Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pictures from Hades - Part 2

I would suggest you grab a cup of tea and get comfortable before starting to read this post. It is a bit long. It is my way of documenting some of the events that have taken place in the past three weeks here in my bush home on the Northeast outskirts of Melbourne Australia. You may also want to grab a box of tissues. This is not a happy post. It has taken me two days to piece together. Not that the writing was difficult or the pictures hard to prepare. Writing this post made my experience 'real', with all the emotion that was involved. Many parts were left out on purpose. As with all my posts you can view a larger version of the pictures by clicking on them.

On the 7th of February I posted four pictures of what was going on around me. The day was abnormally hot, the winds extremely high and the humidity extremely low. You could feel from the first thing in the morning that this was going to be a special day. The meteorologists, the Country Fire Authority and our local public broadcasting service had been warning us all week. The week before, when we experienced three days of similar conditions, should have given us fair warning. The 7th was especially brutal weather wise; 46.6C with 100 kph winds and less than 10% humidity. These conditions were an all time record breaker for us.

You could feel it. You could not escape it. It zapped the energy. It numbed the mind. There was nothing you could do. The electricity supply was periodically interrupted. The phone lines could get incoming calls but we could not make outgoing calls. The local emergency phone tree was activated. The first call came at 10:00 am. There was a fire in Kilmore east, 30 km away. Implement fire plan! We knew it would happen. You could just tell. The sense of anticipation was rippling though us. Our conversations centred on fire and every broadcaster and news service we heard was talking about it Even the local christian radio station was in on it. My little portable pocket radio only gets FM and only a few stations one of which is LightFM - Christian radio. If we needed God on any day, this was it.

Our fire plan is really quite simple. Pack, load car, leave. Oh, yeah, turn on 774 AM our local public broadcaster and emergency services station. It was too oppressively hot to move much. It was too much to think about driving the 20km to the Mall to hang out and watch a movie. The local hoods would probably have helped themselves to our belongings packed so neatly in the car, those special things that you take to start a new life if needs be. A weeks worth of clothes and toiletries, camera equipment, laptops, backup hard drives, important papers, special photographs, my diplomas, my grandfathers fob watch, my grandmothers reading glasses and enamel jewelry box, the set of handcoloured prints of Nicholls 'Orchids of Australia' and a heap of stuff. Way too much crammed in. It is not good to have too much warning. The mall was out of the question. We were 'safe' it was a long way away.

We needed to keep ourselves busy while we waited out the day. I took pictures and put together a blog on my plants that got cooked the week before. My partner sat on the couch watching old movies. We both drank copious quantities of iced tea. We packed of course and put everything by the back door. Every half hour or so we would get a phone call. After each phone call I would run outside and snap a few photos. The radio announcers kept saying that the fire was at Kilmore East. The Country Fire Authority website said Kilmore East. The number of trucks attending the fire kept getting bigger and bigger. By 5:00 there were 86 appliances in attendance. Serious stuff but still in Kilmore east. We could see really high smoke drifting over but couldn't smell it. You could still see the sun through it.

At 5:20 things changed. I popped out to see what was going on. Still no smell of smoke. I walked out to the walk and looked up. My heart sank and I screamed out to my napping partner. 'You have to come quick, look at this'. Below is what I saw. You can see the corner of the house in the lower left of the photo.

The fire was no longer in Kilmore East! The radio still told me it was. I tried not to panic. It didn't work. The cars were loaded. I got into some serious photography. By the time I walked to the the picnic table it was obvious that the fire was no longer in Kilmore East. There was smoke rising in Strathewen, Kinglake West, Pheasant Creek, Kinglake, Saint Andrews, Steels Creek, Christmas Hills and Yarra Glen. The wind was still coming from the Northwest. The cool change was meant to come at 6:00 bringing with it winds from the Southwest. We only had to last 1/2 hour and we would be safe. The change would take the smoke and fires away from us. Below is a sequence taken over the half hour between 5:30 and 6:00. The first two photos are just before the change, the third at the change and the last one after the change. Thankfully, the change came early, about 5:45 for us. Well, it was good for us, except for the dust. The problem was that the winds that came from the Southwest were even stronger than the winds from the Northwest. At 130 kph the Southwest winds fanned the fires and drove them in a totally different direction, creating a huge smear of fire across the mountains. Fire burning on a 70 - 80 km front.





