Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - fires, fire fighters and a new driver's license

On all the forecasts, this is likely to be a long, hot, summer. And that means fires.

The latest outbreaks began in New England on the western edge of the Northern Tablelands, a drought area recently visited by the new NSW Premier.

Rainfall declines to the west from the coastal escarpment. Armidale in the centre of the Tablelands sits at the edge of the eastern flowing rivers. Just to the west, the country changes quite suddenly as we enter the headwaters of rivers flowing into the Darling. It becomes drier, hotter, dustier. The air smells different. 

Bundarra, just one hour's driving time to the west of Armidale, is in severe drought. To the east of Armidale, the coastal flowing northern rivers have recently experienced a series of major floods.

Just to mark the juxtaposition, soon after the Premier's visit to Bundarra, the centre of Armidale received 36mm of rain in 30mm, forcing shoppers to run for cover as the ceiling in the Kmart Centre came down.

While the northMichelagoern fires were still burning, fires broke out outside Sydney and in the south of NSW.   

This first photo comes from a remarkable photo collection put together by Sydney's Daily Telegraph. There are 65 photos in the gallery. Do have a browse.

The photo shows fire at Michelago between Canberra and Cooma.

This is open Tablelands country, very like the country on the Tablelands around Armidale. However, it's drier; rainfall declines north-south as well as east-west.

Fire sweeps through the grassland at a very fast rate. One house lost belonged to a firefighter defending other property. Grass fires are shorter lived, but create very intense heat. This is the type of country that as kids brother David and I used to help our uncle burn off to encourage new growth.

The next photo from the same collection shows fire trucks at Londonderry on Sydney's west. It looks chaotic, doesn't it? Londonderry

In this case, firefighters are trying to stop the blaze jumping a road.

This is getting up close and personal with a fire. You can see why wind shifts can lead to tragedy, engulfing fire vehicles. The fence on the left is on fire, with flames licking under the back of the fire truck.

The logistics involved in such constant fire fighting efforts are huge. Both volunteer and professional crews come form large areas to provide support. Driving along a country road, you suddenly find a dozen fire trucks waiting for deployment.

There are many human stories, some unexpected.

Andrew Phillips is just 15 years old, a student at Armidale's O'Connor Catholic High School. For the past year, he has worked as a volunteer at Armidale's Fleet Helicopters.

Alexander Phillips Following detailed training and supervision on the use and operations of the equipment used for dropping aerial incendiaries from the chopper, fifteen year old Alexander became a bombardier.

His job is to assist the Rural Fire Service and State Forest Strike Force Crews to build containment lines around a number of fires.

To do this, Alexander has the job of setting up the incendiary equipment and when instructed, carrying out extensive aerial ignition of the designated area.

In October, for example, he received a call requesting his assistance to fly to Grafton to help contain a major fire which had already burnt out thousands of hectares of forest and was threatening several properties.

What a volunteer job for a kid! Talk about excitement. In Alexander's words:

It’s such a cool job - the best ever. I’m so lucky I get to do all sorts of amazing things and I’m learning heaps all the time.

Just to side-track onto one of my hobby-horses, at a time when we are locking up our young people in ever more restrictions designed to reduce harm and avoid risks, Alexander is a reminder that our young are and always have been far more capable of doing things than their elders realise!

On a related matter, youngest did get her driving license on the last possible day before the fifty hour requirement was replaced by 120 hours.

Yesterday she drove all of us into the city. There was a bus strike, so she was dropping Dee and I at the train before taking her sister on to Bondi Junction for Christmas shopping.

I was as nervous as all heck. I did not want to be late for work, the traffic was fiendish, and it had begun to rain quite heavily. These are all conditions for more traffic accidents.

I spent the trip in the back seat clutching the seat with eldest daughter grinning at me and giving me a pat from time to time. I was quite relieved to catch the train.

Clare did well in the conditions. But it was a useful reminder to a sometimes, often?, pontificator of the challenge when things move from the abstract to the personal!       

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