January 6th, 2020


Tis The Season

Friday, December 20th - Under clear blue summer skies in western Victoria, tractors pulling hay baling machines slowly move up and down the gentle slope of the rolling countryside, leaving behind an even line of giant cinnamon roll shaped hay bales. The farmer wipes his brow, it's 114 fahrenheit. He scans the skies. One seventh of the eastern end of the state is on fire and this is a day of officially "extreme" fire danger. At the edge of the field is a thick forest of tangly gum trees rising out of volcanic rocks. For 40,000 the aboriginal people used these volcanic rocks to construct little walls in the seasonal creek beds to catch eels when it rains. A koala slowly climbs a branch, thoughtfully munching leaves.
   The hours go by. The koala munches, the farmer makes rows of haybales. Some campers arrive at a campsite in the northeast corner of the forest and set up tent after a day traveling the Great Ocean Road. They go on some short hikes during the long summer evening to admire the lava flows. They see a koala. As evening sets in they regret that they can't have a campfire. Even though it's really hot, camping just isn't the same without a campfire. Finally relief from the heat comes as some clouds blow in from the west. There's a flash, followed by a crack of thunder reverberating among the tangled trees. The bats come out and flit across the sky. The mosquitos begin to bite, so they go to bed. In the morning there are several plumes of smoke rising over the tops of the trees. They decide it's time to move on.

Fires 20191225 2340.png

Monday, December 23rd, Christmas Eve, 0900- 120 miles to the east, I am just arriving at work to meet with my boss. He meets me outside his office, which is beside the beekeeping workshop and overlooks the garden. Despite this proximity I sometimes don't see him for months and seeing him often fills me with terror. He could, after all, fire me on a whim. He's dressed in the kind of business casual that results from someone who only wears business wear genuinely tries to dress casual. He greets me cheerfully and invites me in.
   "How are the bees?" he asks after some preliminaries.
   "Oh they could be better ... they could be worse" I say. He smiles understandingly. "The weather was like winter until last week" I elaborate, "but I'm optimistic they'll do better with the warmer weather."
   "And what do you plan to do for the holidays?" he asks
   "I'm inclined to work" I say cautiously. We've been over this every year. He frowns.
   "You should take Christmas and boxing day off" he says.
   "Yes well... it's the busy season" but I shrug, I don't argue with him. How do I explain that it's more sad to spend Christmas alone than to work and pretend it isn't Christmas.

   I spend the day working beehives in the warm sun. A puff of smoke, lift the lid, inspect the frames. Is the queen laying? Are there any signs of disease? Golden fields surround me. Kookaburras chortle in the trees. This is nice. What I want to be doing tomorrow and the next day.
   A friend texts me asking if I want to come over for Christmas. But sometimes you're more alone with someone else's family than by yourself.
   My phone makes a harsh blaating noise, I jump a bit. The bees seem startled. I set the frame down as quickly as I can, leaning it against the hive, and fish my phone out of my pocket. The noise is the fire brigade app, but I'm relieved it's not a local fire. They're asking if anyone is available for a strike team for the next three days.
   I look thoughtfully off into the distance for a moment. Yes, this would be perfect. I text my fire captain to tell him I'm in. I text my boss saying I'll take those days after all. I text my friend saying I can't make it, I'll be on the firegrounds. I pick up the frame of bees, now where was I?

   The next morning I found myself sitting in the cab of a firetruck in my yellow firegear as the convoy of trucks headed westward to the fires that lightning on the evening of December 20th had started. We arrived to find ourselves posted between a gentle sloping field dotted with picturesque haybales, and an enchanted-looking forest of tangled Eucalypts. Dismounting the truck beside the forest I found it surprisingly bucolic; the grass by my feet was green and full of wildflowers and it smelled strongly of fresh mint. Of the forest beside us, though the canopy of leaves was still green, the rocky ground was the black and white of ash and soot and lazily billowing white smoke in many places.

   For the next three days my crew of four and I were busy hosing down hotspots and hauling around hoses as the temperature pushed 100. As the hose kicked up white soot and billows of white steam I remembered briefly it was Christmas and thought to myself "♫ I'm dreaming of a white Christmasssss ♫ ♫ "

   To break the fourth wall for just a moment: I'm skimming past the details of this deployment since I already wrote about it in detail.

Fires 20191225 2340.png

   Returning home smelling of bushfire, it was time for another week of the daily grind. Catching up on beekeeping and bottling and distributing honey, as the stores I supply along the Great Ocean Road have a voracious appetite this time of year due to tourists on holiday. News of the wildfires consuming the state are on everyone's mind, and come up in nearly every chance conversation. When I'd stop to stretch my back between hives I'd check the latest news. When I checked the "Vic Emergency" app (of which the above screenshots are from) to see the situation, I'd often find myself panning back west to the fires I'd fought on. They sat there, under control but still on the map. The easternmost fire I'd been on, the Condah Fire, we had been fighting hard to prevent it from spreading into the plantation to it's south or the larger forest to it's east.
   On Wednesday evening looking at the app I was shocked and alarmed to see a fire had started, apparently independantly, in the middle of the forest just east of Condah.
   On Thursday they asked if anyone was available for a Friday-Sunday strike team. But I had work on Friday and my days off are always stretched extremely thin. I sadly had to desist from putting my name in, and spent another day filtering and bottling honey.
   Then Friday a message came through asking if anyone was available for a one day deployment out there Saturday. Yes, yes I am.

