In contrast to Far North Queensland, where torrential rain has led to widespread flooding with over 400mms falling in 24hrs; here in drought-stricken Tasmania, the southern half of this island is, to put it bluntly, ablaze.
Three huge out-of-control bushfires have consumed almost 200,000 hectares of the island’s wilderness areas. Natural Parks and precious World Heritage Sites are been razed. Towns and hamlets are at risk of incineration. So far, only a handful of houses are confirmed lost but this number is likely to rise sharply in coming days with high temperatures and gusty winds forecast.
There are dire predictions that the fires are set to worsen. The beleaguered 500 or so firefighters are exhausted, and authorities are considering calling in expert help from as far away as the United States and Europe.
Smoke from the bushfires has already reached New Zealand 2,000 kilometres away. The aforementioned firefighters and the water bombing aircraft, including a Boeing 747, can do little more than back burn and put in fire breaks to defend the rural towns and hamlets from the infernos. Poor visibility due to the heavy smoke has meant that the aircraft are often unable to operate.
Our closest fire, just across the Huon River, is less than 10 kms away. We’ve been warned to watch out for spot fires and live airborne embers. These destructive embers travel kilometres ahead of the actual fire and they will destroy property.
Ominous-looking burnt black eucalyptus leaves and ash are already carpeting our bush property. The smell of the smoke fills every nook and cranny inside. There is no escaping its acrid smell. Of course, I could choose to leave our bush block like many of our neighbours. But the fire hasn’t gotten any closer to us, yet. It’s just that heavy wall of smoke with a more than a hint of what menace may follow.
Surprisingly, this bushfire Watch and Act status is mostly a mundane waiting game. If the fire “makes a run” to use the firefighters’ vocabulary and if the wind changes, we will be in trouble. Today, like yesterday and the day before, we may well get the word that we should evacuate.
Hundreds of locals have already decamped to a nominated centre in the nearby town of Huonville. Livestock have been moved to safer paddocks. A tent city has sprung up on the town’s footy oval. And a man has been charged with looting several abandoned homesteads.
We can draw some small comfort from the fire trucks that occasionally rumble slowly by our front gate, night and day with their flashing blue and red lights as they too watch out for any spot fires. The crew look almost bored, but perhaps they are simply fatigued from their constant state of vigilance.
Our predominantly timber home is not regarded as being defendable. Built well over a decade ago, it predates the strict fireproof regulations of modern dwellings. We have no fireproof bunker. And so, our ash-coated cars remain jam-packed with our stuff and they are parked facing our exit. Even our dogs, normally playful and curious, are subdued; as if they know something’s astir and our sudden exit is imminent.
I like to think I will be able to put up a partial fight of sorts before I abandon ship. A mate is on standby to come over and help, and we have two fire-fighting pumps at the ready, at either ends of the house. If we lose power, which is likely, at least these petrol driven pumps will remain functional. I’ve blocked the downpipes and filled the gutters with water. My wife and I have raked up wheelbarrow loads of gum leaves from around the house in a forlorn attempt to minimise fuel for a fire in our immediate vicinity. No doubt, the next wind gust will casually undo all our hard work. But if there are any indications that the fire is likely to consume everything it its way, I won’t be sticking around.
And so, surrounded by stringybark gums trees that we’ve come to treasure, but which could now well be our nemesis, and with fraying nerves, we wait and listen to the news bulletins.
But mostly we are desperately hoping we will avoid the catastrophe of losing our home.
Philip Lynch more or less grew up in rural Ireland. And. after too many years in Melbourne, I finally finally made it to Tasmania five years ago’. Philip works as a nurse. The Irish Times has published some of his emigration pieces. The Age has also …