ashes of this week's fires to verdant health. While many trees and plants have been killed, many more will grow, or grow back. Much of Australia's flora has a unique relationship with fire; many plants, like Banksia, actually depend on the heat of a bushfire to cause tough seed pods to open, and for the seeds within to germinate. Next spring's display of wildflowers promises to be spectacular, as the bush reacts to this fire episode and plants double their efforts to reproduce.

pic 20: click to enlarge

Footnote: During 2003, I photographed the bush's recovery. Once a month throughout the year, I shot three different views: the panorama above, and two details of the scorched landscape as the plant life regenerated. See the photos

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Words & images © Nick Gleitzman 2002