Shortly after the last photograph was taken it started to get dark. Not because it was time to get dark but because the sun was being blocked by the smoke. Our neighbours Bert and Sue from down in the valley came up to our place to get a view of the fires. We chatted and tried to keep each other calm by making small talk. I took some photos but because of my trembling hands they all came out blurry. The tripod and switching the camera to timer mode helped greatly. I pointed the camera in the direction of the previous shots. Just as I did the first flames started coming over the hill. At first it was just a quick flash above the hill and then it disappeared. The shutter kept clicking. We started to hear the drone of a jet. It didn't change. You normally hear a jet coming, it passes over and then goes away. This sound kept getting louder and louder. It was the fire. It was sucking up oxygen and consuming organic matter, spewing smoke and heat heavenwards, creating it's own weather. By just after 7:00 we started hearing explosions followed by huge eruptions of flames. We worked out that it was gas bottles exploding. Then we saw a house go up in flames. Then another, and another and another. It was coming closer and closer to our home. Just after 7:00 the picture below was the view from our picnic table. The picture from the same position in the previous blog Pictures from Hades was taken just before this one. If you click on the photo below it will enlarge and you will see that it is taken at approximately the same angle as the four previous shots. You can see my neighbour Eric's house in the foreground and Mount Everard fully ablaze in the background.


This was extremely serious and it was time for us to leave. Actually, we should have left hours ago. I had enough time to snap a few more shots, download them, resize them and post them. It took me all of ten minutes to do that procedure. In the meantime my partner called and booked a hotel. We had quick showers and jumped in the cars and left. When we were in the car, I called the head of the phone tree and told them we were leaving. He said most had gone already. Great, we were the only bunnies left in the neighbourhood. This fact later turned out to be incorrect but at least we knew we were out of there. Some of my most dramatic pictures were taken in our last ten minutes at the house. The house we were not sure would be there in the morning.

We spent the night of the 7th February in the city, in a large hotel with air-conditioning and cable television. We didn't sleep. When we arrived at the hotel we noticed that our cars were caked in dust and ash. They stood out like hillbilly cars at a country club. Two filthy cars in a carpark full of gleaming new upmarket cars. The staff at the hotel were marvelous. They knew our situation so put us up in a very quiet room on the top floor facing away from the fires. We got a complimentary breakfast and they even made up a lunch for us to take home. It was pretty obvious we were a bit distressed and disoriented.

The next afternoon we went home. The house was there, the property was unburnt. There were 23 messages on our home phone. On the way home we heard that 14 people had died in the fires. Thank goodness more hadn't lost their lives. The second message on our phone was to inform us that two friends and their daughter had died. Several other messages had similar grim news. The toll was going to be higher than 14. The phone messages told us that.

By Tuesday the extent of the events of Saturday the 7th were becoming apparent. 181 dead, 1820 houses destroyed 7,000 people homeless. Shelters in Whittlesea, Yea and Diamond Creek serviced the vast majority of the affected people. Most had gotten out with only the clothes on their back. The stories told on the radio and portrayed on the television are too harrowing to put up here. What was in evidence by tuesday was the best and worst of the human character. Arsonists were caught and would have been lynched had the police not spirited them away to unkown locations. Several were caught stealing relief money collection containers. One person even put in and recieved monies for the funeral of their father that was killed in the fires. Only problem was that the scam artist had no father in the fire area. Thankfully, they were caught trying to claim benifits for being a victim. This low in human behaviour was more than amply compensated for by the thousands of people who donated goods and money to the relief effort. and jumped in to lend a hand. One hundred million dollars were donated in the first week and the Red Cross asked that people stop donating certain types of goods, particularly food.

On Monday the 9th February wilst getting ready for work, the phone tree was activated again. We were on an alert warning with fires in the three communities to the North and East of us. Cars were repacked and we headed off to work. Not not sure what I did that day. judging from the dates I submitted a few subject amendment forms and had lunch but don't remember much else. Tuesday was similar to Monday. A few abusive messages were posted in a forum that I am on. My numbness was turning to anger. I made a vow to myself and a couple of friends that there would be nor further postings until my nerves settled and the anger was gone or at least at manageable levels. This was no time for trivial online discussions of flower count on hybrid plants or some strange theory about how the fires were retribution for the changing of abortion laws in Victoria.

