I have had several of my overseas friends concerned about us and how we are faring with the disastrous fires in Australia. Then is my reply to them.
In short, we are very grateful that we are all OK and safe in Melbourne. Because we live in a big city, there are no forests here to burn, so fortunately, we have had no real direct impact from the fires. However, there are still a couple of months of our bushfire season to come. I feel so very sorry for those affected and who have lost their property and / or their livelihood in these fires.
All we are noticing here is that there is a lot of thick smoke haze in the sky and visibility has been reduced significantly over the last few days. Not much breathing difficulty for us but I have had sore eyes at the end of each day. People living in Sydney over the last few weeks have had it much worse with smoke haze that has limited visibility to just a few hundred metres. We have had some minor fires on our city outskirts but most are well away from us.
We had a cold front come through Victoria this morning that brought southerly winds, dropped the temperature by 20 degrees Celsius, and cleared the air. It brought the first rain since November. Only a few millimetres though. For our fire fighters, this is a mixed blessing. It reduces the fire threat for a few days but the small amount of rain that came with it will just make the ground slippery and make it difficult for them to move their machinery in to place. We are now at the stage where fire fighters are no longer trying to put the fires out – they are just focusing on trying to save property and lives.
These fires are the worst in my memory and probably the worst since those in 1939 that devastated the entire state of Victoria. At the moment, the fires are about 250 km away from Melbourne. They extend all along the south-eastern seaboard of Australia – a distance of about 1400 kms (from the town of Bairnsdale to Coffs Harbour). They have burnt out an area of nearly 19,000 square miles – more than the size of the US states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
I don’t know how much they are caused by climate change – most likely, much of the cause is some years of drought and a lack of forest maintenance by state government authorities. Our summer temperatures have had many days that been well over 100F. In ancient days, Aborigines used fire in winter to create cool burns that flushed out animals for food and also reduced the amount of fuel on the forest floor. With cost cutting and environmentalist pressures, this has not been done properly for years. These fires were mostly started by lightning in November and will probably continue to burn for at least another month unless we get several inches of rain.
In our state of Victoria, the fires are mainly in the east of the state and are in forest areas with lots of forest, many small hamlets and little towns. Many of these have been totally destroyed. The authorities are compulsorily evacuating people from them. At one holiday resort on the coast, over 4000 people had to shelter on the beach and the navy are currently evacuating them by ship as all the roads are cut (burnt bridges and fall trees). The army are lifting people out of small isolated hamlets by helicopter. So far, we have been a bit lucky in that we have had less than ten deaths. Losses of property across Australia are high – well over 1200 homes have been lost so far, and that number will certainly grow.
Sydney has been ringed by fire for a number of weeks now and that is causing a great deal of smoke haze there. The smoke has now reached New Zealand (2100 kms away). I saw pictures on the TV tonight of red skies caused smoke in the atmosphere. I have a friend from my army days who lives in a remote location in northern New South Wales. His house was threatened by fire but fortunately, he had thirteen fire trucks turn up in his front paddock to protect his house. Then the helicopters started taking water from the only remaining water hole in his nearby river for fighting fires. He pumps water from there for his house, so he now has no water until next winter.
When we get hot days and strong winds (generally from the north), the risk of fire is very high. Eucalyptus trees shed their bark in long strips and these are caught high in the tree branches. Fire causes a strong updraft and this bark not only catches fire but it is lifted out of the tree and blown for as much as ten kilometres ahead of the main fire. This causes new outbreaks of fire when it falls to the ground. The other night, fires in Victoria advanced over 30 kilometres in this way.
Whilst the fires along the south-eastern seaboard are bad, there are many fires around the country that are currently blanketing Australia. This is a very bad fire season for us. If you can imagine the California fires spreading all the way to Atlanta and New York, then spreading down to New Orleans and Houston, or up to Chicago, this is what’s happening here. Across the country, 5 million hectares of land have burned. That’s 5 times the size of the recent Amazon fires and 50 times the size of the California fires. We have reportedly lost 500 million animals. Included in this number are somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of all the country’s koala population.