Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bushfires On Our Doorstep

Did You Tell Me To Go To Blazes?

12.35 pm, Friday 30th January. Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON


On Friday morning, things started to go wrong very early in the morning. It was the third successive day with temperatures peaking around 45 Celsius, or 113 Fahrenheit - Melbourne's hottest spell in a century.

At 7.30 am I rang my boss to say my car was overheating and the warning chimes on my instrument panel were sounding like a Brahms concerto. Being the good man that he is, he advised me to take the day off and sort the car out before anything else.

About three hours later, I got a call to say that the problem - an errant fan - had been fixed. As I left the house to pick up the car, I noticed a pall of thick smoke. I knew instantly it was a bushfire. I took the shot that you can see at the top of this post and then left to pick up the car. It was 12.35 am.

As I collected the car, I noticed that the smoke was suddenly much thicker and had taken on a menacing orange tinge. It was also very close. The service manager, the person who had fixed the fan problem, told me his colleagues were monitoring the CFA (Country Fire Authority) website - just in case.

I'm not fond of hot weather, but I went home and grabbed just two things. One was my camera. The other was my media ID - just in case. What follows is a series of shots taken in quick succession.

12.50 pm, Friday 30th January.


I'm looking down the valley and judging by the smoke it seems the CFA firefighters, assisted by heli-tankers, have the situation under control. The orange tinge has vanished. The smoke is thinning out. There is more grey smoke than black.

12.54 pm, Friday 30th January.


Dramatically, the situation changes. Only four minutes later, the smoke is thicker. I can see a brief tongue of flame. The bush, I know, is tinder-dry. The fire is in Churchill National Park and now I can see it is on the move up a valley. Quickly.

I know the area well. There is so much fuel there for a bushfire, after the long, hot, dry summer we've had. Every twig, every fallen branch, every square metre of parched underbrush will act as voracious accelerant.

12.58 pm, Friday 30th January.

The wind is blowing embers ahead of the fire front. There are several black blasts of smoke, thick and gusting. I know each is caused by the fire accelerating rapidly up the valley, consuming everything in its path and travelling swiftly up to the crowns of the tall gums and eucalypts.

12.59 pm, Friday 30th January.

Only a minute later, there is another tongue of flame. It's almost like watching a Hollywood disaster movie. It's only nine minutes since I shot the first frame - and already the bushfire has raced a couple of hundred metres up the valley.

I reach for my cell phone to call my wife. But now the flames are gathering strength. Halfway through dialling her number with my left hand, I stop. I raise my camera in my right hand and shoot as the fire moves rapidly toward the roof in the shot.

1.01 pm, Friday 30th January.

It's a minute past one o'cock. Only 11 minutes have elapsed since my first shot. The breeze carries a hint of menace. I put my camera down. I dial my wife's number and tell her I am dropping everything. I tell her there has been a quick change of plans. We face no immediate danger, but the rapid advance of the fire will soon threaten our youngest child's school.

Do I turn around and take the short cut to the school? I opt for the longer route, knowing there will be less traffic. It is a wise decision. The shorter route has several vehicles parked on either side. The media have taken up vantage spots, members of the public are watching the situation carefully before making up their own minds whether to evacuate or not, and there is a command post there as well.

For years, we've been warned that bushfires don't just take place in the bush. The CFA has continually stressed that even those of us who live in the burbs need to be bushfire-savvy and to have a contingency plan. What happened on this day was the perfect validation of their campaign. This time, though, we were lucky. It was just a wake-up call.

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58 comments:

GreenJello said...

Wow. Scary how quickly fire can move. We had some fires like this around us this past summer, and many homes had to be evacuated. Entire mountainsides were completely black.

I'm glad you and your family are safe.

Barbaloot said...

That looks intense! hopefully a wake-up call is all you ever have to experience.

richies said...

What a wake up call. Fire is a very scary thing. Your photos are a great documentation.

An Arkie's Musings

George said...

What a dramatic series of photos. I hope that is as close as a brush fire gets to you.

Steph said...

I'm from southern California, where brushfires are all too common. Although I've never had to evacuate, I've had friends who have; wildfires like this scare the bejebus out of me. Glad to hear you, your family and your home are safe!

Les Becker said...

