It has been almost a year since the fires that roared through our area forced us to evacuate (and burned down many houses). Today I drove through the worst effected area on my way to the vet, I can see the bush is struggling to heal and grow strong again, but it is going to take more than a few years.
The green is trying to take over again, but the blackened skeletons of dead trees still poke through the green carpet and the sun beats down on paths that were previously shaded year round by those trees.
One of my friends attended the fire that burned all this land, she rang me the next day to share her grief. What she told me still brings me nightmares in the middle of the night; she had to drive a vehicle through burned and burning ground, watching animals stagger into the road edge and die. Everyone in this area is scarred from last year’s fires, especially those who lost their homes and those who no longer feel safe living here. Many have moved away.
Those fires can happen again; there is still fuel on the ground, despite the hot burn last year. The soil is twice as hot this year because the shade is gone now. The extended dry of a drought never really broken has baked the flush of growth that comes after a fire and all it needs is for someone to drop a match on one of the numerous hot, dry, windy days we have in Spring, Summer and Autumn, then we will be on fire again.
This year is supposed to be wetter than usual, but so far we haven’t seen much rain. It is dry and dusty, we are getting low on water and there is a lot of smoke on the horizon. In response, we are doing our yearly clean up and fire safe activities.
The hay pile
The round bale we have kept for the sheep has been the source of all our bedding hay for the Winter. The sheep pull the bale apart and eat what they want from it, then we rake up some of the fallen hay to change the animal bedding. This is part of our mulch creation process; every scrap of hay is used three times, as food, as bedding then as mulch. Now fire season is here, it is time to rake up the fallen hay and take it straight to the potato patch.
Cleaning out animal pens
The animal pens are more comfortable with hay in them as bedding and in Winter we make sure everyone has a deep covering of hay to snuggle into at night. The bedding is changed monthly (or more often) and used to mulch our new and growing potato bed. Now it is getting hotter and smokier it is time to go back to bare earth.
The mulch pile
The hay that is cleaned from the animal pens doesn’t make it up to the potato patch straight away, it is dumped over the fence into a pile and left to sit until someone gets around to taking it up to where it needs to go. Now the ground has become dust it is time to tidy that pile back to nothing.
Raking up fallen leaves
As usual, the leaves and bark build up against fence lines and walls. The work of clearing them away goes on throughout the fire season.
Moving flammable things away from the humpy
Anything that looks like it will burn has to be moved to a safe distance. That includes anything plastic or wood and anything that could have a pile of leaves hiding behind it.
Putting the tank and pump on the ute
The ute we bought last year as a fire fighter has been fitted with it’s tank and a pump. We have all had a go at starting the pump and filling the tank (although I hope I don’t ever have to do it alone). It will be a mobile fire fighting unit for ourselves and our neighbors.
Wetting down the mulched areas
There are two mulched areas around the humpy; one is the front garden (where I have two small beds) and the other is the potato patch. The beds in the front garden get regular small amounts of water from the washing and the animal water pots, that means they are fairly damp all the time and they are also under the humpy sprinklers.
The potato patch doesn’t get as much water, so we have started using the water from the ute tank to water the potatoes on a weekly basis. That means that the mulch is damp underneath (and less likely to burn) and that the potatoes get regular water. It also gives us a chance to test the pump on the all important mobile fire fighting unit. My partner usually pumps the water into the ute and waters the potatoes, because he’s good like that.
Filling spare tanks
There are several small tanks stationed around the humpy with pumps and hoses attached, they are there to provide a second line of defense if the fire starts to send off embers and sparks in the direction of the humpy. We have checked and filled them all from the dam.
Setting up spot fire stations
In addition to the tank and pump set ups, we have a small bin on each side of the humpy. These are filled with water and an old towel or two placed nearby. These are for close spot fires and to provide a wet towel to fire fighters (aka; us) if things get too hot.
There is always more to be done, and we hope that the humpy will get more fire safe each year. We plan to clear the fallen branches inside the fire break area next year and the sheep will be fenced into the fire break zone to keep the vegetation low. More tanks are in the pipeline too (there is never enough water).
We are mostly ready just in time; the RFS site ‘Fires Near Me‘ has posted up the fire that has been burning slowly behind our property. It looks to be under control for the moment, but is only 1 km away from the humpy. This fire is probably safe, but this is just the beginning of fire season.
Note: this fire was bought under control after a few days. I left this bit in the post to illustrate the tension involved in fire season for everyone in our area (and many others). Every year the fire seasons seem to get worse and the preparations more extreme. The rainfall is less, the Summer heatwaves are longer and hotter and the fires (when they start) are fiercer. We do our part to mitigate climate change here in our humpy, but it is too late and too little to prevent a huge change in our world. The best we can do is to plan for the worst, but expect the best.