One of the most annoying things that started coming out on Monday and that gained strength on tuesday was the blame game. Lack of controlled burning was blamed. Rampant green legislation by some of the councils where the fires occurred were blamed. Outrageous, uninformed and insensitive remarks were the order of the day. Even Germaine Greer made pompous and simplistic remarks from the comfort of her upmarket digs in London. Thankfully, by Wednesday the finger pointers were identified for the idiots that they are and were subsequently ignored or ridiculed in further reporting. More balanced and informed commentary started to filter through and gain strength. A Bushfire Royal Commission was called.

Wednesday came and went. Do you ever have one of those days when you remember getting to the end of the work day and wondering how it went so quickly.? It seemed as though I had just gotten in. Had a few, not very pleasant, phone calls with friends informing me of lost friends or me informing them of lost friends.

Thursday was slightly better. The newspapers were not reporting any more deaths. The toll stood at 181 and hadn't changed in a couple of days. The more sensationalist tabloids were predicting 300 dead. The fires were still burning but not with the ferocity of the previous weekend. The fires were sneaking closer to the house again. Butterman's Track and the Watsons Creek reserve were burning. The Kinglake National Park in Arthurs Creek was being backburnt to prevent the fire getting to our town. It was disconcerting to have plumes of smoke rising to the East and North of us. Not much sleep that night. Below is a picture of the moonrise on the thursday night. Eerie and beautiful at the same time. The smoke permeated everything as did the ash and dust.

Smokey Moon and Butterman's Track burning

Smoke transforming the moon

Thursday was the first day that the air was clear enough to see the mountains again. This was the opportunity to get a couple of 'After' pics. The camera was put on the tripod and aligned to the originals. Peace and stillness was starting to return to our neighbourhood.

The 7th of February

The 12th of February

The 7th of February

The 12th of February

The following Wednesday provided me with an opportunity to go into the fire affected area. This should have been an easy task. At the end of our road is a small turnoff that has beautiful views over the mountains and valleys of our district. I took the camera up there to get some pictures. The plan was to drive down the hill to Strathewen to check on friends. When I stopped at the turnoff and got out of the car a wave of nerves came over me. The tripod was not in the car and my hands were not still enough to take photographs. The drive down the hill would not be possible today. Attempts on Thursday and on Friday also failed. Still no success. For crying out loud, it was only at the bottom of the hill! Emotions were still too raw and close to the surface. After my experience on Friday night a phone call was made to my friend Lynlee to organise a trip that would involve several people. She had to drop off some materials to some friends. We had our wristbands that allowed us into the area. Because there were so many deaths in the area and not all the bodies had been cleared, only residents were allowed into the area. Roadblocks manned by police made sure the only those who were meant to be there were there.

We loaded up the car with fox traps, extra supplies and some 'treats' for the people we would be visiting. Down the hill we went. Lynlee and I made an agreement not to take pictures of houses or cars, only pictures of the bush. This was a respect thing. Blue and white flagging tape meant people had died. Long flowing ribbons meant that the bodies were still there, short tied up ribbons meant the bodies had been removed. Enough said about that. Below are a few photographs taken along the way.

Entering Strathewen

Just before the main settlement of Strathewen

Bill and Linda's Property at Strathewen

Bill and Linda's house survived but the rest of the
property and Bill's moterbike didn't

At the top of Bill and Linda's property.
Former damp forest reduced to sticks and ash.

Heading up Beale Road between Strathewen and Kinglake.
The silence was amazing.
How could this ever regenerate?

The track leading to my study sites at Mt Everard

Ashbed at one of my study sites on Mt. Everard

A Wallaby that didn't make it out of my study site.

Lynlee checking to see if a rare conifer had survived the fire.
Some opportunist had come and cut down every
plant of the Cypress Pine, presumably because the
wood is so valuable. Chances of it regenerating?

Heading down the main road from Kinglake to St. Andrews.

Overlooking the Ninks Road Valley at St. Andrews.

The fires continue three weeks after the main front has passed. 300,00 hectares have been burnt out. Over 2,000 houses have been destroyed. 210 people lost their lives. Dozens are in hospital. 37 are still missing and presumed dead. But there are already signs of renewal. Lyrebirds, Wallabies and Wombats are scratching around the ash looking for food. What could possibly sustain these creatures in such desparate times? A wander through the forest looking at their scratchings showed what they were eating. The smell of their food permeated the air and gave away its presence before it could be seen. Fungi are growing everywhere. Stimulated by the fire, fungi are putting out fruiting bodies. The first fungi observed was a truffle type. It smells strongly of garlic. Wallaby and Lyrebird scratchings showed me where they were. Typical mushrooms were pushing through the still warm ash. Below is a picture of one of them.

