28 February 2013

The Summer Fire Safety Campaign: My parents' bushfire story.

This post is sponsored by the Victorian Government's Department of Justice.


It is my parents' 32nd wedding anniversary today, so it's fitting that they've written pieces for this blog post. Happy anniversary Mum and Dad. 

I was asked by the Victorian Government's Department of Justice to write a blog post on bushfire safety. I am a city girl now, but bushfires have come close to my parents, so I've let them tell their story.
I grew up in country New South Wales – the summers are hot and dry. The scenery of my youth was gum trees, dirt roads and paddocks. Farmers burnt off in their paddocks. Smoke wafted from the incinerators at the local rubbish tip. I learnt a little about fire safety at primary school, but I never had to put the “stop drop and roll” lesson into practice. We were always safe. We had been very lucky with not having any bushfires nearby. Bushfires were always somewhere else, they never happened to us, but the smoke blackening the sky served a stern reminder to take precautions.

Back in 2009, when I first started writing this blog, I wrote this post about how close bushfires came to my parents, dogs and house. On 17 December 2009, I received an email from a colleague who works in the Albury office of my organisation. There were bushfires in Gerogery, she said, and were my parents ok? I panicked. I thought about the destruction and tragedy the Black Saturday bushfires had caused earlier that year – how quickly they moved and how many lives were lost. 173.

Another email came through. Were my parents ok? What about their dogs? They were at home in their run, no where to go. My parents were at work in Albury, 20 minutes away. My parents are diligent in ensuring their house is clear of trees and debris, and the grass is kept short, but others surrounding them may not have been as fire ready.

I called my parents, phones rung out. Power was out in Albury because of storms, and I couldn't get onto my Dad. The phone at my Mum's work rang out, again and again. I rang her best friend at work, panicked. Did she know there were fires in Gerogery? She didn't. She left work straight away. I rang my parents' next door neighbour. He was asleep, off work sick. He wasn't aware of the fire nearby until I called him. He went outside and saw the fire, a few kilometres away. He was safe, and our dogs were too. I finally got onto my Dad, on his mobile. He was stuck in traffic on his way home. Here's his story.

“It was a hot day with a wind and a sky that I've never seen since.

One of my work colleagues alerted me to the fire close to where I live.

I hopped in my car immediately & headed for home. First I had to encounter the northern suburbs of Albury where wind had strewn the road with debris. Traffic lights were out & there had been a car crash. Police were directing traffic but it was chaos.

I got through & raced out of town towards the fires. I was trying to phone my wife at the same time to let her know of the danger.

I kept to the speed limit but I had an impatient local behind me racing to take up his role in the local fire brigade.

Once home, I met my neighbour at his front gate. He was drinking a stubbie of VB with a mate of his & it wasn't long before I was joining them.

We watched the plumes of smoke & the planes that were backwards & forwards with loads of water to drop on the fires as we listened to the CB radio.

Our discussion was about whether we should go or stay & what if we were over 0.05.

We stayed. The emergency message came up on our phones to evacuate but at the moment the rain began to fall. We stayed.

Reflecting on the situation, we didn't know how close the fire was or whether we could get down the road to escape. We had an artificial feeling of safety where it could never happen to us.

Our dogs were our prime concern but all was well.

The fire scene was cordoned off & it was only several days later that we realised how lucky we had been.”

My Mum writes:

The day started with very hot and strong winds. I went to work as normal and as the day progressed the winds got worse. At about 1.30 my daughter Carly rang me to alert me to the fires burning in Walla Walla and Gerogery. I told her I would confirm this with one of my neighbours, but then Roger rang and told me he was home and I should get home immediately.

Driving home was the longest trip which normally would take about 25 - 30 minutes seemed like hours. The sky was a brown eerie looking trees were down and part of the major highway was closed due to debris on  the road. Listening to the radio it was said that roads to Gerogery/Walla Walla were being closed. I put my foot down and thought of what I was going to say, why I should be at home etc. The thought of the dogs being on their own and trapped came to mind.

I can't describe how I felt.....scared and worried.  The smoke  by now was getting thicker and it reminded me of the fog we normally have in winter. I needed to concentrate on getting home. My main concern was Roger, the dogs and our sheep. I finally got home and left my car at the top of the driveway just in case.  Roger and his car was parked at the dog run. Looking down from the dog run we could see thick smoke and flames....about 2km from our property. We listened to the police on the UHF radio and we found we were not in immediate danger, although if the wind changed direction, it could be a different story.

By this time my neighbour was out too,  hosing down his house and he was waiting for his wife to get home.

I came into the house, went through the motions of collecting things to put in the car.....bottles of water for the dogs, change of clothing for us, laptops and mobile phone... I did however feel like I was in another world, I can't say I panicked but the feeling was very eerie......

For about three hours we were watching the wind and flames feeling useless, should we stay or leave and the rains came and it poured......relief. By this time we received a message telling us to evacuate and meet at the nearest petrol station. We felt we were safe then.

We watched the news that night and realised how ferocious the fires were and how many houses were lost. How nobody died was a miracle.”