Since the toilet is up and running, we need to get the mulch pit finished. At the moment it is hard to concentrate on any project. The constant threat of fire and the despair that comes with knowing that so much of our ecosystem is destroyed keeps us in a constant state of depression. It is hard to concentrate on anything except watching the media releases about the fires all over Australia. However, it is important to keep working towards the future we want; how else will we reach it? In between the fire threats and increadibly hot days we made a plan that involved digging a pit to drain the effluent into then covering the lot with gravel, wood chip, soil and mulch.
The biogas system continues to impress me, the only down side I have discovered is the flammable nature of methane (which is kind of the point) and the fact that we can’t move the unit away from the house in the event of a bushfire threat (we are at a count of three direct threat situations so far in the last twelve months). We have countered this by releasing the methane into the atmosphere when there is any risk of fire. There is a handy tap that allows the gas to be vented easily. The refill time is getting less every day; currently the tank will fill in about ten hours and the effluent has proven fairly easy to bucket into the old toilet pit on a weekly basis.
Since the effluent is from human poop, it needs to be handled carefully. The effluent is passed through a chlorine chamber before it emerges from the unit. Treatment with chlorine is the accepted way to treat human effluent, it kills off a lot of nasties and oxygenation and exposure to sun takes care of the rest. After it emerges from the unit our effluent goes into a bucket, which is then emptied into the old toilet pit (which helps the waste in this pit continue to decompose). It is time to put in a hands free option for handling the effluent. In our situation we have several options; we could feed it into our septic system (except we don’t have one), we could build a dedicated transpiration pit or we could build a mulch basin. We went with a combination of the transpiration pit and the mulch pit ideas.
First we (and by ‘we’ I mean my hard working partner) dug a pit that was about 40cm deep.
Then we put in a layer of gravel in the bottom. This layer is about 5cm deep. The plumbing part of the project was then completed before the pit could be filled up all the way.
Next step was adding a straw layer to slow down the migration of soil into the gravel.
After that there is a layer of wood chips (to soak up any nitrogen rich moisture that makes it that far) and a layer of soil to seal the pit off from the surface.
After that I planted the passionfruit vine I bought to (hopefully) take advantage of all that moisture and nutrient. I mulched around the vine, then realised that it is now a fire risk and would be raked away when the next fire threatens. To counter this a little, I buried the mulch under a deep layer of soil again. I hope this will protect the mulch from ember attack in the event of a fire.
So now we have a new garden bed that doubles as a transpiration pit. Hopefully the roots of the passionfruit won’t bung up the draining system and hopefully the buried mulch will be safe from ember attack (I am thinking that this method might be good for the new vegetable beds when we get to that). We, like most of Australia, are still in shock from the magnitude of the fires this year. We fear that next year will be more of the same, so everything we do from now on needs to be focused on fire safety and how to keep our family safe.
We are finally home from being evacuated. There was a blessed rain event on December 23rd-25th which allowed us to assume that the fire is now under control (along with a few other factors). We came home with everyone, only to find that we had to go straight back out again for a medical emergency. I am trying to capture the events here as I know how our memories play tricks and re-arrange things. Here is the sequence of events as I remember them now;
We had settled in to the regular work of being in the evacuation centre; walking dogs, feeding sheep, cleaning cages, feeding animals. We were making multiple calls every day to my partner, who was still at home defending the humpy. One morning, my partner (who never misses an opportunity to shop) called to say he had been looking for a farm 4WD to convert into a ‘Black Ops brigade‘ fire vehicle (unofficial fire fighting crews). The house building account was already under seige due to having to use some of it to buy food for my eldest daughter and I while we were in exile, buying fire fighting equipment and now we were looking at having to dip into it to buy a 4WD.
To cut a long story short, we ended up buying a Mitsubishi Triton that is close to being a registration failure. We had to borrow about half the money to buy it, leaving us with more debt (sigh). My partner arranged for an obliging nephew to pick him up and take him to pick up his new partner in fire fighting (he also did the initial check over of the vehicle, thanks Matt). Now it was time to outfit the old girl as a fire fighter.
We have already bought two fire fighting pumps, two 1000 litre pods and many metres of fire hose to help set up our fire defense system. We have also bought sprinklers for the roof and walls and my partner set them up in a watering system that covers the entire humpy area (now all we need is enough rain to fill the tanks). One of the pods and a pump with hoses will go on the back of the ute (she needs a name now), along with a box for the chainsaw and various other tools, such as a few water backpacks, a McCloud tool or two, shovels and rakes.
