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To our friends downunder...


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Our area has been affected by one of the early big fires in Bunyip State Park forest. This had been burning for a few increasingly hot days before the record temperature on Saturday. On a day like that with almost gale force winds and a temperature above 116F meant certainty that any fire started or already well established would be almost uncontrollable. At 7 am when I called at the Darnum general store the owner told me that the local CFA group had just left to work on the Bunyip fire, which had already broken the control lines. The predicted fall zone for burning embers was the shape of a huge gum leaf about 30 miles long, and my property was at the far end of that. You have to constantly watch for spot fires from these burning embers, but though we have a lot of charcoal gum leaves and fragments nothing was alight. About five miles west of us there was an ember fire, which burned a house in Nilma, a small place with a couple of hundred residents. They extinguished that wit otherwise minimal loss, but the black paddocks beside the freeway are stark. A weather change with southerly winds dropped the temperature late in the day, but dry thunderstorms caused by lifting of the hot smoke clouds frequently start new fires.

One of my friends lives about a mile from the edge of the state park in line from where the fire emerged that day. I haven't been able to speak to him since because the local telephone exchange was neutralised; and if you go driving in areas which have burned you are a "beep"nuisance at best, and maybe a looter. Rodger has pumps and sprays to irrigate farmers'paddocks and empty their dairy effluent dams; and he has a sizeable dam or pond on his place. His three sons were there to help protect the place, and nothing was lost.

Another friend who has been affected is David Dryden. The same fire, tamed and diminished by days of calm mild weather, is parallel to the west of his place. They were ordered to evacuate. It must have been a job to move his cars to safety, but a couple of tilt-trays helped. I could tell that the place was OK,because when I tried to ring I just got a dial-tone. His collection of earliest Fords including the 6 cylinder J is unique in this country. They are back home and safe now. Our problem here is that there are effectively only two of us, my youngest son and I, who can do much or make decisions; and the house is two hundred yards separate from the three sheds. Rhett is autistic, so it was best that he just kept inside. One of my Mercer friends rang after to check we were OK, and the conversation ended that if there was a similar risk occasion he would fly straight down from Queensland to help us.

The previous worst fires in our history was Black Friday in 1939. My father and his brothers lost their timber mill at Tanjil Bren near Mt Baw Baw. One of my uncles and his wife died that day. My father drove up there until there were trees across the road, then walked through the burning bush behind the fire front, and arrived at the mill just as the survivors were starting to come out of the main dugout. Next to arrive was the draught horse. Uncle Jack had only been able to turn him out of his paddock. He was singed but otherwise OK, and very pleased to see them. I believe my father walked in and out twice more in the next couple of days, and that is a long walk in steep country, before they were able to clear the roads again.

A year ago while I was on BawBaw Council, we refused a planning application for a blue gum investment plantation in an area that has been steep farming land, with roads so limited that a car and truck cannot pass, and where a lot of people have been allowed to build houses. Our decision was reversed by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. To me that is planning future fatalities. Those Tasmanian Blue Gums have very high volatile oil content, which vaporises and fireballs. There will be more bad fires and more fatalities. Too many people build in potentially unsafe places. And unfortunately too many politicians seem less preoccupied with risk and reality than with money; which, as Ford always recognised, is a purely artificial commodity.

Ivan Saxton

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