Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday morning musings - heat and fire in Australia

Yesterday was a very hot day, 41C where I work in Sydney, 43-44C in parts of the inland. For the benefit of non-metric readers, 41C equals 105.8F, 44C equals 111.2F.

As an aside, when the then Australian Government mandated the metric system they did what so many Australian Governments attempt to do with change. They tried to stamp out the earlier system, making it illegal to use it.

I understand their point, but it has created a growing barrier between today's young Australians and their past. All the books published, all the local records prior to the metric system, use the old Imperial system. I say to my kids that this property was 130,000 or even a million acres and they have no idea what I mean. They read about people working in 110F heat and it has no meaning.

Just how to explain the old system is a challenge faced by most modern Australian historians. I am not sure myself how to handle this. I cannot alter everything to metric, nor insert the metric value in brackets in, for example, primary sources. More precisely, I could, but it's a major calculation task.  So it's an issue I still have to resolve.

I didn't find the heat to bad, but it reminded me that the first European arrivals did not share this view. Whereas modern Australian rush to the beach at the height of summer, their wealthier ancestors fled to the hills or to Tasmanian or even to Milford Sound in New Zealand's South island, an especially beautiful spot, to escape the heat. Von Guerard Milford Sound

The painting shows Eugene  Von Guérard's image of Milford Sound. Here I quote from the National Gallery of Australia:

Von Guérard sailed into Milford Sound on the SS Otago on the evening of Monday 24 January 1876. The passengers on the eagerly anticipated four-and-a-half day voyage from Melbourne were not disappointed. Myriad waterfalls dashed down the steep sides of the granite peaks, following recent rain, and the clouds lifted to reveal Mitre Peak and Mt Pembroke – their towering forms reflected in the mirror-like surface of the fiord.

By the time that Von Guérard painted Milford sound in 1876, the beauty of the place was well known in Australia.

Heat brings fires. The photo from the ABC shows residents on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula watching the advancing fire. Yesterday there were fires in South Australia, Victoria, TasmaniaYorke Peninsular Fires and New South Wales, with some property loss in Tasmania. Cooler weather has eased the threat in the south, although high winds associated with the cool change brought down trees and left several thousand residents without power.

Reading some of the stories I was reminded of how little some Australians know of the geography of their own country. I quote:   

Five blazes are still causing concern at Inverell, Narrabri in the Hawkesbury region and two at Glen Innes.

Now it might just be sloppy editing, a comma missing after Narrabri, but Narrabri is certainly not in the Hawkesbury region. This is not an isolated example.

Continuing with the fire theme, the rugged and beautiful ranges of the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney form part of the city's natural playground. From the time the railway line reached the ranges, they became a playground for rich and poor alike. Settlement followed with the development of a series of resorts and holiday attractions. Today the mountains mix tourism with dormitory settlements for Sydney workers.

This is fire prone country. Several of my work colleagues are from the mountains. Naturally, we have been talking about fire.

A lane divides the house of one of my colleagues from an area classified as bushfire prone. He is generally not worried about fire, but does accept that in a huge blaze of the type seen in the past, his house could go under threat.  Leura 1957

This photo of Leura shows the results of the huge 1957 fires. In big fires of this type effective defence is very difficult.

There is no easy answer because fire conditions are so variable. Pine trees are flammable, yet the pine on the right of the photo survived the fire.

During the huge fires that destroyed part of Australia's national capital, one man fighting alone actually blocked a big blaze to the south of Canberra considered unstoppable. As best I can work out, his efforts created a point of resistance that nudged the fire away from a path that would have taken it into populated areas.

Train Reading - S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 provided my initial impressions of this 1935 book by one of Australia's pioneering historians. In it, he refers in passing to the devastating 1851 fires in Victoria, the largest recorded fires in Australia's history. This was a huge blaze that, replicated today, would have devastating consequences. The story that follows is drawn from the Romsey Chronicles.

The year 1850 had been one of exceptional heat and drought.

Pastures had withered; creeks had become fissured clay-pans; water-holes had disappeared; sheep and cattle had perished in great numbers, and the sun-burnt plains were strewn with their bleached skeletons; the very leaves upon the trees crackled in the heat, and appeared to be as inflammable as tinder.

As the summer advanced, the temperature became torrid, and on the morning of the 6th of February, 1851, the air which blew down from the north resembled the breath of a furnace. A fierce wind arose, gathering strength and velocity from hour to hour, until about noon it blew with the violence of a tornado.

The heat was indeed exceptional.

According to the Melbourne Argus by 11 in the morning the thermometer stood as high as 117 degrees ( 47.2 Celsius) in the shade; at one o'clock it had fallen to 109 degrees and at four in the afternoon was up to 113 degrees (45 Celsius). In Tasmania to the south, the Launceston Examiner recorded that at two pm the thermometer stood at 92 degrees in the shade, and 130 degrees in the sun.

This is seriously hot weather. It would cause a degree of chaos today even ignoring fires.  

The story continues:

Bushfire, Victoria, 1851 By some inexplicable means it (the wind) wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame —fierce, awful, and irresistible. Men, women and children, sheep and cattle, birds and snakes, fled before the fire in a common panic. The air was darkened by volumes of smoke, relieved by showers of sparks; the forests were ablaze, and, on the ranges, the conflagration transformed their wooded slopes into appalling masses of incandescent columns and arches.

Farm houses, fences, crops, orchards, gardens, haystacks, bridges, wool-sheds, were swept away by the impetuous on-rush of the flames, which left behind them nothing but a charred heap of ruins, and a scene of pitiable desolation. The human fugitives fled to water, wherever it could be found, and stood in it, breathing with difficulty the suffocating atmosphere, and listening with awe to the roar of the elements and the cries of the affrighted animals.

In Melbourne to the south the Argus records that the blasts of air were so impregnated with smoke and heat, that the lungs seemed absolutely to collapse under their withering influence; the murkiness of the atmosphere was so great that the roads were actually bright by contrast.

In the evening a cool change brought relief. By then, the fire had burned some 5 million hectares.The areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.

The lives lost may seem small, but the total population then in the affected areas was still very small. The fire was apparently man-made, starting in the Plenty Ranges when two bullock drivers left some logs burning which set fire to long, drought-parched grass.

I have always wondered how the Aborigines coped with such fires. I suspect that the very big fires date from European times. The constant burning of the landscape by the Aborigines was in part a fire defence mechanism. Many smaller fires, fewer big ones. 

4 comments:

blackwatertown said...

Interesting post. Good pictures also.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you blackwatertown. And you have a very nice blog. I enjoyed the problem of children who are half English! Have bookmarked and wil revisit.

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Anonymous said...

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Pure science Wiki