September 29, 2012

Fire and rain

In cool, damp Northwest Europe the only time you see a wildfire is on the television news, and only when it has been particularly bad, such as in Victoria in February 2009, when there was the greatest ever loss of life (173) in an Australian bushfire. Hundreds more were injured.

Here bushfires are so common there's even a season for them – that is, when it gets hot, dry and windy. Many plant species have adapted to them or are even dependent on them, for seed dispersal or stimulating new growth. Indigenous Australians have used fire for thousands of years to clear tracks and extend areas of grassland for hunting purposes. (See also Bushfire Season, September 2011.)

Right now Queensland is on high alert, and has been for a while. There's been very little rain since the middle of July and temperatures have regularly been above average. We've already hit 30C, which we didn't do till December last year. And it's frequently very breezy.

Another problem is that firefighters are not happy bunnies. Firies have joined ambos and thousands of other frontline workers outside Parliament House in Brisbane to protest about Campbell Newman's job cull and proposed cost cutting that will affect working conditions. The State government also managed to upset Rural Fire Service volunteers when a memo proposing to cut paid staff was 'prematurely circulated'. A U-turn, or backflip as they call it here, swiftly followed.

The term bushfire can apply to burning grass, scrub, bush or forest. It's grass fires that are of particular concern at the moment. There's been above average rainfall since we arrived in Australia nearly three years ago (thanks, guys), following years of harsh drought during the Noughties. What this means is that grass growth has been profusive. There are now thousands of hectares of grass 'fuel' out there, as dry as a bone and waving in the wind, just waiting for some idiot with a carelessly tossed butt or bottle. Grass fires burn fast and furious – 20-30km/hour faster than a fire in a forest.

For weeks fire services have been encouraging Queenslanders to prepare their properties in these high-risk times. There are extensive lists of instructions readily available*, based on many years of experience, especially Victoria's Black Saturday in 2009. We weren't in Australia then but I vividly remember hearing descriptions of the noise of the rapidly approaching fire – like a jet engine, victims said. I can barely imagine such a terrifying prospect.

On Thursday morning there was a strong smell of smoke – and a blue haze everywhere. Turns out there were grass fires burning just west of Brisbane, and had been for four days.
And the rain? There have been sprinkles, but nothing like as much as this parched landscape needs. And we're still a couple of months off The Wet. Weather people are telling us that we are headed for an El NiƱo event, which may well mean lower than average rainfall and higher than average temperatures. More bad news for the firies.

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