Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Three days of smoke and worry ...

After New Year’s Eve, we foolishly thought we were out of the woods as regards bushfires. Sure there was a bit of smoke in the air, but there was nothing much threatening us, so we relaxed.
Of course, we were horribly wrong.

We talked about what we would do, and made some preparations, but to be honest, we weren’t that serious about things. We took the warnings seriously, and especially a post by the former head of our local CFA, and cleaned the gutters, made sure we had hoses in place, talked again about our evacuation plan.

Family in Mornington offered us a place to stay where we could take the cat so we had no worries on that score.

The big old gum tree that we’ve had a koala in was more of a problem - it’s right in the middle of it’s annual bark shedding event, where it sheds last year’s bark to reveal the new bark underneath.

Needless to say the shed bark is pretty flammable, being full of oil, so on the Saturday, when the temperatures were forecast to be something stupid I picked up all the dropped bark.

That left the problem of the top of J’s studio, which had a gently sloping roof and was covered in bark. Well, I pulled the worst of it off with a long handled rake but there was a decent sized patch in the middle of the roof that I couldn’t reach.

Up to now I’ve avoided climbing onto that roof as it’s corrugated iron - the studio is a converted garage and I’ve never been too sure how strong the roof is - but it had to be done.

So up I went, crawling on all fours to spread my weight, and pushed the waste into a place where I could drag it down.

Then it was my turn to get down, and that was a problem - I’d stupidly propped the ladder in a position I could climb up from, but not elevated enough to let me climb back on to, and J wasn’t strong enough to pull the ladder out and pull on the riser rope to elevate it some more.

Fortunately, I’d also erected my big 2.4m step ladder at the other side of the studio to pull off the rubbish from the roof, and by inching across the roof and stepping down onto the bit at the top labelled ‘do not stand or sit’, I was able to get down with J holding the ladder steady.

Then as the afternoon got stupidly hot and windy we hunkered down inside with the aircon on. The cat is a bit of a panicky animal, and easily frightened so we brought him inside and locked the cat door to keep him in, so we could easily find and grab him if we had to evacuate.

We never quite got as far as packing a ‘go’ bag but we came close.

Then as evening came on the wind started to drop and it became noticeably cooler. We thought, just as on New Year’s Eve, we’d escaped the worst of it.

We even sat out in the garden with a bottle of wine. While there was fire in Mount Buffalo National park and some other serious fires near Harriettville, we thought we didn’t have a problem.
We left the windows open to let cool air into the house and went to bed.

About half past two the next morning we were woken by a strong smell of smoke. A glance outside showed that the street was thick with smoke, like a dense winter fog.

We closed the windows and checked the Emergency Victoria website. The Abbeyard fire that was threatening Harriettville had grown much worse, as had other fires about, and an evacuation order had been issued for Harriettville and the other villages in the upper Ovens valley.

The boundary of the ‘watch and act’ zone - essentially the potential emergency evacuation zone was still about 30km away between Myrtleford and Eurobin, which meant we had a ridge of hills and some open country between us and the fire and us.

Neither of us slept very well. I got up about half past six to damp down the mulch in the garden beds. The smoke was so thick I had to wear a mask. The sky as a strange orange gray colour and there was no noise, no one going jogging, and none of the raucous early morning racket produced by parrots and cockatoos.

We kept listening to the radio, and checking the emergency website. Something bad was happening round Eden in New South Wales, and in the mountains, as well as round Tallangatta.

Then came the dreaded doorbell ping of the Emergency app and the warning that the boundary of the ‘watch and act’ zone was within 20km of us.

The news got worse. People in Bright were being encouraged to leave and the police were doorknocking houses in Myrtleford to make sure everyone knew that there was a chance they would have to evacuate.

It began to spit with rain. We hoped it would get heavier, but it didn’t. Basically we sat and fretted. We knew what we would do, what we would take, and where we would go. But not yet.

Eventually we went to bed. The next morning, Monday, bought slightly better news. While the ‘watch and act’ zone remained the same, the evacuation orders had been withdrawn, and a light rain was beginning to fall.

The smoke was not as dense on the Sunday.

We decided to drive the 40km to Wodonga. As it had been the festive season we were running out of fresh food and we needed a big supermarket shop - toilet paper, cat food, fresh vegetables, that sort of thing.

We chose Wodonga rather than Wangaratta as it’s twice the size and has some big stores, so even if some things were out of stock in one store, there was a chance we could get them somewhere else.

Our first stop was Bunnings to buy a pedestal fan to force some air circulation to air out J’s studio, and then onto Aldi at White Box Rise. The store was quiet, but well stocked. Despite the smoke outside, the Aldi store did not smell of smoke, unlike Bunning’s. Aldi was also cold as they were obviously running the airconditioning to keep the smoke out.

The next door Woolworth’s was a bit busier, but also reasonably well stocked. There were a couple of people and some children wearing masks, but again they had the airconditioning on to keep the store free of smoke.

After Woolworth’s, Aldi, and filling the car with petrol we were done. The rain while never heavy, was steady and the smoke was lessening. It never really cleared but there was definitely less dense.

A check of the news, and things seemed to be less dire.

In truth, we really hadn’t been badly affected. A couple of very worrying days, but we had got away with it. We hadn’t had to evacuate, and the fire had never come close enough to cause a problem.

This morning, while there was still smoke in the air, things were almost back to normal - the sun shone, the birds made the raucous calls, and it was clear enough to walk up to the post office to collect our mail.

The town was very quiet, with none of the summer tourist bustle, and while there was no fresh orange juice in the local supermarket, there was freshly baked bread.

The Old Courthouse, where you can go and see the court Ned Kelly was sentenced to death in, was open, but the sign was amended to read ‘the Old Smokehouse’ - grim humour perhaps, but good to see people were beginning to smile again ...

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