A group of four Chilean university academics came to Australia in February to visit five alpaca breeders on a mission to research breeding techniques and practices. In the middle of the four day visit they were confronted by the most damaging bushfires in Australia?s history. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience where the aftermath has been described by others as akin to Hiroshima, or Armageddon. Officials have described it as possibly the world?s most devastating wild fire.
Photo caption: The four Chilean visitors who got to investigate alpaca breeding at Jigaru, Malakai, Surilana and Flowerdale before the fires broke out on Saturday, February 7th.
On the evening of Friday, February 6th 2009 we took the Chilean visitors, Rodrigo, Victor, Alberto and a second Rodrigo to our local Landcare BBQ in the Strath Creek Reserve. It had been a very hot day. We enjoyed a cold beer and I asked how hot it gets around Santiago. With a tone that was based on some pride they told me it could sometimes reach 32°. I said ?Mate, tomorrow it will be 46+.? There was a moment of silence, founded on disbelief, I?m sure. The guys from Chile were pleased to meet our locals and try some Australian red wine with some good Aussie beef which they enjoyed immensely. The conversation was focused on the hot weather conditions and the prediction of a real scorcher the next day. Fires had been raging in Gippsland, south east of Melbourne, for a couple of days, so there was a sense of unease from the locals.
On the morning of Saturday, February 7th we awoke to scorching weather conditions that were extremely uncomfortable from the very earliest hours. The day turned out to be the hottest Victorian day on record (46.7°). The heat was accompanied by gale force northerly winds in the morning - a deadly combination of adverse bushfire conditions that were a Country Fire Brigade?s worst nightmare. At 11.49am the alarm went off at the Kilmore CFA headquarters, one hour north of Melbourne. A fire had taken off, driven by the ferocious winds, heading south, not far from the Hume Highway. As we had lunch and listened to reports on the VHF radio, we too were concerned at the speed with which this fire seemed to be advancing. The urgency in the fire controller?s voice told us that this was no ordinary fire. Haydn, our farm manager and member of the Strath Creek CFA, got out his CFA maps to pinpoint the location and work out the direction. It was heading straight for the small townships of Wallan, Wandong and Clonbinane - not all that far from us. Then the pager went off and Haydn was called out from the Strath Creek base to support the other brigades already in attendance.
Caption to accompany map
From its starting point, just south of Kilmore, and fanned by strong northerlies, the fire quickly moved to the east as the wind shifted to the west and after passing to the north of Whittlesea then turned north as winds settled in the south. Gusts were reaching 40km per hour.
The fire ripped through the towns of Wallan and Wandong and by mid afternoon was heading west carried by a wind change that eventually swung around to come from the south. The fire tore through the northern end of Whittlesea and on into King Lake West, Pheasant Creek and Kinglake itself and then further north to Hazledene and Flowerdale. By nightfall, the Three Sisters range (about 4km from us) was fully alight. The fire had forged a semi-circular pathway of over 50km in just 5-6 hours.
Well prepared plans go into action
I spent all afternoon activating our fire plans. Ten fire hoses were set out on the lawns and tested. We moved as many animals as near to the house as possible in close proximity to our irrigation system and fire sprinklers. We were able to saturate the house and two paddocks where most of the animals were assembled.
Fortunately there were no conference guests or staff in attendance that weekend. Our conference complex consists of 12 separate buildings. Doors to the main homestead building were unlocked for full access in an emergency. The huge gas storage tanks were shut off and a fire hose put in place to keep the tanks cool in a fire. Many farm gates were left open to provide access for trucks and tankers in the event of a grass fire. All engines and pumps were fuelled so we would not run out at a critical time. The diesel generator, capable of powering the whole venue, was topped up with fuel. A fire fighting pump was designated to the swimming pool. The furphy fire fighting unit was hitched up. The 600 litre spray tank on the tractor was filled so we would have two spray units for firefighting needs and mopping up after a fire. The Chilean guests had offered to give assistance so they were briefed on the locations of fire hoses and how to operate them if required.
Looking to the sky all one could see was a dark, dense, grey smoke barrier blotting out what must have been a clear, bright blue sky above on such a hot summer day. The sun was visible through this thick grey smoke as if someone had cut a round disc of carrot and hung it in the sky. And the remarkable thing was that you could look right into this sun without any discomfort. Such was the density of the smoke.
Stressful situation for Chileans
You don?t have to use a great deal of imagination to figure out what it would be like to be in a foreign country on the hottest day ever recorded, to be seeing thick smoke all around you and to factor in reports of fires everywhere, with houses burning to the ground in an instant, and to be unable to understand the magnitude of the peril surrounding you or where you would go if you needed to evacuate. In a word? Horrific!
Of course we were totally unable to be good hosts and these guys understood our situation. I tried to keep them informed but this was not easy with the emergency in full swing. They agreed to cook dinner so I threw together some ingredients for steak and salad and left them to it. Just before the call to eat, Haydn who had returned from CFA duties, shouted that the Three Sisters, a local mountain range 4 km south of us was fully alight. We dropped everything and went to see what could be done. There was no dinner for us that night.
Right across central Victoria, and Gippsland to the east, fires broke out and raged for days with no respite.
