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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bushfires in Bendigo, part 1: why I've been humming The Clash's "Should I (we) stay or should I (we) go now?" in my head all night

My uncle's house, Eaglehawk (Bendigo) Australia, 1.30am 8/2/09:
My how quickly things can change. This morning I woke at 6.30am, made coffee, then answered emails that had come in overnight from UK editors before getting stuck into writing the book. During a coffee break around 11am, I blogged about my online pottering during coffee breaks. Terry and I wrote all day, sweating profusely. It was 44 degrees and our little fan was struggling. Around midday it started blowing a gale then the sky turned white and cloudy. We thought it was going to storm. Only it was looking like a sandstorm. Perhaps we're too used to living in Dubai as it didn't occur to us it was smoke. A couple of hours later, we were smelling it and the sky was quickly turning yellow. Tam (my aunt) came into our room. The neighbours had called: they had a message to evacuate. Evacuate? It seemed like an over-reaction... I got online and checked the Country Fire Authority reports. There was an alert that a fire nearby on Bracewell Street, Eaglehawk, was spreading...

Alert Message Bracewell Street Fire, Eaglehawk (Bendigo) 8.30pm, 07/02/2009:

People in the area need to remain alert as there may not be a warning should conditions change unexpectedly.
Continue to listen to ABC or local radio for updates on this fire.

Be prepared to activate your bushfire survival plan if necessary.

Decide now if you are going to stay or go.
Remember that it is very dangerous to leave late with a fire in the area. Road use in the area will be extremely hazardous due to low visibility from smoke. Watch out for fallen trees, power lines, abandoned cars, wildlife and emergency services vehicles.

If you plan to stay, remember to seek shelter from radiant heat. Should the fire reach your property, close all doors and windows and stay inside the house while the fire passes. Remain alert, extinguish any small fires and if necessary, move outside to burnt ground once the fire has passed
Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

Did my aunt even have a 'bushfire survival plan', I wondered. Smoke started to creep into the house and we sprung into action. We turned on the radio to listen to reports. We could see dark balls of smoke in the sky from the fire close by and helicopters whizzed around. My aunt gathered the animals (five cats and a dozen dogs) together in the living room and we locked them in while we got organized. We packed bags with our valuable possessions (not hard for us; we hadn't had time to unpack). We got the laptops and camera gear ready. We put wet towels under the doors, got water bottles out. I slung a small bag holding torches and mobile phones over my shoulder. We began hosing down the long grass and ground around the house and spraying the roof. All the time we were keeping watch to see what the neighbours, and the smoke, were doing. Tam opened the car doors, put the keys in the ignition, and we planned where the animals boxes and luggage would go. It was getting even hazier and our eyes were stinging. Fire engines were speeding past. Cars - so many cars - were heading in the fire's direction. 'Sightseers' the fire chiefs would later complain on the radio. I refreshed the CFA site to check the latest report:

Urgent Threat Message Bracewell Fire (Bendigo) 8.30pm, 07/02/2009:

The Bracewell fire, burning at the edge of the Bendigo suburbs of West Bendigo and Specimen Hill is burning in a northerly and northeasterly direction. A section of the fire is moving towards Eaglehawk and residents in the Upper California Gully Road and Hall Street area are warned that their area is under ember attack.
There are 30 tankers and 135 firefighters working on the fire, with another 40 tankers en route from Ballarat and Swan Hill.
Water bombing aircraft are also at work on the fire, and gas and electricity to the area has been cut off to prevent leaks.
A wind change has moved through the area, slightly reducing the intensity of the fire.

Protect yourself from radiant heat by wearing correct protective clothing consisting of long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sturdy boots and a broad brimmed hat. On no account should synthetic material be worn.

As the fire front approaches, it will be unsafe to be either on foot or in a car as the heat radiating from the fire will be intense.
Buildings will offer the best protection during the passage of a fire front. Close all doors and windows and stay inside the house while the fire passes. Remain alert, extinguish any small fires and if necessary, move outside to burnt ground once the fire has passed.

If you are caught on the road, don't get out and run.
Pull to the side, preferably in an area clear of tall trees and long grass. Put your hazard lights on and close the windows and vents. Cover any exposed areas of skin with a woollen blanket and get down as low as possible. Only when the fire has passed do you get out and move to safety.
Continue to listen to ABC or local radio for updates on this fire.

By now it was dark. Gradually the smoke started to subside and the sky began to clear. A vehicle with flashing lights appeared. Emergency workers had come to close our street to stop the 'rubber-neckers' going to look. The Bracewell fire was being contained. Tens of thousands of houses in Bendigo were without power and the gas would soon go off, the guys told us, to prevent explosions. We better make dinner then, Terry said. We listened to the radio as we cooked. The damage it seems is horrific. My aunt took the animals out. Close to midnight the Premiere got on the radio, speaking from Bendigo. There are fires raging all over the state (take a look at this map). It seems it is worse than Ash Wednesday, 14 people confirmed dead, but they expect the numbers to be much higher. I went to check the online report again.

Urgent Threat Message
Bracewell Fire (Bendigo) 11.30pm, 07/02/2009
The Bracewell fire, burning at the edge of Bendigo has damaged a number of houses in the Long Gully and Sparrowhawk Estate area.

The progress of the firefront has been largely contained within a perimeter along Marong Road, Eaglehawk Road, Bracewell Street and Upper California Gully Road. The fire is still burning inside that perimeter. Some homes to the north of Eaglehawk Road are still subject to ember attack.

Residents in this area may experience smoke and burning embers reaching their properties, and are advised to patrol their houses to find and put out any burning embers that may be landing.

It's 2am now, and Terry and Tam are asleep. I'm going to head outside now and look for embers...

Pictured? The smoke haze that today enveloped our neighbourhood of Eaglehawk.


Girl from HK said...

Wow, I'm glad you're careful outside!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Girl from HK - thanks for your thoughts - much appreciated.