About 4:15 yesterday afternoon (15 February 2013), I was working hard editing a document for my client when my husband mentioned that he could see quite a bit of smoke. A few minutes earlier we’d heard a couple of planes go by quite close. I commented that I wasn’t surprised about the smoke as there had been about 20 fires further south from us in the past three days as a result of lightning strikes from a summer electrical storm and there had been warnings about smoke throughout the south-west. One of those fires was really close to Bridgetown, where we used to live; my fear of bushfires was the reason we left Bridgetown three years ago after a fire had come really close to the town four summers ago.
But his comment about smoke reminded me to look at the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) website (http://www.dfes.wa.gov.au/alerts/Pages/default.aspx) to see what the current alerts were. This website is a godsend in summer for anyone who lives in Western Australia, as it reports fires, floods, cyclones etc. and I guess I would look at it a few times each day during summer.
I was gobsmacked — according to the website there was a bushfire really close to where we live, and people in the area just north of us were being told to leave their houses NOW; we were on the WATCH and ACT level. I went outside and could see the plume of smoke quite clearly, not far to the north-east of us. I also felt a breeze coming from the south-west, so figured that if the breeze didn’t shift, we would be OK as the fire was burning away from us.
Above: Google satellite image of where we live (orange home icon) and where the fire was (red A marker), with the distance legend from this map. It looks like the fire was about 1 to 2 km from our house on the other side of the highway. Note all the bushland south of the fire — thank goodness the breeze was from the south-west and not the north or north-east!
Above: Note the pattern of the paddocks/ponds in the lower centre of the photo taken from the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) spotter plane and compare them to the Google satellite image. (Source: DEC photo from http://www.perthnow.com.au)
Above: Plume as seen from Bunbury, some 25 km away (source: http://www.thewest.com.au).
What to do? Well, surprisingly, I wasn’t panicked. Our biggest threat was going to be embers, so I connected the hose and started watering the thatched roof of our Bali hut near the house and the brushwood fences. I also started the retic system manually to get water onto the lawns and gardens closest to the house — to hell with water restrictions at a time like this! I got out all the other hoses and connected them too — they would never save the house, but they could be useful if there were embers.
Over the next two and a half hours, I kept the retic system on, ultimately soaking most of the gardens and lawns on our property. I had a couple of calls from people I knew in Bridgetown letting me know that there was a fire close by (they monitor that DFES website like hawks!), and a phone call from my nephew who passed through the area on his way south for the weekend. I also contacted a neighbour to let her know that there was a fire close by — she already knew about it as she’d got an alert on her phone from the emergency alert system. More about that later…
Meantime, I packed up my client’s laptop, synched my laptop and packed it up, grabbed my most recent backup drive (from the previous night) for the server, grabbed my ‘Vital Info’ folder that I’d created when we lived in Bridgetown (passports, copies of ID, property titles, wills, insurance docs etc.), some basics like toiletries and clothes and underwear, and put two big woollen blankets in the boot of the car. If we needed to evacuate, I was ready.
While all this was going on, we were being buzzed continuously by water bombers and helitacs (helicopters with long snorkels/trunks designed to pick up lots of water and drop it on fire), some coming over our house quite low. I found out later that there were 7 water bombers and 2 helitacs, plus a spotter plane from DEC monitoring the direction and dimensions of the fire. Those guys were tireless! For two to three hours they were in the air, back and forth over the fire, dropping water/foam on it. I think they even made a last sortie after probably being told to stand down because of fading light as the sun had been down for a bit when the last ones flew overhead.
In that two to three hours, the fire went from a nasty plume in the sky (the pictures I took were as the plume was diminishing, not at the height of the blaze — I was too busy to take photos!!!) to almost nothing. There is no way that people on the ground alone could have extinguished that blaze in that time, no matter what resources they had. I believe that fighting the fire from the air like that was the only effective way to put out the worst of that fire. Sure, the ground crews are needed for establishing containment lines and fighting spot fires, and I have nothing but admiration for them all — especially as many are volunteers, but I really think that those water bombers and helitacs were what stopped this fire from getting out of hand.
By 8 pm last night the fire threat for us had been downgraded to ADVICE. We dodged a bullet.
(Click a photo to view it at a larger size)
Above and below: Plume from our backyard. Much less than it had been about an hour before.
Above: Plume behind our shed. Thatching on Bali hut on the right was quite soaked by now.
Above: Water bomber later in the afternoon–plume is dissipating now
Emergency Services Levy
I know there was a lot of complaint some years ago when the State government decided to add an emergency services levy to ALL property rates. I never complained about it, as funding emergency services, especially volunteer groups such as the SES, all volunteer fire brigades etc. with cake stalls just doesn’t cut it. There needs to be sufficient finance to staff DEC and DFES with permanent firefighters, and to provide equipment like water bombers and helitacs and their highly trained crews, and sufficient funds to provide equipment and training to the tireless volunteer fire brigades in this vast state of ours. It was only a few years ago that our state had NONE of these aerial firefighting instruments. After yesterday’s experience, I was ready to donate to those who keep these things flying! Unfortunately, as it’s a government-funded thing, there’s no way to donate, so I’ll likely donate to my local bushfire brigade.
Emergency Alert System
I mentioned earlier about the Australia-wide emergency alert system and how most of my neighbours got text or recorded messages on their mobile phones or landlines. I got nothing. After everything had settled down, I decided to investigate.
The FAQ page for mobile phones on the Emergency Alert website (http://www.emergencyalert.gov.au/frequently-asked-questions/how-will-it-work-on-mobile-phones.html) gave several reasons why I might not have received a message. I decided to investigate the one about the phone provider not having my street address. I went on to Telstra’s 24/7 online chat and found out that my mobile phone was linked to a street address I’d left some six years ago! The reason is that all my account information is sent to my PO Box, so I never knew that it was linked to a street address too and that I needed to change that when I’d changed the details for the PO box each time we’d moved. Well, I know now! The Telstra lady changed the street address immediately (after doing a security confirmation with me), so in case this sort of thing ever happens again, I should get an alert.
I’ll contact my landline provider today and make sure they have my street address too, as I didn’t get a message via the landline either. Again, that bill is sent to my PO box.
However, the mobile should still have got the message as we are in the cell area for where the fire was. That said, we are in a bit of a black hole where we are, and the signal isn’t always available, so perhaps that’s why it didn’t work.
It worked for my nephew though — he got the message as he was driving through the area. I followed up with my nephew a few days later — he DIDN’T get any message as he was driving through the area; he only saw the smoke and emergency service vehicles and people who had been evacuated hanging at the end of the roads. He knew where we lived so called me.
So, if you get your phone bills sent to a PO Box, contact your phone provider and make sure your correct street address is attached to your number, otherwise the emergency alert system may not work for you just when you need it to.
Update: I contacted my landline provider (iinet) and they checked the database for their wholesaler (Telstra) and yes, my street address is correctly recorded in that database. However, the iinet customer support person suggested I contact Telstra anyway to make sure. So I used the 24/7 live chat facility on Telstra. The customer support person couldn’t access that database, but she did say she’d ask why my landline didn’t receive a call assuming the street address was correct. Here’s what she found out and emailed me:
I have looked into the emergency notifications for you, and the reason you would have not received a landline notification is due to the fact they are only available to full Telstra Services. Because your phone line rental is through iiNet, we are unable to provide this service for you.
WTF?? Just because my landline phone is with a different provider, I can’t get emergency alerts on it??? I’ll be following this up, starting with iinet.