Saturday, January 5th, yesterday, 0530- in the feeble pre-morning gloaming I met another volunteer at our fire station, this young lad Danny. We took the brigade's toyota hilux "FCV" (Fire Command Vehicle?) to the nearby town of Colac. At the station there a few more volunteers from nearby brigades gathered, and we boarded a charter bus for the long journey out west. Around 6:20 the sun rose back behind us, so dim and red that one could look directly at it.
   We picked up more volunteers outside a remote country pub surrounded by rugged volcanic terrain. At 6:50 we stopped briefly at the fire station of a town called Cobden to pick up the last of our volunteers. The Cobden station conjured brief memories for me of filling up the tanker there several of times throughout the night when I was on a strike team operating out of the station in March 2018. But soon my attention was distracted from this, as we'd taken on a fellow here who looked a bit like David Hasselhoff named Woody who would be our Strike Team leader. As we rumbled out of Cobden he gave us a bit of a briefing though he didn't know much yet about the exact situation. But we were assigned our tankers.

   At 8:15 we arrived at the sports ground ("footy oval") outside the town of MacArthur northeast of the fireground. There didn't seem as much activity here as I've seen at other staging areas, just about a dozen of the professional forestry department (DWELP) firefighters and us. We were fed bacon-and-egg sandwiches, there was instant coffee and hot water. It was about an hour before anyone knew anything. Apparently another major fire had broken out in the area, near the town of Nelson in the very southwest corner of the state, which was occupying the attention of the higher ups because there were a lot of pine plantations near it and it could cut off the major highway. Finally we were briefed that we'd be doing "asset protection" on the northern sector of this fire. We would be patrolling and holding the line on the northern edge of the forest between the fire and a house and telecom tower.

09:38 - We trundled out of the staging area in a convoy of firetrucks. I was in "Beeac 2" with a stout fella named Greg driving and cheerful balding man named Russell as the crew chief in front passenger side. In the back with me was an old fellow named Darrel. I was disappointed not to have a squirrel-door between the cab and back of the truck like last deployment, but Beeac-2 made up for it by having a 100 meter high pressure hose on a reel. Last week we had to keep connecting and disconnecting 25 meter lengths of hose over and over again, this hose reel was much more pleasant!
   Most of the fire trucks have a hose nozzle on the front that can be controlled entirely from in the cab, called the monitor. We don't tend to use it terribly much because it's kind of hard to aim. In one place where we wanted to put out some flaming branches that were dangerously close to the end of the blacked out area, a nearby tree was smoking from halfway up it's trunk, identifying it as a "killer tree" that could fall at any moment. So our crew chief told us not to get out of the truck and we attacked the fire with the monitor. Unfortunately after about 30 seconds the up-down servo on it ceased working. Henceforth if we wanted to use it someone had to adjust the verticle angle while we were in a safe position and then we'd drive up to the target area and hope we could make that angle work.
   The day was grey and overcast. Russell looked at a weather app and reported that it would actually be continuously getting colder throughout the day. By noon it felt like winter again and I was beginning to shiver despite the thick fire jacket. Someone said over at Nelson it was "blowing hard enough to blow the spots off a dog."
15:16 - "Look hey look!" Greg was pointing at sometihng beside the truck. I leaned to look forward out of my side window. It was a koala! Standing on the ashen ground.
   "Does it look injured?" asked Russell?
   "I don't think so," said Greg, looking at it from the driver's seat.
   "I'm going to have a look" declared Darrell, unbuckling his seatbelt and opening his door
   "Be careful!" warned Russell.
   I scrambled for my phone but the battery was only 2% and wouldn't take a picture. Darrell squatted near it and gave it a good look, and then it turned and scurried off to a nearby tree and proceeded to climb it. It didn't appear to be limping or injured in any way. Later I saw another volunteer with some bandages on his arm and overheard him saying "like a furry bolt cutter!" I think he was referring to a koala. They can do some damage. There's some heartwarming pictures out there though of other CFA volunteers holding rescued koalas.

18:00ish - By the end of the day our sector seemed thoroughly under control, and I was thoroughly cold. Looking forward to going home and taking a hot shower. We withdrew from the fireline to a nearby brigade firestation for dinner. A "fleet maintenance" truck happened to be there with two of the sky-blue uniformed maintenance guys. They had a quick look at the monitor for us but they thought it was the control electronics and couldn't be fixed then and there. Another strike team joined us there as well as at least one strike team of the green-clad DWELP crews. I contemplated how we, the yellow-clad CFA guys and they, DWELP are almost invariably at staging areas together and the two groups _do not_ socialize together at all. As we waited for food CFA stood on one side of the driveway while DWELP stood on the other. Presnetly two guys with "Staging area Management" tabards (what they call these vests they wear with position designations) arrived with hot meals of chicken and a sort of coconut rice. I liked it but I think it was too exotic for some of the old codgers among us.
18:45 - Headed back to the footy oval. Reboarded the bus (poor bus driver was getting paid $57/hour to wait around for about 12 hours. He complained the television reception in the footy club lounge was very bad). Woody made some typical remarks thanking us in conclusion as we headed back through the feeble twilight, the sun disappearing redly into the haze behind us. Around 21:30 back in Colac Danny and I stopped in to a McDonalds to use the bathroom. As we pushed through the door from the dark and cold to the warmly lit interior I found everyone looking at us with abnormally friendly smiles, and I was suddenly self conscious that we were wearing fire gear and reeked of the heady scent of bushfire. A young woman passing me to exit murmured "thank you." I smiled bashfully, a bit embarrassed. It hadn't really occurred to me all day that people might react like this.

   This is only the beginning of the fire season, which is really ominous.

The most recent review for the campsite that's very near where I was posted yesterday gives it one star with the comment "on fire"