Before the pod and pump went on the ute, my partner was using it to patrol the fire front closest to us. He did regular night time patrols while a neighbour (whose property the fire happened to be on) did daytime patrols. Not to be political at all, but the RFS have been in short supply ever since this whole thing began. Let me be very clear here; the RFS is doing it’s best to fight the fires. There are just not enough resources to go around. When our little area was under direct threat they showed up with a bulldozer and pushed multiple fire breaks both around dwellings and through the bush at seemingly random intervals. They were around to do occasional patrols of the fire front and the planes and choppers flew over almost daily. The fire jumped over the first fire breaks that were put in because there were not enough patrols to observe and black out the slow moving fire that reached them. As soon as he had a vehicle capable of driving around the fire lines, my partner and other local people made sure there were regular and constant patrols on our section of the fire front. I think this has allowed the fire to be bought under control.
On the morning of the 23rd December, we decided that it was time to go home. The fire was reported as under control on our Northern side, and my partner considered it under control on our Western side, and we were feeling VERY homesick. So we packed everyone up (except the sheep) into their travelling cages and crammed them into my car, my partner’s car and one of the trailers. We set off for home like a travelling circus (or maybe like Ma and Pa Clampett), and reached home by mid morning. I quickly unpacked everyone from my car and set off back to the evacuation site to finish cleaning up the shed.
After hours and hours of scrubbing cages and cleaning out the caravan, I was ready to drop, but I kept going until my partner got there to pick up the sheep. We took the trailer up to the yards and spent some time chasing Kracken around and around as she had apparently decided she liked the lodging and wanted to stay a bit longer. Eventually we managed to drag her into the trailer and I decided to leave the cleaning until the next day. We went home for one blissful night in our own beds with our animals all around us.
The site of the humpy still standing bought me to tears. It may just be a little, rough shed in the bush, but it is our home. I was overjoyed to see the animals that live wild around the humpy still in residence. The big open area around the humpy had been widened considerably, and the chook pen and Hugelkultur garden beds had been pushed away by the bulldozer to make the humpy more fire ready (thank you RFS). The yard fences had been partially destroyed by the dozer too, and all the shadecloth awnings around the humpy had been taken down. It looked bare and strangely neat, but it is still home.
The next morning, my daughter came to me with Prim in her hands. Prim was struggling to breathe and could not talk to us at all. We took off for the vet (2 and a half hours away) and reached there with her still struggling to breathe. The vet put her in an oxygen tent and recomended that she be transfered to the Gatton animal hospital. I didn’t feel able to make the drive, so we rang my partner and got him to drive up to Killarney, pick up my daughter and Prim then drive to Gatton with them. Meanwhile, I drove back home to watch over the animals still there.
Prim died that night in the animal hospital. There are no words to tell you how grief striken we are. I will write a seperate post to honour her death. The next morning, my daughter and partner drove home to bury her. The work of settling into the humpy again begins…
NOTE: My mother lost her home and farm buildings in this fire. A fact that still seems unreal to me. However, I am not posting about my reaction to this event or any other information as it is not my information to share.
We are in the midst of another major bushfire event; the second this year. There can be no denying that climate change is having an effect on our daily lives. The school where I work was evacuated on Friday (6th September) due to bushfire threat for the second time this year and we found ourselves starting sentences about policy and procedure about natural disaster with “Last time we…”.
I went home to wait out the fire (we were a long way from the fire front then) and to worry about the families we know who live closer. People have lost their homes and livelihoods in both major fires this year and it is shaping up to be a very dangerous fire season (this is just the start).
I am worried about the lack of water in the area, I am worried about the prediction of no significant rain to come for many months and I am worried about losing everything when things are just starting to happen for us. In short…I’m worried.
The fire is creeping slowly closer to us. It is still a long way away and the highway is proving to be a line of defense, but we are preparing for the worst anyway.
My partner has managed to install a sprinkler system on the roof of the humpy that extends out about 2-3 metres from the walls. This means we can pen the animals against the wall of the humpy and keep them and our home safe if the fire reaches us. We are very short on water though and will have to save this for dire emergencies.
We have the area around the humpy and the new house site cleared back to about 30-40 metres and it is bare dirt at the moment. There are tree heads and leaves beyond the fire break though and they will create a lot of sparks.
We have cleared everything back from the walls of the humpy so we can minimise sparks starting a fire where we can’t see it. There has been a lot of raking up of leaves over the last few days.
We have bins at all four sides of the humpy with old towels in them, ready to be filled with water when we hear that a fire is close. A wet towel is a great fire fighting tool for spot fires and slow grass fires. These bins mean we can dunk our towels and put out spot fires without too much running around.