I think, in that situation, my hands would have been shaking too hard to get a clear shot! I'm glad this was just a warning for you, David.

ConverseMomma said...

I remember when the pine barrens where I lived lit up. I was small and watched with such fear the devestation. The images of evacuation have stayed with me. I've always been fearful of fire.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

It's terribly frightening, David. How completely awful for people living amongst the smoke.

CJ xx

The Quintessential Magpie said...

David, I'm just so thankful you and your family are safe. I have often watched in horror as houses are burned from California brush fires. It seems they've been under the gun a lot, and I'm just so thankful it appears it is under control for you in Australia. Am trusting they stay that way!

Stay safe...

Sheila

Sandi McBride said...

Fire is one of my all time fears...I would never have made a fireman,that's for sure! I'm so glad that you and the family are safe and sound! Keep your eye to the horizon, don't let it sneak up on you!
Sandi (and Mac)

Carolina said...

Oh gosh, it must have been terrifying for all of the people (nearly) affected by these fires. What is the situation like now?

The wordverification spells: reign (well, it sounds like rain ;-)) I hope it is a weatherforecast for you. Otherwise it may mean that you (or even I, but I hope not) will reign?

Anyway, stay safe and may rain be with you!

Dr.John said...

And here I am complaining about snow, cold, and ice.

Artist Unplugged said...

Great photos, glad all was safe. Sounds like California fires a bit.

ArneA said...

Thanks for the on site report.
I have been watching the News in days now and waiting for any report about the heat and possible challenges / problems for you and others down there.
Great to learn about your experience.

Hilary said...

I'm glad that you, your family and those around you are safe. That was a wonderful series of photos. You wisely had more faith in the fire's ability to destroy than you did with that Grizzly.

Bradley's Mom said...

David..........what a horrible, scary experience. I am so relieved that you and your family are safe!

Thinking of you!

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Good gracious, David. I got chills looking at your photos and reading the text. That is so scary.

aims said...

Oh David! Everyone is safe I hope!

The power of mother nature is amazing and scary!

jinksy said...

Incredible series of photos - you obviously kept a cool head. Glad all safe for you and yours.

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

Stunning shots David and the narrative really is evocative!

Can I say that although I KNOW the images show the ugliness of fires, shots 1,3, 4 are particularly beautiful in their colours and composition, incongruous l know.

I trust all is well now?

Daryl said...

WAY tooo close for comfort .. glad all the Authorbloggers are safe and sound

ChrisC and JonJ said...

Our fire season,in Florida,will be coming up in another month or so.Scarey times.

Guy D said...

Great captures as always David.

Cheers!
Regina In Pictures

Carver said...

That is terrifying. I'm glad it was just a wake up call and you and your family were o.k. Strange how something as deadly as fire can be so beautiful. You got some amazing shots.

Louise said...

WOW! Spectacular shots and so much excitement.

And my humble guess is that if you family and children would have been completely out of harm's way, you would have gotten as close to that fire as humanly possible--so close that you'd have eventually had to run. A fire might be almost as exciting as a grizzly bear!

Elizabeth said...

How dramatic and rather frightening - VERY frightening.
But stunning documentation.
Odd that your exceptionally hot weather should co-incide with a blizzard in London.

Jules~ said...

Wow that must have been nerve wracking for you. It amazes me how quickly a fire can gain speed and acerage. I hope no one was hurt.
And those super hot temperatures....I don't like it either.

imac said...

An omen that your car wasnt working well David, great shots.

Man of the moment.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Whew! My heart was in my throat reading this and seeing the smoke and fire.

I'm glad that your family and the school is safe.

~Lisa

word verification: 'obausi'
Definition: A bossy Obama.

Robert V. Sobczak said...

That's a first hand look at a wildfire meandering through the urban fringe, or this case: suburban fringe ... which probably isn't a fringe at all. That's what makes managing them so tough.

CrazyCath said...

That is so incredibly scary and I truly admire the ability to photograph so expertly, whilst also dealing with the more important stuff. I guess your camera is an extension of you, so that it is natural for you to be able to do it.

I don't think I have ever seen a fire move so fast. I am so glad it was 'only' a "wake up call" because by that, I take it you are all safe and your daughter's school is ok.
That one, I would say, was close enough eh?
Stay safe.

