[plug] [long email] Dwellingup fires - a personal perspective

Gavin Chester sales at ecosolutions.com.au
Mon Feb 12 17:14:25 WST 2007


Distributed to family, friends and selected recipients.

G'day all,

You would have seen or heard the news of the fires here in Dwellingup,
and now things are returning to normal for most of us after a very tense
time over the past week.  Sadly for some it will take a lot longer to
rebuild their lives.  We are among the lucky ones who were threatened
but survived intact - unlike the unfortunate souls in the ranks of those
made homeless by the fires.  Sixteen houses, numerous sheds, kilometres
of fencing, wildlife and livestock injuries and deaths (no tally yet),
thousands of hectares of bush, and hundreds of hectares of pasture were

Much of the bush will recover in time, but the intensity of heat was so
great in many places that only black sticks remain instead of trees.  It
is likely in that instance that the trees have been completely killed as
even the epicormic buds under the bark are unable to survive the heat.
Many areas of forest will therefore become equivalent to 'clear-felled'
or 'ring-barked' forest and will take decades to recover by seed
germination rather than re-sprouting new leaves.

Of the 16 houses lost, not a single life or serious injury happened.
Hundreds of firefighters did a fantastic job containing the fires as
much as possible, working exhausting, long shifts in TOUGH conditions.
Numerous other people worked almost as hard supporting the firefighters
with food and drink and other logistical matters.  While we in outlying
areas were without power here for a week, Western Power installed six
big generators in the centre of town to power most residents and
businesses there.  Meanwhile, line crews numbering up to 40 worked
(almost) around the clock to restore the power lost by the burning of 70
wooden poles. Essentially, everyone was very lucky, and everyone worked
tremendously hard in the face of the worst fires to have hit the region
in 46 years.  You may remember that in 1961 the whole townsite of
Dwellingup was razed by fire and numerous outlying farms lost.    

We in the Chester/Mummery household have been very lucky - only having
to endure a 'back to basics' lifestyle for the past week, with no phone
for a few days, no electricity for a week and then another day more
until I restored running water (yesterday).  So, I'm sure you can
appreciate that it has not been possible to respond to people or deal
with business matters while dodging flames and lacking basic services.

Personally, I endured the scariest nights of my life on Saturday 3rd and
Sunday 4th of February when I donned protective clothing and prepared to
face the roaring wall of flame that was quickly making its way to me.
For those that don't know, our small acreage is surrounded on three
sides by dense bush and is heavily treed on most of its extent.  The
house is a wooden cottage placed only about 10m from part of the bush
that lies outside the property line.  Basically, I was sitting on a
tinderbox. Thankfully, through all this Anne (wife) and our young kids
were able to take refuge at Anne's parents house a very safe distance
away in a neighbouring town.

With no electrical power to pump water, I had run around madly preparing
things - including resurrecting the only petrol-powered pump we had.
The pump was hardly ideal, being a low-pressure sludge pump not having
been started for about five years, but it was all I had at the time.
After spending several hours stripping and rebuilding the clagged-up
carburettor and fuel tap I was able to get it started and then scratched
together some hoses to hook up to it.  I was very fortunate to have the
luxury of such time to prepare because those people who lost their homes
in the first moments of the fire reportedly had less than an hour before
the fire was on them.  Nevertheless, with such little time available my
thoughts were only on getting that pump going to have some sort of
defence that first night.  

For myself, I had devised safety measures and a fall-back strategy.  I
knew that heat and smoke would be the biggest issues, so I had prepared
myself with a double layer of heavy cotton clothing from neck to ankle,
steel-toe work boots, a heavy leather jacket and hood from my welding
gear, safety goggles, an industrial respirator, and a hard hat for
protection from falling branches.  If the dodgy pump pump failed when I
was trying to protect the house I had a hand-pumped knapsack sprayer,
just in case, and a tank next to the house from which to fill it.  I
realised being surrounded by dense bush that by the time I decided that
I had lost my battle to save the house that there would be no escape
from my block, so my last resort was a woollen blanket soaking in a tub
of water and a clear exit route to the dry bed of our farm dam.  The
depth of the dam would protect me from the radiant heat and the
low-lying position would allow some air for me to breath below the
inevitable palls of dense smoke.  
After Saturday night's reprieve, but with the fire threat still looming,
I had more time on Sunday to prepare and drove around scratching extra
firebreaks around everything with a tractor and back-blade.  I also
parked my work van and another car in the middle of a clearing with a
wide, dusty break around them.  My priorities then turned to
irreplaceable personal effects, such as my business papers, computerised
records, the few most precious mementos, and the like.  These I could
only protect by selecting a spot that was the most clear of grass,
scrub, overhanging trees and flammable things like paint tins, fuel
cans ... and cars.  I had to place them under cover of a heavy canvas
tarpaulin to protect them from dust, but then had to overlay that with
corrugated iron sheets to ward of falling embers.     

