Thursday, November 19, 2009

From the Bureau of Meteorology

Issued at 6:55 am CDT on Thursday, 19 November 2009.

Thursday, 19 November 2009 is forecast to be very hot and dry for all of South Australia. Fresh to strong north to northwest winds over the west of the state, will shift fresh southwesterly with a change reaching Ceduna mid afternoon and a line Tarcoola to Adelaide around midnight.

Catastrophic Fire Danger [100+] is forecast for the West Coast, Eastern Eyre Peninsula and Lower Eyre Peninsula Total Fire Ban districts.

Extreme Fire Danger [75-99] is forecast for the Northwest Pastoral and Flinders Total Fire Ban districts.

Severe Fire Danger [50-74] is forecast for the Mid North Total Fire Ban district.

The Country Fire Service advises that fires burning under these conditions are likely to be fast moving, unpredictable and uncontrollable. You should action your Bushfire Survival Plan now.

The forecast maximum temperature for Adelaide today is 43 degrees. Ceduna and Leigh Creek are expecting 45, Port Augusta 47.

Yesterday was the first day on which the new system of identifying fire danger in South Australia made use of the category Catastrophic. 'Catastrophic', aka 'Code Red', basically means 'Leave now, flee, run for your lives.' One of the regions listed under this red code is Lower Eyre Peninsula, the site of an uncontrollable bushfire in January 2005, a fire in which nine people died and dozens more were rendered homeless, penniless, and/or permanently damaged in some other way. The events of the fire had a long tail of depression, PTSD and suicide.

On the news last night they were interviewing people from the affected rural areas. Obviously the TV station (Seven, I think) edited their footage to suit their own purposes, and who knows what agendas lurk in the hearts of producers of commercial TV news, but everyone whose interview made it to the screen responded with that combination of steely and laconic that I remember so well from having grown up with it, in a slightly (but only slightly) kinder, gentler part of rural South Australia. (UPDATE: here, in fact, where the only SA bushfire of the day so far has broken out two paddocks across from the house I grew up in. Fark.)

Two fortyish, weatherbeaten male farmers said they wouldn't leave unless there was an actual fire. A young woman with kids was cross that the schools had been closed, not because it meant she had the kids at home (most country people regard that as an advantage; they can help with the work) but because she felt her kids were unnecessarily missing out on a precious day of education. One dear old hatted dude in the pub, a man of at least 80 and probably older, scorned the idea of leaving. 'There's no fire. And,' he added, looking the camera in the eye, 'I wouldn't be scared or worried if there was.' It was very obvious that he didn't necessarily mean he thought he was safe. Country people live with death on a daily basis and learn to look it in the eye.

My guess is that in the endless quest for ratings the station was pandering to the prejudices of urban viewers by trying to make country people look too stupid to come in out of the rain. If so, it sort of backfired; they looked at least as brave as they looked silly. I wasn't sure whether to admire them or scream at them. But I guess those two things aren't mutually exclusive.

The Curramulka fire started about a mile back over where my right shoulder would have been when I took this photo, which faces south. The paddock you can see to the right of the tree in the middle of the picture would have been one of the first to burn. My childhood home is a couple of hundred metres down this road on the left. The township is down where you can see the land dipping into a hollow like a saucer or a nest, about 5 km south of here.

The fire passed by very close to the town and headed south-east. It's now been contained, but about an hour ago there was supposed to be a wind change that might push it back towards the town along a projected path that would lead it directly towards the cemetery where my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents are buried. If those gravestones are damaged my father is going to be very seriously dark.

UPDATE UPDATE, 10.30 pm: Yep, here we go; the cemetery and further north what used to be our family farm are smack in the middle of this danger area. I've been watching that dry lightning in the western sky across the gulf ever since it got dark.

In December 1869, great-great-granpappy got forced over the cliff and into the sea with his son John and the horse and cart by a bushfire that unbeknownst to them until hours later had already killed the shepherd, the shepherd's son and over a thousand sheep. G-G-Granpa and his boy trod water while bits of burning debris rained down on them, along this same stretch of coast that's now under threat again, in the same bay where I learned to swim. The fire will probably pass over all four of their graves, and they'll be shaking their heads skulls and saying Oh great, here we go again.

This region is family heartland. Not happy.

UPDATE #3, midnight:

Okay, that was scary.

It's still filthy hot here, oven-hot, so I got in the car and drove the ten minutes to the same beach where the boy from the Bruce Springsteen song held his girl so sadly while the sun set into the sea and the kids rode the water slide and the merry-go-round a couple of nights ago. It's another Springsteen night tonight, the sea roaring and shadowy couples in shorts and sundresses lined up in cars along the edge of the dunes or trailing down to the beach with ice creams and tinnies.