A fungus, identity unkown.

On the Thurday after the fires there was an article in the paper about a young girls' excitement about the 'naked ladies' flowering around her burnt out house in Strathewen. I had to get a photo for myself. It was a sign of hope. Five days after a fire and a plant was blooming? Amaryllis belladonna (Naked Ladies or Belladonna Lily) is stimulated to bloom by fires in it's native South Africa. It retains this habit in it's new home in Australia and in particular in Strathewen.

Amaryllis belladonna two weeks after the fires.
Fire truck rushing to attend a nearby outbreak of fire.

Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea australis) resprouting two weeks after fire.
Thousands of grasstrees were resprouting, including the
related species X. minor (Small Grass Tree).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pictures from Hades

Today as I mentioned earlier was a day from Hades. Temps to 46.4 in Melbourne and up to 47.8 just outside of Melbourne. Soon after the fires started to take hold. These are pictures taken from my house of the fires around my town. They speak for themselves.

Looking toward St Andrews

Looking toward Dixon's Creek

Another view just north of Dixon's Creek

Mount Disappointment at Pheasant Creek

Friday, February 6, 2009

A blog from Hades

I am sitting in my basement typing away on my laptop surrounded by my orchids. They got moved inside last night. Thankfully a fan is blasting over me and the plants. I can here you saying that 'Chuckie, you have gone absolutely crazy'. Well in the words of our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd 'extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures'.

You see, at the moment the temperatures outside are just over 43C (110F). Last week we had similar and higher temperatures for three days in a row. Needless to say all sorts of organisms suffered. Animals, including humans, were dying, plants were dying, and dust storms were blanketing everything. Today is even worse as they predict it will get to 44C or higher (112F). with winds of 50-90 Kilometres per hour. Our community fire guard phone tree was activated earlier today and we just got notification that there are two fires 10k northwest of us. The winds are blowing out of the northwest!!!

The orchids had a particularly hard time. Not all of them though. Many of the Cymbidiums lived through with little more than losing the odd leaf or two. Some others did not fare as well. Below are some pictures of the worst of the casualties. My friends on the Cymbidium Forum wanted to see the 'devastation' . Well to feed their morbid curiosity, the camera was pulled out and a different kind of picture taken! I hope you enjoy these George! Stop gloating that you have such nice weather in your part of the world.

The first picture is of a beautiful little cloud-forest plant called Maxillaria sophronites. It is normally a pretty tough little plant. Interestingly, it didn't scorch in the heat but basically 'cooked' . All of the plant tissues first blanched, like brocolli in a steamer, and then turned these lovely shades of brown. It is heading toward the compost bin. The second photo is the usually magnificant Maxillaria fletcherianum. The plant did have half a dozen fully-leaved pseudobulbs and flower spikes starting to form. It now only has two severely burnt leaves on the very youngest growth. Very sad.

Maxillaria sophronites

Maxillaria fletcherianum

The worst affected plants were the Masdevallias. These mostly cloud forest plants without much in the way of water reserves, literally curled up their toes. All but two plants in my Masdevallia collection are dead. Maxillaria triangularis, pictured below, gives you some indication of what the rest of my Masdevallias look like. They are now the most expensive compost you can think of.

Masdevallia triangularis

While the majority of the cymbidiums fared pretty well, some did not. Below is a picture of what was a mature plant of Cym. iansonii. Not only did the leaves cook, but the pseudobulbs also steamed to the point of blanching. While some plants had burnt tips, this species cooked from the inside out! The leaves stayed green longer than the pseudobulbs. The leaves on these cooked pseudobulbs shed a few days later and the new growth that at first appeared green rotted from the base upward! The ends of the leaves are green but the bases are completely black.

Cymbidium iansonii

A couple of the Cymbidium devonianum hybrids responded in a very peculiar way. Instead of pseudobulbs cooking or leaves getting burnt tips individual cells withing the leaf bleached. Not all of the cells but a scattering of cells. And not on the young growth, only on the older leaves. Very strange. Below is a picture of Cymbidium Devon Odyssey exhibiting the mottled cell bleaching induced by heat.

Cymbidium Devon Odyssey

The wierdiest of the heat damage is this living but bleached tissue. Not hot enough to kill the cell but enough to blast the chloroplasts.

Cymbidium Mad Magic