Oh! And fantastic shots. :)The colours are beautiful. How can something so devastating be at the same time so beautiful?

Cheffie-Mom said...

How scary! I'm so glad you and your family are safe!

Maggie May said...

Blimey! That was horrible & I felt sorry for the owners of that building that must have been burnt down.
Glad you got your youngster out of school, more important than the pictures.
Your weather is terrible. I wouldn't be able to stand that heat.
We have heard all about it via our media. Melbourne has been in the news a lot.

We had snow today. Schools might be shut tomorrow. London was in chaos & everything closed down today & there was no public transport at all.
England cannot cope with snow, it seems!

Janie said...

That sounds like a scary experience. Beautiful photos of the smoke and fire, although I'm sure you would wish you hadn't had it so close by.
Good to hear everything's okay for now.

A Brit in Tennessee said...

What a scare !
I have a lot of respect for fire...after just taking a safety course in Fire Prevention, I was really not aware how fast it can burn, or how intense the heat becomes.
Great photos, and love your blog !

Babooshka said...

I admit I find these terrifying.

fishing guy said...

David: Thanks for sharing this view of your world. It is really hard to think of these conditions while we are in the dead of Winter. I glad you are safe and I hope your child's school was also safe.

Deb said...

Hi ~ The crazy weather patterns and climate changes are causing havoc throughout our world. Be safe and I will send some of our snow and ice your way!

Poutalicious said...

Thank God you and your family are safe!

Fire and water are very ferocious forces; incredibly scary.

Annie said...

Gosh, David..that is a bit too close for comfort. I know because I was in Melbourne for a couple fo weeks lately (just escaped before the heatwave) and I am always frightfully worried about bushfires on those horrible hot dry (and especially the windy) days! My sister and son and their families live in areas where there is much bushland...and I just pray daily that they will be safe through the bushfire season!

Good to hear you were all OK

Annie

katherine. said...

thankful to read it was just to your doorstep. Fire in the neighborhood is frightening...

RiverPoet said...

As I said last week, I'm so happy that the fires stayed back from your home, David. Glad to know you're okay...D

Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Oh I so understand this threat, we are in the thrid day of uncontrolled wildfires in the next county from us. Fire is one of the scariest things you can face I think, glad it all worked out okay for you.

Sylvia K said...

That is so scary! We've had lots of those the past few years in the northwest, but fortunately I haven't been that close to any. I'm so glad you and your family are safe! The photos are incredible and so dramatic and intense!

Tranquility said...

What a day! The photos of the fire make the story all the more realistic - so glad your family remained safe!

Sara G said...

Excellent post and photo's, David.
Glad you and the family are all okay!!
Take care and thanks for sharing your world with us.

Willow said...

David, I live in Southern California. That says it all. Be safe. Willow

chrome3d said...

What a documentry you made of it. Those photos and story were intense. I sometimes wish being in warmer climates but it has it´s bad sides too it seems.

quilly said...

I am glad your family and your home is safe. My prayers are with those who fared less well.

Queen-Size funny bone said...

It is good to know that everyone is fine and the photos are a document to mother natures powers.

Inkivääri said...

Ohhoh, which dramatic pics! Luckily your family is safe.

Swarna said...

45 celsius.. We'll soon reach there, I think. Glad you are all safe.
Another glimpse of Nature's fury...

Indrani said...

That was close! I am glad you are all safe! Amidst all this you kept on clicking too?! Wonder if anything will stop you and I hope nothing will! :)
Take care!

Neva said...

That is amazing how fast that all happened... I assume you reached the youngest authorblog and all was well. those pictures are stunning.

Reader Wil said...

Oh dear, this is terrible, David! I hope that the heat wave will soon be over and that there will be enough rain to make everybody happy.

Tazewell County, VA said...

Great shots and am glad the fire wasn't worse. I hate fire, out of context; won't even give voice to the fear of it. Have enjoyed my visit to your blog.
Sandra @ Thistle Cove Farm
thistlecovefarm.blogspot.com but the comment will read something else.
sigh.
I'm too computer stupid to know how to change it.

theArthurClan said...

Oh my goodness ~ that is so scary. I'm glad that you all ended up being okay!

Caffienated Cowgirl said...

We get fires like that where I am from. They are never a welcome sight.

Great shots, though.