I'd thought I might be able to see some sort of glow from the fire across the gulf. But I wasn't prepared for the actual line of golden, flickering flames where my and my father's and his father's and his father's childhood beaches were on fire in the dark, due west across the water. A few miles south of the fire I could see the faint lights of a town that must have been Port Vincent, now quite a big town, full of apprehensive people all still up with the lights on, thinking about what to do: full of women alone, still up, still dressed, making cups of coffee and cups of tea, checking on the kids, watching the phone while their blokes were out at the fire, waiting for their blokes to come home.

I pulled up on the esplanade and wound down the car window. Under the heavy complicated smell of the incoming tide and the wind in the pines and the cars along the foreshore and the warm spitty rain hitting the hot road in tiny drops and steaming, under all that, there was the faintest note of smoke.


Henry said...

The media are banging the disaster gong, and will probably keep at it until April. It seems we are being kept in state of barely subdued panic about bushfires. Fury! Doom!

Black Saturday was a rare and horrifying day, but it didn't change the laws of physics. Out here in western Victoria, where it's mild compared with our SA neighbours (Hi, Pav!), I have my pumps and my plan, and I am getting on with my day.

Watchful, prepared and not alarmed.

I hope there is ice for the G&Ts this evening.

Henry said...

Oh, and tell your Weatherpixie to put a hat on. Doesn't she have enough sense to come inside out of the heat?

iODyne said...

Hi Henry above - I am in the WD too.

The MSM is evil and would stoop to create panic which they then make news out of.

Bless the SES and CFA crews.

Anonymous said...

Marshall-Stacks I bless the SES, DES & CFA too.

I just wish the management at CFA, DSE & BOM could co-ordinate a one stop shop for information so I don't have to guess whether that smoke over there (not today, last week, today we're all good far as I know) is backburning or a run for yer lives type situation. Which is what really creates panic, the mainstream media are filling the void.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

ABC Radio in Adelaide were doing a fantastic job keeping everyone up to speed with what was happening today, especially after a second fire broke out at Streaky Bay on the West Coast.

Bernice said...

Is your father still living out on the property? How's he going?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

No, the ties to that land are only ("only", hah) about memory and history. Papa Cat is well, and will be 83 in February if he survives the summer. If any of us survive the summer.

Anonymous said...

There is something about bushfire near a family home, or where a family had historical connections, that hits hard with thoughts of mortality and loss. The impermanence of all our endeavours in the face of raging nature, maybe. My parents' old home at Skyline Ridge, near Yarra Glen, went in the Black Saturday conflagration, in what were described as firestorm conditions. Nothing was left--as a visit some months later proved. But the gum trees were sprouting green leaves from their burnt black bark. Lucy Sussex

Anonymous said...

Couldn't believe it when your home town came on the radio news last night PC - been thinking of you, and it. I'm with Henry - we're going to be stuck in a media frenzy of 'Catastrophic!!' for this summer at least. Code Red, incidentally, used to be the name of fire days just one BELOW TFBs for the CFA anyway, just to further confuse things. Now it has received a promotion, and you have all those low ratings on the TFB (in which you could actually die and lose your property also, but are people going to think that way). Like Henry and M-S we have the pumps ready, the garden cleared, the CFA suits by the door, the scanner on, but remain calm. If hot. But not as hot as you PC. If I look south I can see burnt ridges, and if I shut my eyes I can still see the flames of 9 months ago, that took Lucy's family home and so much more. They're still so black that we don't have so much to fear from that direction. Pity about the State Forest to the north... Hope everyone gets the predicted rain, and not so much of the lightning.

Anonymous said...

Your great-great granpappy’s tale reminded me of a former London colleague who was raised in a village on the Tanzanian coast. When she was a child, a herd of very angry Elephants arrived outside her village, so everyone took off towards the beach, and ended up standing in the ocean. Coincidentally, the Elephants stood on top of a cliff above the beach, blowing their trumpets and stamping around, before they took off into the bush. Hope this tale lifts your spirits – you need some good news in SA. If I could send a herd of Elephants your way, even the angry sort, and maybe magic Elephants that could put out fires and bring rain, I would.

Anonymous said...

Feeling for you - that situation really comes under the heading of unfun.

I wasn't filled with confidence when ABC Melbourne radio announced an interview with Russell Reed, head of the CFA, this morning. The man is incapable of stepping outside his risk management framework and just telling people like it is.

Very glad the actual firies don't seem to have that problem.

Anonymous said...

Walking past a chemistry lab a month or so ago, some sirens were blaring from within the chem labs. A security guard was standing outside and his "risk management" warning to passers-by was gobsmackingly ridiculous. He said "There is a fire situation, please walk on the pavement opposite". A fire is a fire, surely! In other words, scarper folks.