Concern for our neighbours
At about 10pm on Saturday night we went down to see our alpaca neighbor, Kenilworth Park, to reassure ourselves that Jeanette and Keith were holding together through the stress, being much closer to the fire than us. The whole of the Three Sisters was alight sending out showers of embers and smoke and the winds were getting stronger. We met Jeanette at her front door hooking up garden hoses around the house. The mood was intense. Not much was said. I pulled out a long strip of toilet paper I had been carrying around all day to test the direction of the wind. I held it high. When Jeanette saw that the wind was coming directly from the fire to her front door she was extremely alarmed. So were we, being just a couple of km further up the road in the pathway of the wind. One alarming concern was based on the radio reports advising that the strong winds were causing spot fires as far as 15km ahead of the main fire front. We found that unimaginable. And terrifying. No one knew where the next fire would break out.
At this time we were not aware that the small hamlet of Flowerdale, just 5km south of us, had been totally wiped out with almost every house gone and a loss of seven lives.
Around midnight, we agreed that we should try to get some rest and would patrol the property on alternate 30 minute shifts. This went on throughout the night. It was just not possible to sleep. The fear of waking to find everything going up in flames was alarming. And exhausting.
On Sunday morning our Chileans were due to go to Canchones, about 1.5 hours away, for their next alpaca experience. Canchones was not an option, as by this time the fires had reached their district at Taggerty and were becoming very threatening. The Chileans were showing signs of agitation and just wanted to get out. The experience had been more than enough. I had to explain that all exit roads to Melbourne and the airport had been closed so Melbourne was not an option.
They had been due to fly to Sydney for some sightseeing before the return to Chile. Eventually they came up with a plan to try to get out and head up the Hume Highway to Sydney. This was risky as we could not say for sure what roads were closed. We enquired through the CFA and agreed that if they could get to Seymour and onto the Hume they should be right. However there had been reports of fires in NSW too. So the likely outcome of this plan was unknown. They agreed to give it a try. They succeeded.
Stirling job by local firefighters
It seemed strange that the wind had been gusting from the south of us for almost 24 hours and that the fire had not entered our valley. Local firefighters had success during the night by keeping the Three Sisters fire on the other side of our road. The Sunday morning was quiet with less smoke than the day before. The forecast, though, was for freshening winds during the day to more than 40-60km per hour wind gusts in the afternoon. Haydn had decided to remain on the farm, as protection for our property had become a priority. He said quietly to me, ?I was hoping this day would never come.? He had spent several years developing a fire plan to protect his family and house with an elaborate irrigation system and fire fighting capability. Our worst fear, for years, had been the huge commercial pine forest directly over the road from us. Around lunchtime a radio alert advised that our worst fear was upon us. A fire had broken out in the pine forest just opposite. Trucks, bulldozers and tankers arrived in minutes. I received a phone call at that moment from a concerned alpaca breeder and had to abruptly drop the call.
Solid work by a team of fire fighters, including a strike team from NSW, saved the forest and contained the fire to an area of about 100 acres. Haydn assisted with our tractor to haul burning trees back across the containment lines. However, the burning fire inside the containment lines needed to be strictly monitored, as it could be on us in minutes if it broke out.
On Sunday afternoon I was approached by the DSE working in the area to provide accommodation for a crew of 18 fire fighters. In a nano second I realised what a godsend this could be. Our own team of trained professional DSE firefighters on site. ?You?re welcome,? I said.
At the time of writing, almost four weeks after ?Black Saturday,? there are still fires burning across the state, and an overwhelming level of fire fatigue is everywhere. Today?s forecast is for high temperatures and 100km per hour gales. As I look out the window I can observe this and almost breathe in the terror and stress levels for those closest to the remaining fires. Many of whom have already fled.
Caption for photo
This scene, not far from our farm, will be a reminder for some time of the need to pay attention and prepare.
There have been 210 lives and over 2,000 houses lost. The tourism business in the worst affected areas has completely stopped with a risk of bankruptcy for hundreds of small family businesses.
To my knowledge alpaca losses have been few. Some have been scorched and a few have needed treatment for burned feet. We have been very lucky on our farm with no losses of property or stock. I want to thank all those from around Australia and overseas who contacted me by phone and email showing concern and offering help. People from interstate offered to drop everything and come to assist if we needed it. I particularly want to thank Don Knight who just showed up to help. How he got through the blockades is a mystery. Don stayed with us for several days and was a great support. That level of generosity and commitment to help another breeder is one of the nicest things about our wonderful industry.
As Australians, we must pay attention and prepare. I know of one alpaca breeder with a really robust fire plan. On Friday, the 6th, they had a fire drill. They were dismayed to find that the gardener had been using water from the dedicated fire fighting tank to water the garden. It was empty. But that was Friday, the day before the fires. So we must plan. We must prepare. We must practice. Let?s not take anything for granted.
Jeffry and Carol Farman run almost 500 alpacas on their farm, Flowerdale Estate. The 150 acre property is 70km north of Melbourne and very close to one of the main areas devastated by fires. Jeffry?s son Haydn manages the farm and lives on site with his wife Virginia and daughter Emily. Despite the threat, there was no damage to farm or alpacas.
This article was first published in Alpacas Australia magazine, Issue 58 (April 2009) and is reproduced with the permission of the author and Alpacas Australia magazine.