There is no doubt that community recovery has been impacted by the requirements to protect people from the impacts of COVID-19, but the Australian environment just gets on with renewal.
A year on
Amazingly it has been just over 12 months since the fires impacted Sarsfield in late 2019. A lot has changed for us and the environment that we live in and that surrounds us. It is has been a great relief to see the burnt bush start to return to green, to explore what has survived and thrived, and to observe the changes to our neighbourhood and outlook.
The environment where we live
We live on land that is entirely bush. It is classified as being part of Ecological Vegetation Class (EVC) 877 – Low Land Herb-rich Forest. Close to the Nicholson River, the conservation status is depleted. It is open eucalypt forest primary including Coast Grey-Box, White Stringy Bark, Red Box and the occasional Iron Bark, with a diverse understory and few weeds. This EVC covers a quite limited extent that is specific to this part of Sarsfield on the western side of the Nicholson River and north of the Great Alpine Road.
We understand that our land was impacted by fires in March 1965. There was evidence of the impact of those fires, including the fact that many of the large trees here are of a very similar age and structure. That makes the trees just a little older than I am! You can find details about the 1965 Gippsland fires here: 1965 Gippsland Fires
Our place in 2006 – prior to the drought
Riding through the drought impacted landscape prior to the fires
The outlook from our deck in February 2020
…. and in December 2020
Owning natural areas
We’ve always considered ourselves very fortunate to be able to own some bush – at least in the way that we own property in Australia. Owning trees feel like a strange concept and custodianship for the time that we are here feels more appropriate.
In the time that we have lived here we have always spent a lot of time engaging with our land and the vegetation. Not only is the bush the main focus of our living areas, it is also a place where we recreate having constructed almost 4km of trails that we used regularly over many years. We’ve explored the place in detail and we are continually surprised by the different orchids and other plants that we find through the different seasons.
Watching kangaroos and wallabies hop through and finding the places where they are camped has always felt special too. We’ve even seen a Koala or two over the years.
Living in the bush is a big part of our lifestyle and a contributor to our wellbeing too. We know from the extensive research that has been undertaken that green spaces and connecting with nature is really important in urban spaces Wild Urban Parks . While I’m not sure of the research in regional areas, I know from experience working in East Gippsland that many people live in the country primarily because of the environment.
Our bush is definitely a big part of the reason for why we live where we do, despite the risk.
Our bush is slowly recovering. Many trees have been lost in the fire and soon after the fire went through. The streetscape has changed too as a result of the impacts associated with removal of dangerous trees and fences being reconstructed.
Our Street on the day of the fires.
…. and more recently following removal of dangerous trees and rebuilding fences.
We still spend a lot of time out on our land watching the changes as the year has passed. The resilience of the Australian bush is quite amazing, with the emergence of pioneering species such as Kangaroo Apples and a variety of wattles and gradually replacement eucalypts are evident too.
It is a hotter environment without the leaf canopy and the growth of grasses has been a new and dominant feature to begin with. Things are out of balance right now, but it will return eventually.
While a lot of the trails we built remain, and some have been renewed, they aren’t in good shape at the moment but we know with some time and energy this will once again be a key recreation resource for us.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time riding through areas of bush to the north of here and Clifton Creek, and the reality is that our bush is doing pretty well. There are extensive areas of the East Gippsland environment that based on what can be seen will take a long time to regenerate fully.
Risks for the future
East Gippsland is familiar with fires and the landscape and communities here have regular experience of encounters with fires, some burning for extended periods of time. This fire, considering the scale and extent of destruction, and given the fact that it was one of many similarly large and destructive fires in Australia over Black Summer, is something different even in East Gippsland.
This kind of fire has the potential to change relationships with the environment that we live in, changing the connection to natural areas from one of wellbeing, to one where there is heightened risk and anxiousness each fire season.
The reality is that the health of our environment is also a key contributor to the economic wellbeing and lifestyles of many people in East Gippsland. So, whether there is a connection (direct and indirect) to recreation and tourism, agricultural or other primary industries, and all of the supporting activities that keep the community going, all are vulnerable to the impact of fire and will be increasingly so as the climate continues to change. This article by Neil McCarthy CEO of Mosaic Insights and his team, while focused on Omeo, provides an insightful view of the challenges for rural communities: When Rural Resilience is Wafer Thin
As the recovery process progresses with communities in East Gippsland and we have people’s attention and human and other resources available to us, there is an opportunity, to start the process of making sure that East Gippsland is on a path to a more resilient longer term future. A future that is better able to overcome shocks and stresses and to cope with uncertainty and future challenges and opportunities by making sure that we invest in resilience building and seeking to safe guard what is important to the future of East Gippsland.
