A story of fire and ice

A bushfire rages over Glen Huon on January 28, 2019

Our post on January 22 “Fire fuse is lit” was providential, heralding one of Tasmania’s more severe and perhaps unusual fire seasons.

No one was killed, but homes were destroyed. The famous Tahune Airwalk through the forest canopy suffered minor damage. The Southwood timber mill was not so lucky, with substantial damage not just to infrastructure but also to its forestry log resource.

Despite the loss of property, it was an incredibly lucky escape for the Huon Valley, as the “Riveaux Rd fire” had quickly travelled east from its lightning ignition point of January 15, while also spreading north and south. It ultimately flanked the rural-residential districts and towns of the Huon Valley, from Lonnavale in the north almost to Dover in the south. Our picture above of Glen Huon was taken on January 28.

One more major westerly wind system and the fire would have been into the towns. A bout of catastrophic conditions could have put the fire into Kingston and Hobart.

Instead, miraculously, it stopped mostly short of where dry grass paddocks meet forest, thanks in part to the exhausting work by firefighters, but mainly because the wind dropped enough so they could fight it.

If the wind had come up again, there would have been no fight. As the fire chief said: “We won’t be able to control this one.”

Resources were stretched. The timber town of Geeveston almost ran out of water, its reservoir quickly running low from the sheer demand.

For a while the Huon Valley was like a war zone, with thick smoke and the sound of numerous helicopters carrying water buckets, along with two giant water-bombing aircraft. Firefighters were flown in from the mainland.

This TFS map image shows the main Tasmanian bushfires of 2019, burning in “wet” areas

After almost two weeks of intense worrying about when the fire would push forward again and destroy more homes, the rain finally came, perhaps thanks to the rain-dancing efforts of those staying at the evac centre in Huonville PCYC.

The 2019 season came on the back of bad fire seasons in 2013 and 2016.

This writer has experienced three nearby fires in seven years, though this was by far the worst. Our efforts centred upon removing more than 50 ute loads of tree limbs, dry hedges and excess garden matter from around the house as the fire approached. This required travelling back and forth from Hobart at the height of the blaze, as conditions allowed.

Even in Hobart, where we had evacuated to for some of the period, the smoke was thick.

The fire stopped 4km short of our fences but we found one tiny burnt patch where an ember had landed in dry grass, fortunately in a gully out of the wind. It self extinguished.

Tassie is a land of fast-changing weather. By February 12 the Huon’s nearby Snowy Range, which had been bone dry and as ready to burn as anywhere else, was covered in snow, a substantial blanket of white worthy of winter.

It is perhaps typical of Tassie weather. What is not typical though is the fact that the West Coast is drying out, that fires are now regularly burning through ancient forest, button grass and peatland in places that rarely if ever burned. Dry lightning storms are becoming more common.

The weather is changing.

The rain may be making the same annual totals each year, but word on the ground is that it now falls in short, hard falls, rather than the ongoing weeks of drizzle of yesteryear. That drizzle soaked the deepest soil and usually kept trees green well into summer. Today’s rain tends to run off the dry ground.

Tassie has always had fires, but the future is obvious – there will be more. The same applies to the Australian mainland, and around the world.

One more major westerly push and the Huon Valley would have been in deep trouble

The Huon Valley has had its warning shot. Looking at suburbs around the more populated Kingston and Hobart, with homes built amid tall eucalypts and pines on the side of windy hills, you can see what is coming, sooner or later. Dryer, windier and hotter means more fires.

Thankfully, the summer fire season is only two to three months a year. And usually much less. The joke used to be that Tasmania’s summer was on Wednesday.

We are starting to appreciate the “dreary seasons” more. Spring is our favourite in Tassie. Everything is in bloom, and it is usually damp and emerald green.

The internet was a huge help in the Huon fires, giving fast information on where the fire front was, and the current and upcoming weather conditions. The ever-changing local wind directions were not always forecast though, and made life tough for firefighters.

The fire also fostered community spirit. Perplexing was the lack of reward for volunteer firefighters, while evacuees received two emergency grants.

The pictures show the TFS maps at the peak of the fires, along with the snow on the Snowy Range shortly after, and a picture of Glen Huon when the fire was raging.

They are a tough mob in the valley. The writer drove from our Huon home to Hobart one night as the fire burned above, with a full emergency warning on the TFS website, but the lights were on in many Glen Huon houses. They had presumably stayed to fight.

Whether that was wise or not, only they can know.

Also burned was a large area of highland country around Miena, and part of the Southwest Conservation Area. And some other spots. An old trout lodge was lost.

Keep fires in mind during your summer holiday in Tasmania, or anywhere in rural Australia.

On the Apple Isle, the TFS website will keep you up to date. It pays to stay informed as fires can develop quickly in windy, dry weather, and those curly rural roads though the hills are not designed for quick getaways.

The TFS address is http://fire.tas.gov.au/

Also keep in mind that when you visit Tassie you are far more likely to be running for a warm jumper than a fire blanket.

The Snowy Range covered in snow in mid summer on Feb 13, shortly after the bushfires

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