IMAGINE it’s August. English and Welsh campsites, caravan parks, Airbnbs and hotels are full. Everyone who is on holiday is walking and biking through the hills or lying on beaches. It has been very dry for many months. Fires are breaking out all over the countryside. The fires are so large that smoke has blown to Eastern Europe where people are phoning the emergency services to report it.
That’s the situation here in Australia where there are fires from Melbourne to Brisbane. In New Zealand authorities are asking concerned citizens to stop phoning them to report the unusual smoke that has drifted over from Australia.
You have probably seen plenty of news reports, but perhaps you don’t know much about the Rural Fire Service.
It’s manned on the ground by volunteers, typically older men who are self-employed or retired. I chatted to a few of them in Mittagong, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, on Sunday evening. They were about to drive home to Rooty Hill, a Sydney suburb nearly two hours’ drive from Mittagong, after a long shift fighting fires. This year, for the first time, the self-employed fire fighters who have lost income will be financially compensated. Most will receive nothing beyond thanks and friendly smiles and personal satisfaction for weeks of strenuous work in hot, smoky, dangerous conditions. They are supported by helicopter and light-plane pilots who risk their lives water-bombing fires and houses to protect them moments before fire reaches them.
At RFS head office, professional staff analyse fires and weather continuously to predict when and where the fires will spread. A week ago the people of Mittagong were invited to a meeting at which the RFS explained that the ‘Green Wattle Creek fire’ could burn through Mittagong at any time until the end of February, as no significant rainfall is predicted before then. Similar meetings were held earlier in villages to the south of Mittagong to warn people that a fire burning many miles away on the South Coast would probably reach their homes in the next few weeks. It did on Saturday and homes in Wingello and Bundanoon were destroyed in the ‘Morton fire’ which was created when the ‘Currawan fire’ on the Coast spread into the Morton National Park.
The RFS gives us up-to-date information on their website. Their ‘fires near me’ map shows us what is happening: which areas are under immediate threat, which areas are under less threat. In the last few days I’ve kept an eye on the Green Wattle Creek fire. A new fire was put out on a hillside I can see from my window and another fire was put out in a town to the south of Mittagong. Either of these fires could have grown out of control. Thanks to prompt action by the fire fighters they were extinguished. Thanks to prompt advice from the RFS people near those fires could prepare their homes and get ready to leave.
When fires come close to roads they are closed and when they come close to homes people are advised to leave. Messages are sent automatically to all mobile phones within the range of individual phone transmitter towers. Emergency services personnel go door to door in villages to make sure that residents know what’s happening; those who want to leave but don’t have transport are assisted.
When major railways are blocked stranded travellers are also helped. A few days ago a section of the railway connecting Sydney with Melbourne was closed for several hours. All passengers at Sydney were taken by bus to an evacuation centre in Picton where they waited in noisy, crowded comfort (with dogs barking – domestic pets are welcomed at evacuation centres) until roads opened and they could be driven through the fire zone. What should have been a two-hour train journey to Mittagong turned into a seven-hour journey by bus with a long rest stop, but everyone was safe and fed.
You’ll have seen images of evacuees on beaches and queues of cars on roads. You’ll know that some people have died, that many houses have been destroyed. But so many more people and homes have been protected. The RFS on the ground, in the air and at their head quarters are doing an incredible job. They work with the state emergency services, police, ambulance services and others. I am immensely impressed and appreciative. Hard work, bravery, expertise, modern technology and effective co-operation between organisations are saving so many people and so many homes over such an enormous area.