Tasmania is burning and we fear for our home

Our bush property is made from timber and won’t stand a chance if the wildfires advance

Philip Lynch’s home in Tasmania is surrounded by gum trees.

Philip Lynch’s home in Tasmania is surrounded by gum trees.

 

In contrast to Far North Queensland, where torrential rain has led to widespread flooding with over 400mms falling in 24hrs, here where I live in drought-stricken Tasmania, the southern half of this island is, to put it bluntly, ablaze.

Three huge out-of-control bushfires have consumed almost 2,000sqkm of the island’s wilderness areas. Natural Parks and precious World Heritage Sites are being razed. Towns and hamlets are at risk of incineration. So far, only a handful of houses have been confirmed lost, but this number is likely to rise sharply in coming days with high temperatures and gusty winds forecast.

There are dire predictions that the fires are set to worsen. The beleaguered 500 or so firefighters are exhausted, and authorities are considering calling in expert help from as far away as the US and Europe.

Large bushfires are burning in Tasmania. Photograph: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service/Reuters
Large bushfires are burning in Tasmania. Photograph: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service/Reuters

Smoke from the bushfires has already reached New Zealand, 2,000km away. The  firefighters and the water bombing aircraft, including a Boeing 747, can do little more than back burn and put in fire breaks to defend the rural towns and hamlets from the infernos. Poor visibility due to the heavy smoke has meant the aircraft are often unable to operate.

Our closest fire, just across the Huon River, is less than 10km away. We’ve been warned to watch out for spot fires and live airborne embers. These destructive embers travel kilometres ahead of the actual fire, and can destroy property.

Ominous-looking burnt black eucalyptus leaves and ash are already carpeting our bush property. The smell of smoke fills every nook and cranny inside. There is no escaping its acrid stink. I could choose to leave our bush block like many of our neighbours. But the fire hasn’t gotten any closer to us, yet. It’s just that heavy wall of smoke, carrying with it a menacing hint of what may follow.

Surprisingly, this bushfire “Watch and Act” status is mostly a mundane waiting game. If the fire “makes a run”, to use the firefighters’ vocabulary, and if the wind changes, we will be in trouble. Today, like yesterday and the day before, we may well get the word that we should evacuate.

Hundreds of locals have already decamped to a nominated centre in the nearby town of Huonville. Livestock have been moved to safer paddocks. A tent city has sprung up on the town’s footy oval. And a man has been charged with looting several abandoned homesteads.

Photo from Nasa’s Earth Observatory showing large fires fuelled by extremely dry and hot conditions that have been burning for almost two weeks in central and southeast Tasmania. The Tasmania Fire Service has issued several emergency warnings to residents to relocate, as dangerous fire conditions and strong wind persist. Photograph: Nasa Earth Observatory/Lauren Dauphin/EPA
Photo from Nasa’s Earth Observatory showing large fires fuelled by extremely dry and hot conditions that have been burning for almost two weeks in central and southeast Tasmania. The Tasmania Fire Service has issued several emergency warnings to residents to relocate, as dangerous fire conditions and strong wind persist. Photograph: Nasa Earth Observatory/Lauren Dauphin/EPA

We can draw some small comfort from the fire trucks that occasionally rumble slowly by our front gate night and day, with their flashing blue and red lights, as they too watch out for any spot fires. The crew look almost bored, but perhaps they are simply fatigued from their constant state of vigilance.

Our predominantly timber home is not regarded as being defendable. Built well over a decade ago, it predates the strict fireproof regulations of modern dwellings. We have no fireproof bunker. And so, our ash-coated cars remain jam-packed with our stuff, parked facing our exit. Even our dogs, normally playful and curious, are subdued, as if they know something’s astir and our sudden exit is imminent.

I like to think I will be able to put up a partial fight before I abandon ship. A mate is on standby to come over and help, and we have two fire-fighting pumps at the ready, at either end of the house. If we lose power, which is likely, at least these petrol driven pumps will remain functional.

I’ve blocked the downpipes and filled the gutters with water. My wife and I have raked up wheelbarrow loads of gum leaves from around the house in a forlorn attempt to minimise fuel for a fire in our immediate vicinity. No doubt, the next wind gust will casually undo all our hard work. But if there are any indications that the fire is likely to consume everything it its way, I won’t be sticking around.

And so, surrounded by stringybark gum trees that we’ve come to treasure, which could now well be our nemesis, and with fraying nerves, we wait and listen to the news bulletins, desperately hoping we will avoid the catastrophe of losing our home.

Philip Lynch is a regular contributor to Irish Times Abroad from his home in Tasmania, where he works as a psychiatric nurse. Originally from Co Westmeath, he has lived in Australia since 1983. This article also appears in The Age Melbourne today.

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