With a change in winds and cooler temperatures — and the awesome dedication by volunteer firefighters, the water bombers, and all their support crews — the Department of Environment and Conservation advises that the fires are now contained and the immediate threat to Bridgetown, Greenbushes and Balingup has passed.
Some of the roads are still closed, including South West Highway between Bridgetown and Greenbushes. And it’s an awfully long detour to go the way that Main Roads is advising (PDF of route map) so add an extra one to two hours to your journey. The highway is expected to remain closed all this weekend. The Bridgetown to Boyup Brook Rd has re-opened, though the Greenbushes to Boyup Brook Rd and Maranup Ford Rd are still closed.
So, what was it like being that close to a major bushfire? Scary as hell. Even though we live on the eastern side of town and the fire was on the west, we could see the massive plumes of smoke heading our way. I’d been working all day (Friday), with my back to the back door, and only when I spoke to friend on the phone around 3pm did I even realise there was a fire (we don’t listen to the radio and nothing was on the news websites I check occasionally). She’d just got in after helping organise food and drink for fire crews until midnight the previous night and all day Friday. I then looked out the back windows and saw this massive amount of yellowish smoke. She said the fire was headed toward Highlands Estate, which is about 5 km from town, and then looked like it was heading towards town.
Like many others, we live near the top of a hill, and immediately behind us is a BIG bush block. I know what fire does — it goes up, and if it gets into eucalypt trees, they can explode…
We hadn’t put together a fire management plan, but some time back I’d printed out a “What to do in the case of fire” from the FESA website and that was pinned to the fridge. I checked it over to see what we could do now, and put into action those steps that applied to us. Some of the things we did: filled the bath and laundry tubs and buckets with water; pulled out some blankets and towels ready for use; packed a bag; put vital papers into a box; found safety glasses and face masks; put out torches; unrolled long garden hoses; brought in outdoor furniture, etc. Work took a very big back seat! Though I did copy over critical business files from the server onto the laptop, and put the external backup drive into the box of important stuff.
And then we watched that scary smoke every few minutes. The bird noise disappeared entirely. And the insect noise (I didn’t realise the insects were quiet too, until the cicadas started up again). It was very quiet and still, and stinking hot. And standing out on the back porch watching the smoke, I could see little bits of blackened leaves floating down on the back lawn. None were alight, but it made me realise the power of fire to set off sparks in places some distance away from the fire front. We were getting blackened leaves in our yard and we were probably some 5 to 10 kms from where those leaves originated.
By this stage we had the local radio on and every few minutes there was a warning to residents in the Peninsula area (one of my favourite bits of country around here) to evacuate NOW or stay and defend.
Then I noticed a little wind. It was probably about 5:00pm. It was hard to tell, but the wind appeared to be coming from the south west. Then gradually the smoke in the south west began to clear and the plumes were definitely going in a north north easterly direction.
We watched the regional TV News and they had some news about the fire, but no maps of where it was. The state News at 6:00pm had not much more (they were mostly covering the fires in and around Perth), then we lost power. We had expected a power outage as one of the radio news reports said that FESA had advised Western Power to turn off the main power line to Nannup (some 45 km away), and that it was likely that power would be cycled around the Bridgetown area as required.
So what do you do when waiting for the power to come back on? We played euchre! Fortunately, with daylight saving we had reasonable light until around 8:30 pm, which is when the power came back on. We had intermittent power surges and blackouts over the next 12 hours.
But it appeared that the immediate danger to the town had passed. By 8:30pm the plume of smoke was definitely headed NNE and we could see through the smoke to the hills on the other side of town.
It’s now Sunday morning. The weather was cooler yesterday, and right now I can hear the blessed sound of rain drops! It probably won’t be a lot of rain, but anything is better than nothing in dampening down the remnants of the fire.
And now we can get angry. It seems the fire may have been deliberately lit. What kind of person lights a fire in a tinder dry eucalypt plantation in the middle of a 40C day???? News reports indicate that the fire may have been deliberately lit, and that our town was under major threat from the fire and only the wind shift saved it.
Some 6000 ha of farmland and bush have been destroyed, including four houses, livestock, native birds and animals. Some 150 VOLUNTEER firefighters — members of our small community and communities nearby — have been fighting this fire since Thursday, trying to protect our town, our lives and our properties, all the while wondering what’s happening on their own property and causing a lot of heartache for their own families who no longer have them close by (and mobile phones didn’t work for a while as the smoke blotted out the sky near the main mobile phone tower for the town).
The crime of arson now carried a hefty jail sentence and up to $250,000 fine. I hope if they catch this person that they throw the book at him.