We have our back pack filled with water and ready to put out spot fires in the humpy (they are most likely to start in the ‘ceiling space’ as the possums have built leaf nests between the sissilation and the roof and the gaps between the walls and roof could allow sparks in). This is actually my greatest worry and I want to seal the wall/roof gaps as soon as possible. We plan to buy another backpack to be available outside as well.
The lack of water is a big problem, but since our water comes from rain there isn’t a lot we can do about it. We have a small dam at the front of the property that we can harvest water from and we plan to do that to fill a small tank in the house yard we can use to feed the roof sprinklers for a half hour or so. To do this we have a 1000 litre tank on the trailer with a small fire fighter pump to fill and empty it. We plan to fill this trailer and tank arrangement to be used as a mobile fire fighting unit too. The problem at the moment is that my partner broke a pipe fitting for the pump yesterday and we need a replacement before we can get water from the dam. The roads are currently closed and I’m not sure I can get through to town to get replacement parts. Since this is a big part of our fire plan I will probably give it a go.
When all this is in place, we just wait and watch the ‘FiresNearMe’ app and ‘Sentinel Hotspots’ site for information about where the fire is and what it is doing. Facebook community pages are monitored too, even though they often give misleading information, to try to get a clue about the fire without physically driving down to the fire front and getting in everyone’s way.
Currently (11th September) the wind has died down and the Rural Fire Service stands a good chance of getting it under control before it gets anywhere near our humpy. We will still be ready if that changes (I hope).
So many people in our community have lost their homes or other property, so many have lost the last standing feed on their place for stock to eat. So many animals have lost their lives to this fire, not only stock and pets owned by people, but wild animals too. Many bird species are nesting now and some will only nest once in a season, the loss of a nest (and sometimes a mother) at this point means they will not breed again this year. Many reptiles are still in a state of torpor and can not get out of the way of the flames (and reptiles take many days, even weeks to die from burns, it’s heart breaking). Many marsupials and mammal species rely on the feed and disappearing water sources which have been impacted by the fire, they will be hungry and thirsty until it rains again.
We will do our best to provide water and feed for our wild neighbors here at the humpy; the dam at the front of the property is primarily for animals to drink from, and we put out water bowls around the humpy for the wild ones. We provide old eggs at the edge of the fire break for goanna, dogs and others (far enough away from the humpy to keep them away we hope) and fallen chaff and grain from our animals feeds small birds and marsupials. We will do our best to look after each other, it’s all we can do.
The loggers have been and gone, leaving a lot of tree heads lying around and a pervading sense of guilt (for me anyway). They were very careful to preserve the areas we identified and even identified some habitat areas we didn’t know about and I am really very grateful to them for that, but I still feel guilty about the amount of disturbance we have created on our block. So many animals have lost homes and many species of plant have been affected. We only plan to log the block once and all income will go to building our house.
The good news is that we have a house site cleared and some money to go on to the next step of building; getting our design approved by council and beginning the building. We also have a good fire break cleared around the humpy and house site and I do feel a good deal safer because of this.
The house site looks like chaos; there are some stumps in the cleared area and a lot of disturbed soil. The loggers used their earth moving machinery to dig out the stumps and roots inside the actual house site so that digging the foundation trenches will be easier, they cleared all the vegetation in a 30 metre radius around the house site and pushed the tree heads back to 40 metres. Looking at the space now, I can see the house and garden there in my imagination.
We plan to plant fire retarding plants and trees around the fire break and many fruit and nut trees inside.
I went out at dawn one morning this week (in my all too thin nighty; it has been cold) and stood where my kitchen sink will one day be. I stood there imagining what it will be like to wash up while the sun rises in my own house. How will I feel to know I am living my everyday life in a place I have personally built? Will I remember the long years of struggle, planning and set backs? Will I be thankful for the beauty and comfort around me? or will I just be cursing people who choose to get another coffee mug each time rather than rinsing and re-using the first one?
Next, we will be sending in our application to council. Things are moving…slowly, but surely.
It is really hot at the moment, so the fire danger level is high. I am raking up leaves from around the house at a rate of one or two 20 litre buckets a day (and fighting a losing battle). Summer solstice (or Litha) is when gum trees drop a lot of leaves and shed their bark like a Hollywood actress shrugging out of her overcoat to reveal she is naked underneath. All that newborn bark is exceedingly beautiful to look at and I love walking in the bush and letting the cicada song wash over me like a sound ocean, but…extra fuel on the ground leads to extra fire danger.