Flying Duck Orchid – There are amazing things happening out there in the bush.
How does our System Work?
This Blog Post provides an overview of our fire system and the way that the various elements operate as a whole system.
This video sets out how we have approached the protection of our property and may be of use to your own thinking and planning.
Every property will be different, and every plan will need to respond to the circumstances experienced on site and importantly your capabilities. There is a lot to think about and to put in place and so it is worth taking the time to work out what might be possible for your place.
We knew that our fire system worked but the question was always would it work in a fire event? While we had hoped never to have to activate our fire plan and system, the reality is that we have now well and truly put all that we had planned for and implemented to the test.
We have also learnt from our experience and thought it was worth reflecting on the things that worked well, the things we would do differently and the things that were unexpected as well.
As the climate changes and fire seasons become longer and more intense it will be important to continue to evolve and adapt our place if we are going to continue to live here and enjoy the environment that we love.
The reality is that when you design a fire system to protect your place, your focus is on the actual fire event and perhaps not what happens afterwards.
The experience of the fire impacting our property was an intense period of around an hour.
After that was an equally intense four hours watching the fire, blacking out trees and other areas that continued to burn and making sure that things were under control.
The Burning Bush from Nelse on Vimeo.
Once things calmed down a bit, we sat on the deck and watched the bush continue to burn around us. The almost constant sound of burnt out trees collapsing was an amazing experience. While we were confident about the solid nature of the trees close to our house and buildings, any tree that had any sort of weakness, especially at the base, was particularly vulnerable.
Our trees are mostly large and tall, and the sound of trees collapsing went on for days afterwards. We lost a lot of trees to the fire, and afterwards.
What had happened around us?
We thought for sure that most places around us had been lost in the fire. We knew that our neighbours to the north, who also stayed to defend, were OK because we could hear them. Getting to them to really check was impossible because of the falling and fallen trees.
When it was safe to do so, Anthony went for a walk to see what had happened along our road. People did lose a lot, some people on the road lost everything, but most places were miraculously still essentially intact. This came as an amazing relief!
Even Mr Moo, the “giant” cow that lives in our street was safe and sound!
Mr Moo after the fire
It was a very long night
Eventually we decided that we needed to get at least a little bit of sleep so at around 4.00am we set up some sleeping arrangements on the deck. With the power and water off and the house all shuttered up – outside was the best option – and you could keep an eye on things.
We wondered what we would wake up to.
The view from the Deck on the morning of the last day of 2019
The morning after shows the clear line between burnt and unburnt ground and the effectiveness of the fire system
The trees look like they are still OK in these photos with the leaves intact – but they aren’t – the leaves have all been killed by the radiant heat and are now covering the ground as the trees regenerate. Beyond the area that we protected around the house, everything has been burnt – it’s just ash and charcoal, burnt trees and exposed earth.
Eucalypt Leaves frozen in time by the fire
Dead leaves falling from the trees and creating a new layer of leaf litter
What did we learn?
- Having time to really get ready is gold but there is always more that you can do – you can never be totally prepared!
- Investing in a really powerful leaf blower is recommended if you are dealing with any sort of leaf litter build up in a bush environment. We used ours to create bare earth breaks around the buildings and other infrastructure and used it around trees as well. We would recommend maintaining a low level of leaf litter and blowing around you place on a regular basis so that you don’t have to move too much at once and risk creating a significant build up that will generate a lot of small embers.
- Understanding what starts fires. People often worry about seeing burnt material as a fire advances towards them. Our experience was that burnt material that has been extinguished on its way to you won’t start a fire. Small flying embers may allow easily combustible material to ignite. Large pieces of bark that are still on fire will start spot fires.
- When the bush is burning, it generates a lot of embers and so ember proofing your house and checking for embers is critical both during and after the fire has occurred.
- Good solar lights are really valuable. The fire we experienced was at night and there was no power. The lights you see in the video footage we took was provided by good quality solar lighting. Some of the lights are portable and can be carried around like a torch if needed.
- Make sure you have a head lamp. Hands free light is critical.
