Waking to the urgent sound of the notification tone on his mobile phone at 5am his heart initially sank. The tone was the one that told him in an instant that there was a bushfire emergency nearby.
As a member of the Volunteer Fire service, he dressed quickly and made his way to the fire station. Most of the crew were already there and as soon as the last arrived they were briefed on what was occurring.
A fire had broken out 20k’s from town and the wind was blowing it towards the town. There was a chance of the wind changing to a more westerly direction as dawn broke which would help. But it was not guaranteed.
They donned their gear and piled into the tender setting off in a tense silence through a town still mostly asleep. But they could already smell smoke in the air and braced themselves for the war they were about to wage.
They are not called firefighters for any old reason. They are called that as they go to war each time there is a fire. They all know the grim truth that they may not all return to their families. Yes, some of them could lose their lives fighting the fire. Yet they still do it.
Voluntarily. Such is the courage of our Volunteer Fire service.
Battling bushfires is not easy. The heat that it may generate is enough to kill you long before the first flame reaches you and melts your flesh.
An Australian bushfire is a demon in disguise. It can jump roads and rivers, travel at incredibly fast speeds. At 27km per hour, no man can outrun a bushfire.
It is able to “seed” itself by casting embers into the sky that are carried hundreds of metres or even kilometres ahead. It can even generate its own weather pattern. There are tornadoes of flame that reach 15m or more.
Small bushfires are fought by wetting them with water from either a tender of from an aircraft. Firefighters try to create breaks in the fuel supply by stripping the undergrowth from an area ahead of the fire front. This drops the intensity of the fire giving the firefighters a better chance of getting in control of the situation.
If the fire is too intense for this method (fire intensity is measured in the number of kilowatts of energy at the fire front, I do not know quite how this is achieved) then it fought indirectly. Fire breaks are made by bulldozing strips of land and forest. Water bombers are employed to drop tons of water on the fire front at each pass. There are both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used to do this. They may drop a red fire retardant instead, sometimes on homes in order to save them.
Should the fire get even worse, and the battle is being lost, then an alert goes out to mobile phones (of residents who have signed up for this). There are regular updates on local radio and the fire service website. Even door-knocking is employed.
One more method used is “back-burning”. Areas ahead of the fire are deliberately lit by fire crews and a controlled burn takes place. When the fire front reaches the back-burnt area it will be starved of fuel. This method is not always successful as embers from the bushfire can be blown further ahead of the area igniting spot-fires which themselves can rapidly spread and increase in intensity.
Our volunteer fire-fighters continually put their lives on the lie to save us, our stock, our machinery, our homes and even our very lives.
To our fire-fighters, I congratulate all of you on your bravery and dedication. I believe each and every you of them should get a medal and be paid tax-free for time spent in the war against fire.
A novel by Hamish McKenna
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