Common knowledge says that gum leaves are no good for compost; they are allelopathic (don’t play well with other plants), highly acidic, slow to compost and hydrophobic (don’t soak up water). In fact the only thing they have in their favour is we have a lot of them, but what to do with them?. I always struggle with where to put leaves once they are raked up from the constant drifts around the house. I usually rake them away from the house and leave it at that. This year I thought I’d try something different.
The path in my Hugelkultur bed area is constantly sprouting weed seedlings, which I try to keep up with by pulling a handful or two as mulch every time I go in there (not a very effective method) but missing one day means the big weeds are taller and harder to pull out and there are just too many of them. Every year I try to cover the path with cardboard as boxes come into the house, then I cover the path with something; wood chip, sand, mulch hay, etc, anything that will keep the cardboard down and can be shoveled onto the beds the following winter. This year I have decided to try gum leaves and bark.
You can see the multitude of weed seedlings on the path in this photo
My reasoning is that most people say the leaves will break down eventually, given a year on the ground and it is best to have the allelopathic qualities of the leaves spent on the path where I don’t want plants. Also the leaves will be broken up by the mechanical action of me walking on them often which will speed up their decomposition somewhat. I can add a high nitrogen source like urine to the path to further speed decomposition (pardon the indelicate reference) and dampness provided by the infrequent watering of the garden and rain will also speed the process. When I add the resulting leaf mold to my garden beds I will have to remember to add some lime with it to counteract the acidity of the gum leaf mold. This is an experiment to see if gum leaves can be useful in soil building, I am not sure whether it will work out well or be a failure, but we will see in six months or so.
In other news;
My Hugelkultur beds are growing well. Here are some photos to prove it.
The zucchini are flowering
The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)
The chia is growing so fast you can see it
I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed
The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)
I have continued to build up the beds that were very low on organic matter by adding anything that comes to hand; horse and cow manure collected from beside the road, the contents of the rabbit litter box and any weeds I pull from the garden.
Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon
The rabbit litter tray; the litter is compressed paper pellets which soak up water and break down very fast, also rabbit poop, pee and hair
Well it’s bushfire season again. spring would be my favourite time of year if not for bushfires. In this area most people burn around their homes before summer to protect them from bushfire, unfortunately the vast majority of bushfires start from these ‘controlled burns’ when the wind changes and the fire becomes ‘uncontrolled’. The whole argument for and against burning can get very ‘heated’, we don’t burn but we do take some steps to protect our home from fire, now and in the future. The CSIRO is of the opinion that fire is an essential part of our ecosystem and that we need to continue the practice to maintain the bush. Most people seem to agree with the notion that the Aboriginal peoples used fire to change the landscape so we should too, but they seem to forget that fire was used as a hunting tool and to clear migration paths not as an ecological aid. Aboriginal peoples gradually changed the ecology by using fire; species that survive and even need fire gradually became more common and the ecosystem became more and more fire friendly. Many Australian species rely on hot fires to germinate seedlings, these same plants are usually the ones who drop lots of leaves in the spring, have very flammable bark and catch fire very quickly. Plants that have evolved to need fire for germination do everything in their power to produce the right conditions for fire (makes sense doesn’t it). Species that do not use fire to germinate tend to have more water stored in their leaves and stems, have smooth, non flammable (to a degree) trunks and stems and do not catch fire easily.
My reasoning for not burning is that species who don’t use fire and are not so flammable can find a haven here, around our humpy (at a distance of about 30 metres), and will slow the speed of fires advancing on our home simply by being less flammable. We don’t need to plant them, we just provide the right conditions for them to germinate (I hope). Instead of burning I choose to graze the area immediately around the humpy with sheep. The sheep clear the long, dry grass, the smaller eucalypt saplings and the lantana (slowly) and keep the area fairly bare. We also have a huge clean up every fire season to get rid of any rubbish we have lying on the ground that may provide a place for sparks to ignite. By rubbish I mean household rubbish not tree heads and such. We are gradually working to clear several piles of tree heads within the 30 metre radius of the humpy, we use them as hugelkultur material and firewood, we clear slowly so as to not kill or immediately dehome the little animals that have taken up residence in them since they were pushed up about ten years ago.
You can see how bare the ground is around the humpy
Our humpy is in a terrible position when it comes to fire danger; in a saddle at the top of a hill, a fire can come at us from any direction and be traveling uphill (and therefore faster) and the humpy itself has lots of nooks and crannies that would be spark friendly. Still we are working to correct these things and we haven’t had a fire here in the six years of our residence. We may be lucky enough to make our home fire proof enough to survive the next big fire season; as long as it’s not this year. Do you burn off around your property? Do you feel safe from fires?