The bushfires in Gerogery destroyed five homes, burnt out 7,000 hectares of land and killed 115 head of cattle and 1,200 sheep. It started at the Walla Walla rubbish tip. An original news article can be viewed here

My parents were so very lucky. That day taught them to be more vigilant with trees and debris on their property, and they have had ongoing discussions about whether they are prepared to stay and defend, or whether they will leave their home should a bushfire happen again. 

Summer Fire Safety Campaign
The Victorian Government's Department of Justice is coordinating the Summer Fire Safety Campaign which aims to increase Victorians’ preparedness to respond to the threat of fire.

The most common myths in relation to fire are:

MYTH: Code Red days happen all the time.
FACT: Code Red days are rare. There have been two Code Red Days in the last three years. Code Red is the highest Fire Danger Rating. Houses in Victoria are not designed or constructed to withstand fires on these days.

My parents (on the border of NSW and Victoria) have only experienced two code red days in the last three years.

MYTH: It will be safe to leave even if I can see fire.
FACT: Roads might be blocked, thick smoke will make it difficult to see, the fire could travel faster than you drive and fires can leap highways. Every minute you wait, it gets closer.

MYTH: CFA will be able to send a fire truck or come to my rescue.
FACT: If the CFA is fighting fires, they can’t be knocking on doors. It’s your responsibility to make the best possible decision for your family based on the current Fire Danger Ratings and official warnings for your area. It’s up to you to know when to leave.
TRIM ID: CD/13/37203 Page 2 of 7Summer Fire Ready 2013 Fire Myths Kit
It is critical for your safety to check more than one source for warnings. On high-risk days, monitor the conditions around you. Get the most up to date information through:
  • cfa.vic.gov.au
  • FireReady App
  • Emergency broadcasters: ABC Local Radio, commercial radio and designated community radio stations
  • SKY NEWS television
  • Victorian Bushfire Information Line: 1800 240 667
  • CFA social media such as Facebook and Twitter: @CFA_Updates
  • You may also receive an alert sent to your landline or mobile phone based on its billing address or location (for Telstra customers only) through the Emergency Alert System.

MYTH: I can easily defend against fires; I am prepared and have experience.
FACT: You can’t prepare for all fires. You need a well thought-out bushfire survival plan which has been agreed and discussed with members of the household. Leaving early is always the safest option.

MYTH: Fire Danger Ratings are just a weather gauge.
FACT: A Fire Danger Rating tells you how bad a fire would be if one started, including how
difficult it would be to put out. The higher the rating, the more dangerous the conditions.

MYTH: Winter has been very wet so there’s less chance of a fire in summer.
FACT: Rainfall fuels the growth of vegetation, especially grass, creating more fuel for fire. In years of wet weather, Victoria often sees an increase in the number of large grassfires. It only takes two weeks of hot, dry and windy weather to create dangerous fire conditions.

MYTH: All barbecues are banned on a Total Fire Ban day.
FACT: Solid and liquid-fuel barbecues and ovens are banned on Total Fire Ban days. You can still use gas or electrical barbecues that are fixed appliances – built into permanent structures of brick, stone or concrete – provided you adhere to the guidelines for use located at http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/warnings-restrictions/can/. Portable gas or electric barbecues are also allowed if they are commercially manufactured exclusively for meal preparation and you ensure they are in a stable position when alight.

MYTH: If we do decide to leave early, we will be able to go to the local Neighbourhood Safer Places.
FACT: Neighbourhood Safer Places are places of last resort only when all other plans have failed, and do not guarantee safety. They are sometimes just an open space (e.g. a football oval) with limited facilities. There isn’t a Neighbourhood Safer Place in every community.

For additional information, please refer to the following:
Country Fire Authority (CFA)
Website: www.cfa.vic.gov.au  

Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB)
Website: www.mfb.vic.gov.au  

Department of Sustainability and Environment


  1. I saw for myself just how irrelevant/misleading/unrealistic advice to leave early can be. A large grass fire on the outskirts of Melbourne caused the blockage of the Hume Fwy. As far as I am aware there was no possibility to leave early as the fire started and grew quickly, catching people unaware. Cars were being diverted onto roads around the fire area. Gridlock was the result (these were not narrow country roads) as people were trying to either get home, get away, or go about their normal business. It would have only taken a small extra factor to cause major panic in all those people trapped in their cars with nowhere to go. Even people in the suburbs are vulnerable. I have no answers and I really don't think anyone has. We have to realise fires are a part of life in most of this country and will be worsening in the future. Take all the sensible precautions you can, be careful of your own safety and that of others, but don't think because you live in the suburbs you won't be affected.

  2. Thanks, Roger and Jeanette, for your entry here. Fire is a terrifying prospect for anybody -- the question of what to pack, what to save, what will be lost, is always present, and with the increasing temperatures, people all over the world are living with this threat. There are very few places on Earth that are guaranteed to be completely safe and secure -- the "Goldilocks Zone" -- but we have to make our choices and take our chances. Stay safe!

  3. It's a good thing you've outlined (and debunked) those myths. Very informative post, if I may say. Great job on this write-up. :)


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