How Fire-fighters Saved a House.
Australia has battled between 40 to 160 bushfires each day for 6 weeks. Ten days into summer, conditions are worsening. Where I live in NSW, forest infernos can stay at emergency, out-of-control or watch-and-act levels for weeks. A landmass larger than some small countries has been burnt out, #Twitter said it was 10 million hectares.
Australians love having their own home; it’s a vital part of our identity. It’s no accident that 4000 homes have been saved in the last 6 weeks.
This is the story of one of them.
I spoke to a fire-fighter who battled an inferno last month. With a half-day to make preparations, he was 1of 6 fire-fighters stationed at a house in the mountains.
Their brief was to save one home. This is what they did:
1. Faced 3 fire trucks looking out in different directions around the house for ease of escape.
2. Climbed onto the roof and blew the leaves out of gutters with a blower vacuum.
3. Bulldozed a pile of dirt like a continuous sand dune, circling the entire house to act as a fire break.
4. Got rid of the gas cylinders which would become explosive when hot.
5. Checked rainwater tanks for usable water.
6. Ran pumps and hoses into 6 fire-hose nozzles in various spots. These were made ready to be picked up as soon as the fire front came.
7. Put on fire safety equipment. A hard hat, face-mask, goggles, heavy boots and hi-vis full-length suit.
8. Got rid of all trip hazards around the house. When fire arrives thick smoke is impossible to see through and it’s easy to fall.
9. Designated each of 5 fire-fighters to be stationed on a particular hose and 1 to walk around and monitor the situation.
10. Used walkie-talkies to communicate with headquarters to see where the fire was in relations to them. Get wind speed data and an estimate of when the blaze would pass through.
11. Cut the fences open, that way if fire blocked the road they could still get out another way.
12. Monitor small spot fires that started from embers ahead of the main fire. These created tiny fire breaks that usually fizzled out on their own.
13. Took up posts, picked up hoses, got ready.
Three fire-trucks each had 20,000 litres of water; home water tanks an extra 15000 litres. Early on spot fires are a good thing. Once burned that area will not burn again. These guys had 95000 litres available to protect the house but didn’t want to waste it.
A fire needs 3 things to burn: oxygen, fuel and heat.
A rural mountain setting surrounded by thick bushland has plenty of oxygen. With 3 years of extreme drought, dead trees and leaf litter piled up to make an excess of fuel. November daytime temperatures were 30 to 35 degrees, but once bushfires start they generate and perpetuate their own heat.
They could hear the wildfire before it arrived, sounding like a freight train.
Fire-fighters had planned; they were prepared.
When the fire-storm hit the sky went dark. Flames 30 metres high created a firewall. An inferno grew on all sides, surrounding them. Flames leapt between gum trees full of eucalyptus oil. The forest ignited and burned at an insane speed.
The fire-fighters couldn’t have got out if they’d wanted to.
Strong winds carried the bushfire over and above the house. Inside heavy protective gear, fire-fighters swam in their own sweat. As the already high temperature continued to rise, they directed water jets onto the fire front. Hard, relentless work, it was impossible to see through the blanket of black smoke.
It looked like Armageddon.
The fire storm passed quickly but seemed like an eternity.
Afterwards, the group felt elated; as if they’d just won the lottery.
They kept a house from turning into ashes.
Adrenaline still flooding their system, they began mopping up spot fires and drenching the embers still creating a nuisance. The fire-fighters drank water, ate and sat to rest aching muscles.
Tiredness and exhaustion set in.
Talking to this fire-fighter was amazing. What he did was the culmination of 12 years of training.
I said he was courageous and asked if he felt frightened. This was his reply.
‘Being brave is being scared but doing it anyway.’
They saved a house from burning.
They made it through a bushfire.
They stayed safe.
They went home heroes.