It was then that the nerve-wracking vigil began again: waiting to hose
down the spot fires that result from falling embers carried far in front
of the advancing fire.  The thing that scared me most was waiting for
the inferno and roaring winds that follow the spot fires.  Basically,
it's then that all hell breaks loose because with fires this intense it
jumps from tree crown to crown, exploding with unimaginable ferocity
from the volatile oils in the eucalypt leaves.  The trees here average
20-30 metres tall and film footage I'd seen show walls of flame leaping
higher than this.  With visions of this film footage in my mind, there I
sat ... and waited ... one man and a dodgy pump.  I had to be realistic:
the firefighters were doing a courageous job, but they were spread
thinly on the ground.  Therefore, it was highly probable that an
outlying home like ours would not be fought for when they had dozens of
homes to protect in the township nearby.  

On both nights, the fire front got to within about 4kms from me (2km
from the town), with the orange glow in the night sky easy to see as the
fire grew in intensity.  On both nights, I (and the town) had an '11th
hour' reprieve in the form of a roaring south-easterly breeze that came
in at around 11pm and drove the fire front back away from us.  It is
difficult to imagine the feeling of anxiety that engulfs you having had
an 11-hour reprieve one night only to realise that fire conditions were
such that it was to be repeated all over again the next night (Sunday).

By Monday, after two nights of last-minute reprieve, we thought that
we'd seen an end to all the fear and dread.  Then we had the
heart-sinking news that the fire was still burning ferociously south of
us and that the south-westerly sea breeze expected that afternoon would
drive it on us again with renewed and uncontrollable destruction.
Luckily for us, someone or something was looking after us all those
nights and following days because the sou'wester never materialised and
in the end all we had to endure was our own anxiety.  

Sadly, one person's good fortune can mean a loss for another person.
The same winds that drove the wall of flame away from Dwellingup pushed
it westward onto other farms and towns.  By the middle of this past
week, the neighbouring townships of Coolup and Waroona were threatened.
The saving grace in both those instances was that the fire had left the
dense bushland by the time it reached these settlements and was
contained more easily in the grassy paddocks with no further loss of

Complacency is an insidious thing.  I have lived here 20 years, and only
AFTER the recent fires have I gone out and bought a couple of
petrol-powered, high-pressure firefighting pumps.  Perhaps now I will
get around to hooking them up to the couple of firefighting tanks that I
bought several years ago, but which lay uselessly to one side when we
needed them most.  I was hardly alone in my complacency, with many
individuals reporting similar complacency on their forest acreages.

Not all the people who lost houses have lost their homes.  In some
instances, the house lost was a second building on a property, usually
an older original residence long ago replaced by a newer dwelling.  In
other instances, the houses were occupied only for weekends and
holidays.  However, there are still a reasonable number of people who
have lost everything: home and personal effects.  These are the people
entitled to government and community assistance and it is them that we
need to give the most support.  Few of them have the financial capacity
to replace what they lost, but I have read that donations can be given
through different sources to help these people.  Please take the time to
find out how you might help because every little bit will make it easier
for them to begin to rebuild their lives.  

Thanks for reading.  I'm glad we're all here in one piece to settle back
into our routines and carry on like before.  On behalf of us all, I want
to thank those that were anxious for our welfare and reassure you that
now we are slowly getting back to 'normality'.               
Regards, Gavin Chester 
(Principal, BSc.Hons, Environmental Science)

ecosolutions(R) (est. 1990)
"... for all your environmental monitoring needs"
 PO Box 62, Dwellingup WA  6213

Tel: +61 8 95381102  
Fax: (please note faxes are now NOT accepted.
        use email attachment instead. Thank you)

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