31 August 2014
The creeks are running, the rivers are spread out, forcing their bulk along with a steady sense of importance. There is mud and squelch underfoot, and the lettuces and rocket have exploded with growth. The one downside of all this rain – and you really have to search for it – is that the second day of our HotSpots program had to be curtailed. We were going to participate in a controlled burn of a section of forest on a nearby property, but the ground was too wet. The road to the property was too slippery for the number of cars involved, and the forest floor would have proved impossible to light.

Even at the local RFS shed, where we could at least cover the theory, a demonstration of how to light a grassfire fizzled out despite multiple matches and special burners. But who could argue with rain? Who could criticise its beauty? The spluttering flames that failed to rise, the creeping fire that failed to take off were just part of the merriment. We went back to our theory, learned about who you have to talk to before you light a fire – notify neighbours, get permission from the RFS – learned how to measure fuel loads – ground, elevated and bark – learned how to calculate which level of fire danger the arrow should point to – depending on time of day, temperature, humidity, wind speed – and learned how you can use that measurement to determine how fast the fire will run, how far the flames will leap. It doesn’t take much for the fire danger to change from ‘high’ to ‘catastrophic’, where fires will run along the tree canopy and jump from ridge to ridge.

We saw the grim need for all this theory as we left the workshop. A few weeks ago a local landholder failed to observe any of the basic precautions that we had just been taught. They didn’t notify neighbours or the RFS, they didn’t consider the then-droughty conditions, or fuel loads or wind conditions. The result is there to be seen in the long deep scar of burnt land rising up one hill and down the next. One of their neighbours was informed, 20 minutes before the fire hit, that their property was in danger. The other day – after all the rain – this neighbour saw a tree go up in smoke. It was a hollow tree that had been smouldering internally for three weeks, harbouring the flames that had finally burst out. But the surrounding land was wet and, as with our demonstration burn, the fire failed to spread. Luckily.