Being prepared for the unexpected scenario
Our focus has always been fire approaching to the north of us and that was where the fires were coming from through the day. Our system is set up to deal with that as the primary scenario. We had planned for the potential of a crown fire, but in many ways we are thankful that we were dealing with spot fires coming together from all directions.
In the case of this fire, we were essentially surrounded with spot fires to the east, north west and south of the property. The fire south of our property was unexpected and certainly got our attention early in the process on our property.
Evacuation was not an option at that time but setting up our portable impact sprinkler on that side of the property to enhance the system was. Being able to respond to impacts that may not have been obvious is important. You need to have some responsiveness built into your system. Fire is unpredictable and unexpected things can happen, no matter how good your planning is.
Thinking about what might happen afterwards
While we understood there would be some disruption, we probably hadn’t focussed on what it might be like after the fire.
We found ourselves with out power for two weeks, without water for a while and with limited phone and internet coverage at times. Camping at your place, even with a generator and camp stove, can only work for a limited period. You need to have an alternative plan – and friends that understand the need for good coffee!
Access into and out of the burnt area was also restricted and we did get caught trying to get back one day early in the process with traffic management points just getting up and operating. Having to carry identification to demonstrate you are a local landowner felt very strange in Australia.
And since when does it feel good to have the Army in your street?
We found ourselves reflecting on that one day, and while the Defence Forces and Army Reserve have done a great job assisting our community to recover, this isn’t exactly the “War on Climate” that we were contemplating as necessary!
Learning from the Experience
Our fire experience was quite amazing, and it has helped us to gain some important insights that will allow us to continue to adapt our system and approach to being able to live safely in East Gippsland. There is a lot more to this than just having a resilient home. We hope that what we have learnt will be useful to others too.
Our backyard burning
Future Fire Blogs will focus on
- Living in a changed community; and
- Living in a changing environment
When people talk about their fire experience many comment on the “Big Red Glow” that is synonymous with what people can see, especially at night or at times when fire activity creates premature darkness, marking the proximity of fire for people.
This is the story of our experience of actually being in that Big Red Glow at Sarsfield on Monday 30 and into Tuesday 31 December 2019.
My husband Anthony and I thought it was worth telling our story – it is a positive one – and something that may be of interest to others. We fully appreciate that the experience we had is not something that would be appropriate or even possible for everyone. It does show what good planning can mean for effectively defending your property. We learned quite a few things that we thought were worth recording as well.
Beyond the actual fire experience, we also wanted to observe the impact to our bush and to take a real interest in the way that it recovers, and how we reconnect with it as a key reason for living in such an amazing natural environment.
We also recognise the significant impacts that people across our community are dealing with too. The devastation and loss is so substantial, and we will be keen to understand how we can contribute to the safe and sustainable recovery of individuals and places in East Gippsland.
The content that follows may be confronting or distressing as it shows footage of actual fire activity up close. Please exercise judgement about reading further if you think you might find this distressing.
Images in this blog can be shared freely, however, attribution to Kate Nelson Consulting with a link to www.katenelson.com.au must be included when sharing.
What drives our approach?
We purchased our 5-hectare property in Sarsfield not long after having experienced the 2003 Campaign Fires in the North-East and East Gippsland from our place in Omeo. We both worked for East Gippsland Shire Council at that time and had roles during those fires and afterwards in supporting the immediate response and longer-term recovery.
We also spent a lot of time out in the environment around Omeo after the fires exploring areas that were significantly impacted, gaining insight into the impacts to places and the environment as a result of some severe fire activity. We spoke with many people who experienced those fires firsthand too and grew to understand that fire conditions were changing and so was the experience of defending your property.
We are also Planners and so we had the benefit of understanding the direction that was being taken in respect to building requirements and site management. At the time we built there was very little guidance about building materials and the design of protective structures and systems for residential buildings. There was a lot of working out required, something that has definitely evolved since then. Our property is all native bush and so we knew that we needed to be serious about how we built and how to create a property that is defendable.
Our house is not large and the design of all our buildings simple, clean and they are all located on a small part of the property. We don’t have a garden to speak of and have kept the area immediately around the house free of vegetation.
We are both in our mid-50’s and we are pretty fit and healthy, and we think that’s an important contributor to being able to be self-sufficient.
