How to read a fire

In the opening weeks of spring, there have been over fifty different bushfires burning across NSW at any given time. As a kid, I remember fire season starting sometimes as late as November. In parts of the state this year, it was declared in August. Each summer, fire season gets a little longer, and a little worse.

To the north of us, world heritage Gondwana rainforests were burning. To the east, a number of fires were burning tens of thousands of hectares of land within a fifty kilometre radius. Although many people like to normalise these events by claiming Australia is a land of extremes, these conditions are much more driven by political inactivity than anything else.

A thick blanket of smoke covered the coast for hundreds of kilometres. The smell permeated everything. The fire alarms in the house went off. Strange birds appeared in the forest at our house, looking nervous and lost. Hungry nocturnal fruit bats would appear in the daytime to eat unripe fruit off our trees. The smoke would only get thicker, and the sun was red in the sky.

The boys had to go to Yamba with their Mum for a day trip. Before setting out, they checked the Fires Near Me app to keep track of the local fires. The heath just south of Yamba was burning. This was going to be a day of applied practical knowledge.

They spent quite a lot of time reading maps and learning about situation reports. These are concise little reports that manage to fit a lot of information inside them. The first and most obvious thing about them is the colour coding, which marks how much or little control there is over the fire. Other things to note on the cover page are the type of fire, the size of the fire, and when the information was last updated. On a second page is a few sentances on what is happening, what is expected to happen next, and recommended action to take. Over the course of the day, the boys were able to watch not only the moving fire lines on the map, but also the number of hectares burned increasing.

Satellite photo of smoke across northern NSW 12 Sept 19

Having determined that the only road in and out of town was not going to be cut, they went in. Most places were closed for the day, as so many people were preparing their homes for the rapidly approaching fire. Still, with not much to do outside of their appointments, there was room to go play at the park.

This is an opportunity the boys rarely let pass. Although it was filled with the usual climbing and jumping on everything, it was preceded by and interspersed with a lot of situational awareness. Where was the fire front on the map in relation to them? What was the wind direction? How strong was the wind? Was the smoke getting thicker? Were there any spot fires jumping ahead of the front? What were people around them doing? Where were the firefighting crews and aircraft? Did they still have a clear way out? Did they have a plan if everything suddenly changed?

Having determined that it was all safe, they were then free to play hard until it was time for the next quick pause and reevaluation of the situation. The fire was moving up the coast between the ocean and a lagoon. A couple of km south of Yamba itself are two small villages where the land is pinched down to a narrow point. Here, fire crews had burned a containment line, and also the boys were able to watch a waterbomber plane prepare to drop a load of fire retardant across the strip.

Satellite image showing the advancing fire front. The containment line is clearly seen at the top of the picture. Yamba is just off screen to the north

That was the situation when they had finished their jobs in town and it was time to leave. To finish the picture, though, the fire briefly jumped the containment line before the ground crews were finally able to bring it under control.

So now the boys have a solid introduction in fire safety. While most of our lessons are fairly fun and colourful, some are very firmly grounded in real life applications with genuine consequences. Like it or not, learning to read a fire is a critical skill these boys will have to develop.

About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a manager for the local health district, drink too much coffee, and am an overenthusiastic martial artist.
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