Bushfires…again

I stopped on the way home from work on Friday (6th September) to take this photo of the smoke plume from the Long Gully fire. We had just been evacuated for the second time this year.

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.

This is the pump that runs the sprinkler system. I wasn’t going to climb on the roof to get a photo.

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.

The clearing around the humpy. Yes, that is smoke in the air.

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 cleared the walls all around the humpy and raked out the leaves.
There are gaps like this under the shed wall. We need to block them off, on the other side of this wall is fuel and other flammable stuff.
Leaf raking from one wall.

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.

These bins are ready to be filled with water at every side of the humpy.

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 good old back pack sprayer.

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.

The trailer set up.

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.

Bell…one of our local goanna

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 little bit of green we maintain by emptying teapots and water bottles. looking at green after all the grey and brown is soothing to the soul.
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House update – We have a house site cleared

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?

This will be the view from my kitchen window (which is , of course, over the sink). I plan to have gardens rather than bare soil though.

Next, we will be sending in our application to council. Things are moving…slowly, but surely.

Using gum leaves in the garden

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.

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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.

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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.

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The zucchini are flowering

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The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)

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The chia is growing so fast you can see it

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I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed

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The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)

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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.

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Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon

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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

Burning off; we don’t, do you?

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?