Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A nervous day

For about the last week the media, politicians and fire-fighting identities have been commenting about the terrible fire weather conditions expected in NSW on 8 January 2013.  Much of this has been in emotive terms that annoy me intensely.

On 7 January the weather forecast for the following day in our area was for temperatures about 39C and winds up to 50kph.  These factors - together with a high fuel load- led to our Fire District getting a Catastrrophic rating for the day.
In fact the whole State was under a Total Fire ban.
I will come back later in this post to the meaning of the ratings in the Fire Danger maps.

The hysteria seemed to reach a climax about 10pm on the 7th when we received a landline phone call consisting of a voice screeching to the effect that 'fire conditions tomorrow are Catastrophic! leave the area now!'  One might consider this is several hours too late and the main impact of the call at this time was - in my case and at least one other - to impair the quality of sleep.  I don't know where people were supposed to go at 10pm  but do suspect that a lot of panic stricken folk driving around in the middle of the night looking for refuge was a recipe for a high road toll.  (We also got an SMS to the same effect but I didn't have my phone with me so didn't hear it come in.)

We had arranged with one neighbour to use his property as an escape route if necessary (he commented that one gate was locked "but if needed, cut the fence").  I reinforced to him that I would unlock the gate between our properties so that could escape and/or evacuate his stock onto our place if necessary.  On the morning of the 8th myself and another neighbour checked the tracks for escape routes in the opposite direction.  As we returned we had a chat with yet another neighbour who was leaving to stay with family in Canberra.  They own horses and he advised that to maximise the horses' chance of escape they had opened a gate on to our top paddock, and he hoped we didn't mind, which of course we didn't.  A few nice examples of rational cooperative country thought.

Our basic plan was to stay aware of what was going on (watch for smoke, keep mobile phone handy, check Rural Fire Service 'current operations' webpage) and be prepared to head for Canberra with dog and a few vital possessions if things looked like getting shitty.

The weather was clear
 and the wind strong.

It was also hot.  Let us have a small parenthesis about the temperature today and in comparison with the past few days.
Where that graph becomes interesting is the comparison with the average of the previous three days.  In the earlier days the temperature drops until 0700.  On the 8th it essentially climbed steadily through the day until 1500.  (The dip at 0200 was when a brief - unrecordable - shower passed through.)  This is probably because the NW (ie HOT) winds were building up.  Another belt of cloud arrived to knock the top off the heat before 1600 and cloud really arrived after 5pm, but no rain.
The other interesting observation here is that the temperature didn't drop greatly after 1900.  This reflects the Easterly winds not kicking in: given the direction of the nearest fires this was a good thing!

So what was the story about fires?  There were a lot across the State with some serious ones.  The closest of those to us was 26km to our NE (and with the wind coming from the West, not a threat).  Here is the RFS current operations map as at 1552 (our place is approximately the red X).
Here is another shot timed at 1707:
The scope of this one is a little different but does show, as the red flame symbol nearest the X, the location of the nearest serious fire.  One issue with this is that the symbols do not distinguish from the fires that are not major but uncontrolled (ie potentially major) and those that are controlled.  I have emailed the RFS suggesting this could be improved.

So I feel we dodged a bullet yesterday.  Hopefully Nature isn't using an AK47 but more heat is due Friday and Saturday before some showers are forecast Sunday and Monday.

Out of interest here is the fire danger chart for today.
All the red has disappeared and Region 20 has even dropped to low-moderate.  However there are still fire bans in force all over the State, but not apparently in the ACT!

What this brings home is that the Fire Danger rating is mainly about the danger of fires if they start (ie how hard will it be for the RFS to fight them and the possible consequences of that) and not the probability of a fire starting.  The latter seems to be indicated by the bans.  So, today we have a lot of fuel around (and probably a lot of nutters and idiots) so the risk of a fire starting is high - thus BAN - but if one starts the firefighters, if not exhausted after their efforts yesterday, should be able to deal with it before too much loss of life or property occurs.


Denis Wilson said...

196Nice post, Martin.
I went looking for update on the fire east of Bungendore, but realise it is a fair way away from you.
Re the distinction between "danger rating" and "Probability" I would simply point out that the RFS cannot deal with nutters.
Anyway, glad you are OK.
Some of my favourite haunts on the Nowra to Nerriga Road and also near Oallen Ford have been burnt.
Will nor know how bad damage is for a week or so, till I can get in and assess it.
RFS only talking about "property". All else is "fuel".
Alas - they don't value our Environment.

Flabmeister said...

Thanks Denis. I will confess I hadn't focussed on where the Morton fires were, but it sounds like some nice areas have taken a hit. Meangora Trig was involved but I don't know about the property we visited there.

The fire fighters - particularly the Bush Fire Brigades - generally do an excellent job when fighting fires. However I feel that the RFS has a number of elements of underlying corporate culture that could do with modification. Trees as fuel is certainly one.

I'd also like to see a National body set up to coordinate events across borders on days like Monday. Having to watch two sites because the ACT and NSW are 'different' is nuts. The same applies near Mallacoota (and presumably along all borders.