Fire! Fire!

Extreme heat has brought fire danger – and fire reality – to Australia.  It is a fact of life for Australians.  It is a source of unease for me.

This blog is an attempt to capture my personal reaction to bush fires.  Let me admit from the start that this is not a daily danger for me personally.  I live by the waters of Sydney Harbour, away from any bush land or reserve, in the centre of the built-up area.

We arrived in Sydney on the first day of Autumn 2012.  From the moment we moved into our current apartment, fire was a presence on my consciousness.  This is because the authorities undertake controlled burns during winter to help reduce the fuel that a natural fire might find in forested areas when the summer heat returns. The smoke from those fires was visible from the apartment.  I also saw it from various planes as I flew between Sydney and other cities for work.

If there should be natural fires around the fringes of Sydney, I would be able to see them from the city centre too.  In 2001/2, fires started around Sydney on Christmas Day 2001 and burned for three weeks before rain helped to dampen them down.  That sent palls of smoke over the city, creating a public health emergency.  However, that was widely reported – and designated “black Christmas” because the severity was so great.  It doesn’t happen every year.

I had vaguely thought the threat might not be that high this year.  This is because of several things.  Firstly, since we arrived we have been told constantly and by everyone how bad the weather was last summer and how much rain Sydneysiders put up with.  Secondly, there were documentaries about the greening of the Outback, in particular, how Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, in South Australia, had filled with water, enjoying its periodic “big wet”.  Thirdly, there were travel stories in the papers about visiting Western New South Wales to see the outback blossoming in the unaccustomed wet.  Fourthly, it has been quite wet while we’ve been here.

However, I was wrong. One explanation is that this is a big country and some of the outbreaks of fire have been in different places.  Another is that Australia has been in a drought status for ten years.  Therefore, it will take more than a few months of slightly higher than average rainfall to reverse that.  There has been rain but it is surface wet, good enough for agriculture, as long as the rain keeps coming, but not enough to saturate the land.

And, then, there is the heat!  I’ve written elsewhere about the heat.  Experiencing it for one day helped me understand how fire can break out and spread so rapidly.  When the temperature is in the upper thirties centigrade and the humidity is twenty percent or less, the air sucks the moisture out of you.  When it is accompanied by a stiff breeze or stronger, it just breathes fire as it goes.

What I find amazing is how people live with the constant companion of fire.  How do you plan a life, buy and enhance property, establish businesses and livelihoods?  How do you live with the anxiety of it all being taken away?

Australians I’ve mentioned this to really do just seem to accept it as part of life.  But I’m not there yet.  I keep thinking about the properties we saw recently – around Orange or the homes in the Royal and Heathcote National Parks south of Sydney.

As is often the case, it all comes closer to home when you have a personal connection, however tenuous.  Having visited The Dome at Parkes recently, I was researching other places to go with an astronomy connection.  One was the Siding Spring Observatory, operated by the Australian National University, housing several telescopes, including UK telescopes.  That has been badly damaged by one of this recent spate of fires.  They are slowly building up a view of the damage to the facilities, and more importantly, the equipment.  But it means that this destination I was looking at may not exist for practical purposes over the next year or so.

Information and news about the fire and its damage is available here from the Australian Astronomical Observatory, the government-funded organisation that operates the telescopes, and from ANU itself here.  These two links were active on 17 January 2013 but may change as the immediate emergency passes.

So, fire.  It is a fact of Australian life.  I haven’t quite come to terms with it yet.  Probably a good reason for me to choose to live in the centre of the city!

In the meantime, one of the cold calls that seem to plague us on our home phone here, was from the NSW Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA).  They are organising a raffle to raise funds for the equipment that the fire service needs.  Find out more here.


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