Well Strike a Light!
G'day, g'day, and how ya goin'?
A well known greeting here in Oz, also the first line of a famous Slim Dusty song, and a fair enough question about your mate's welfare. But, in normal circumstances, woe betide anyone who responds with anything other than "Good, thanks", "Fair to middling", or "She'll be right, mate". Because the last thing that any of us really want to hear, about anyone we're casually enquiring after, is how they're actually going.
For those few readers, however, who may be genuinely interested in how things are going' here, and who reside outside the Land Down Under, or for those Aussie residents who've been head down and bum up, following the yellow brick road, and living under a rock, I'll be less than the customary optimistic and flippant, should you enquire as to the health and welfare of myself and my fellow occupants of this island "girt by sea".
So ask me, "How's things?" and I'm likely to reply, after the last several weeks of less than perfect and uncharacteristically searingly hot, dry and windy spring weather, with a tentative, "Things have been better, mate."
You see, not only has the weather been unseasonally "dry as a dead dingo's donger", with the drought continuing in our outback and interior bushland, but our coastal fringe is also affected. Indeed, much of our near coastal ground cover is tinder dry and starting to add to the already large number of bushfires being experienced. These fires have been devastating large tracts of interior bushland and have recently ventured uninvited into parts of our tree covered coastal rural areas and outer suburbia. For the first time in our written history, many homes have been destroyed in our small and sometimes less than remote towns and even suburbs.
Without a doubt, this summer (which now officially commences in a couple of days) will see a long and relentless bushfire season, the likes of which neither our European forefathers nor our people of the land have previously experienced. Indeed, we've been fully into an already relentless and unprecedented bushfire season now for the last two months, commencing in early spring instead of the characteristic summer season (December through February). What's more, there's no hint of rain to quench the thirst of this greedy rampaging maelstrom. Never before have we seen such huge fires take hold on so many fronts, creating, in effect, their own subclimate of superheat and wind, so that those in their path have little chance of staying and fighting the red all devouring monster, but are lucky to flee by vehicle with their lives and a few chosen possessions and pets.
Tell me once more that the prolonged and extended drought, which we are currently and unprecedentedly experiencing in our coastal regions, and which we have been experiencing in the bush and outback out west for many years now, isn't real evidence of climate change and I'll add to the voices of all those out there working on the land, or living in the fringes of our suburban sprawl, that "You're fair dinkum dreaming," or, "You've got rocks in your head," or, "You've got a couple of roos loose in the top paddock." We don't need the joint evidence of some 11,000 scientists from 153 countries around the world who have signed a scientific paper declaring a climate emergency, we have generations of farmers and their kinfolk who, unlike so many of our politicians and our industrial so-called leaders, have no sand in which to stick their heads.
What typically starts these fires?
Here in Oz we've known for many years that "hot, dry and windy weather increases the risk of fires starting", but what actually provides the spark and initiates the flame which will inevitably turn so quickly into a raging bushfire. Well, based on fire investigations performed over many years by our various fire authorities, as reported by Nick Kelvert in his recent article in ABC Science, "the majority of bushfires are started either intentionally or unintentionally by people", rather than by nature phenomena.
Bushfire Ignition-Source-Ratio Pie-Chart
Here are some commonly reported causes which I've summarised from the above referred ABC Science article, but have also added information gleaned from less detailed and, I suspect, less fully researched articles, which I have recently sought out and read:
- Smoking - This cause wouldn't normally be as common as we might suspect, due for the need for temperatures above 27 degrees Centigrade (80 degrees Fahrenheit), humidity below 22%, and a source of loose tinder dry fuel, but these conditions are occurring regularly, even in our normally highly humid tropics, as temperatures soar, and humidity takes a dive, due to the delayed onset of the usually reliable Wet Season.
- Burning off or Back Burning - It isn't unusual for back burning (which is generally performed in the cooler seasons, to reduce the risk of having fuel building up) to get out of hand and escalate into full blown bushfires. This year, however, the fire authorities have been handicapped by recent changes to environmental laws, and conditions have been less conducive for safe back burning due to higher temperatures and unfavourable and unpredictable wind conditions outside the traditional bushfire season. This has resulted in the double edged sword of greatly reduced back burning, with the positive consequence of reduced risk of accidental initiation of fires, but also the negative consequence of an increase in dry fuel lying on the floors of our bushland and forests, veritable tinder waiting for a hint of a spark.
- Arson - It has been estimated that about half of the bushfires in Australia are deliberately lit by arsonists (but excluding children which are separately addressed below). Reference to the above bushfire ignition-source-ratio pie-chart suggests that this 50% estimate comprises 13% which have been proven to be deliberately started, plus some 37% which are considered suspicious, but not proven deliberate beyond doubt.
- Railways - Trains are reportedly a "common source of bushfires", primarily as a results of sparks from faulty brakes, or also from "carbon embers thrown from train engine exhausts".
- Campfires - This cause has reduced somewhat in recent times due to either a general seasonal ban on open fires, or the provision by authorities of "fire rings to contain embers" and/or established barbecue facilities at popular campsites.
- Work Equipment - Although the use of chainsaws, angle grinders, mowers and welding equipment is generally banned during bushfire season, several fires in September of this year (arguably prior to the advent of what has previously been designated as bushfire season) were reportedly proven to start from sparks from work equipment, according to Queensland Sunshine Coast police.
- Children - Fires caused by children have been categorised separately from arsonists (refer above) as it appears from police files that children implicated in fire start-ups have mostly acted out of curiosity rather than malice.
- Lightning Strikes - This cause falls well and truly into the category of natural causes (refer 6% in the above pie-chart). Although lightning may cause less individual fires than the other known causes, it is reportedly the most common cause of bushfire in remote areas, where bushfire has the possibility of propagating into vary large fronts, often with eventually linking up of individual bushfires. This is due to the difficulty in accessing such remote areas and commencing any form of fire fighting action to reduce and contain such fires threats. It should be noted here that lightning strikes are not necessarily accompanied here by torrential rain, and fires are often initiated by what is referred as 'dry lighting' strikes.
- Electric Fences and Power Lines - Arcing between power lines and fenceline strands, causing sparks, is a frequent cause of bushfire, so much so that major power companies have been looking seriously at preventative action that can be taken to reduce this risk.
Hail the conquering heroes
In Australia, the government funded and staffed, fully operational Fire and Emergency Services (FES) only provide fire fighting coverage for major urban areas. It follows that there is no full time fire service that covers rural, semi-rural and many of the outer urban areas of our states and territories. Hence it falls upon our various state and territory volunteer Rural Fire Services (RFS) to provide this massive task. In Queensland alone (my home state) 93% of the land area is covered by volunteers when it comes to fire fighting expertise and availability.
Queensland has a total of 33,000 volunteer RFS members distributed into 1400 rural fire brigades, while NSW has over 74,000 volunteers.
These are the men and women who answer the call to support and protect their community, fighting flames up to 10m tall, often in smoke where you can hardly see more than a few metres in front of you, surrounded by fast moving sparks driven by fire-initiated gale force winds that a car can have a hard time keeping up with. Have a look over these photos sourced from our 9 News and ABC News channels, and understand why we thank our lucky stars that there's an army of stalwart citizens, willing to put their hands up and say,
"I'll be there. You can rely on me."
When not researching the weird or the wonderful, the comical or the cultured, the sinful or the serious, I chase my creative side, the results of which can be seen as selected photographs of my travels on my website at:
The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.
Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.