Our fire experience
Some people in our street decided that a meeting would be a good idea. It was a very smart idea! Using the intelligence of a resident who is a member of the local CFA Brigade, we met on the afternoon of Friday 27 December and talked through what was understood about the potential weather and impacts.
We all confirmed our intentions and exchanged contacts. This was the start of a really effective communication network that was used to let everyone know who was where and when during and after the fire.
We committed to staying and defending, as did three other landowners. In the end, only two households were here for the whole experience.
We had undertaken our usual fire season preparation in the lead up to this event. We would have liked to do more over winter to reduce some of the leaf litter and debris, however a suitable time and set of conditions never emerged.
We did work in a concentrated way after Christmas to really do some preparation work around the place and spent the best part of the morning on 30 December making the final preparations to defend our assets, including:
- Putting all the door and window shutters in place
- Making sure that the pumps and water system were primed
- Removing leaf litter and debris from as far around the house as possible
West side of our house and linking decks. Shutters in place and getting ready.
North side of the house and deck, window and door shutters in place.
East side of the house, window and door shutters in place.
The impact of a powerful leaf blower removing leaf litter around the site.
Inside with the shutters in place.
Then it was a case of watching & waiting to see what would happen.
Initially we thought that all the anticipation was for nothing, as it appeared to be relatively quiet out to our north, the direction of the Barmouth Spur Fire.
At around 2.30pm Anthony decided to drive to a high point on the Deptford Road to get a better view of what might be happening, and it soon became evident that the pyro cumulous column being generated meant that the fire was very active.
We spent a long time that afternoon watching the column grow and “lean” right over us and shift gradually to the south west in the prevailing wind. Once again, we thought it might miss us.
View from the Great Alpine Road west of Sarsfield and looking to the north.
View of the fire looking north along our road.
The column “leaning’ over us.
The sad state of affairs in East Gippsland at 6.30pm on Monday 30 December 2019 (at least that was what we thought at the time – it only grew from here)
Looking north from our deck, at 9.30pm.
As it grew darker, we were actively watching the fire on the ridges of Old Man Hill directly to our north.
The noise from the fire was a loud roar and we could see the flames being generated as it raced up the back of the slopes to the ridgelines. At times it looked like it was slowing down, but it then it would become ferocious again.
All the time we were watching, we could see that the fire was incredibly active to our east under the north westerly wind – we weren’t sure where, but we knew it was bad. Now we understand why when we drive through Sarsfield.
In the lead up to the fire, I had this text exchange with friends at Eagle Point – they were looking at the Big Red Glow and so were we – just up close!
It all started at around 10.30pm like this:
Looking to the north west from our deck.
Looking to the north west from under the house
So, what actually happened during the fire?
Anthony used his GoPro to capture footage during this event. The videos below provide context for the site and the set up we have.
It is amazing, and potentially quite confronting, footage of the event.
The first two videos provide an explanation of our site and set up and will help make sense of the videos taken during the event.
This video is quite long but shows how the fire entered our property and how it grew.
The next three videos show what it was like during the peak of the fire.
Finally, a bit of a look at our place after the fire.
What do you feel in the Big Red Glow?
Hard to describe really! The most tension was prior to the fire entering our property. Wondering in anticipation of what was going to happen. Once it started though we switched into action. It was a case of focussing on your role and making it happen. This is what we planned for.
Reality is I had a support role, checking the inside of the house, keeping our beautiful dog calm and cool in the smoke and heat, and wondering how long the ember shower could actually go on and keeping an eye on Anthony!
Anthony was out and about in the fire, exercising incredible judgment about what was required and racing around making sure it was all going to plan, even chainsawing down a tree near the dog yard that was going to be a problem in the middle of it all.
What do you feel afterward?
Some sort of relief. However, fire experts advise it still isn’t over. Each severe weather day finds the community in a state of heightened anxiety, enacting their fire plan and hoping the warnings aren’t as bad as predicted.
This is what we looked like afterwards though (taken at 1.00am), maybe a bit telling!
Future fire blogs will focus on:
- The aftermath of the fires in Sarsfield, and the East Gippsland community
- What we learned
- The importance of people working together in times of crisis
- Monitoring the recovery of our bush
What is important about our experience?
We appreciate that not everyone has had the knowledge, resources and opportunities that we have had to prepare our property for this event and that every person’s circumstances will be different. But we do think this is important because the content that we have captured gives a real impression of what it is like to experience fire and what might be required to defend your place with confidence.
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