Sydney's fires - a short story

Pacific Edge Permaculture + Media pacedge at
Wed Dec 26 22:03:31 EST 2001


As I sit writing this message in a southern suburb of Sydney, Australia, a
fallout of cinders and burned eucalyptus leaves continues to descend on the
city, just as it has these past two days.

The fallout started on Christmas day when thousands of volunteer bushfire
fighters were called out and residents of the bush-side suburbs fringing
Sydney were forced to evacuate their homes as fires, fanned by winds gusting
to 90kph, rushed over ridges and up gullies to threaten, and sometimes
engulf, homes.

Now, up to 100 bushfires rage across the state, some of them out of control.
And the prognosis for the weekend is not good... while winds have eased
today to give firefighters some sort of respite, they are expected to return
tomorrow or the day after to again fan the flames.

Yesterday, 25 new fires started, some deliberately lit, and over 5000
exhausted firefighters, some from other states, battled in hot conditions to
prevent the toll of housing lost to the advancing flames exceeding the
present tally of 140 - and that's not to mention the loss to fire of farms
and commercial premises, native and farm animals.

Rail lines and highways to the west and south of Sydney have been cut,
people stranded, townships threatened and a huge swath of the state's
south-east is now without electricity, the power grid having been damaged by
the fires.

In coastal south-eastern Australia, where the greatest concentration of
people live, bushfire is nothing new - it is the familiar summer presence
you live with if you choose a rural or urban-fringe lifestyle. Even houses
bordering forested nature reserves within the city's suburbs are not safe
when the temperature climbs, the relative humidity falls and the winds blow

Here in the south-east, a vast biome dominated by eucalypt forest, the fire
season comes in summer - late December and January. But before it comes,
councils, rural bushfire brigades and national park authorities attempt to
reduce the fuel load in the bush by burning it. This is known as controlled

Controlled burning, which occasionally becomes uncontrolled burning when
things get out of hand, is only started when scientific analyses of fuel
loads and atmospheric moisture is married to weather reports to identify
optimal times. It's a controversial practice often opposed by
environmentalists on ecological grounds and on the grounds that the smoke,
which sometimes forms a haze over the Sydney Basin, aggravates asthma and
other respiratory difficulties.

Despite this, controlled burning is accepted as necessary by people whose
homes adjoin bushland and national parks. Sometimes, however, it's  not

It was on the occasion of the last big fires around Sydney  - January 1994
- that controlled burning proved to be insufficient to prevent a major

Then, I was a part-time national parks ranger employed as a bush guide in
Royal National Park on Sydney's southern edge and in other parks to the
south. After the January fires completely devestated it, the service
responded to public demand to see the then-closed Royal National Park by
running minibus tours to educate people about how the Australian bush
responds to burning.

Over the next few months I witnessed the rebirth of the park's vegetation.
First - within a few weeks of what had been extremely hot fires - I noticed
that the seed pods of Banksias and other shrubs had burst, casting seeds
onto the ash around them. Then, the grass trees (Xanthorrea sp) and the
Gymes Lily (Doryanthus excelsa) started to resprout from blackened stumps.
Not long after, the eucalypts sent forth new shoots from fire-blackened

As an adaptation to regular burning by Aboriginies over tens of thousands of
years (what is known as 'firestick farming'), the Australian vegetation
today is a suite of fire-tolerant species, most of which have evolved to
recover after all but the most severe burning. I remember Bill Mollison -
co-creator of the permaculture design system, once describing eucalypts as
weeds that grow in the presence of constant burning.

The stringy-bark eucalypts insulate the buds of the epicormic shoots, which
grow after the passage of fire, behind a thick layer of bark which is
severely singed as the fire passes. Eucalypts of the smooth-barked gum
species don't have the thick insulating layer of the stringy-barks... they
use their light-coloured but thin bark to protect the nutrient-carrying part
of the trunk and the epicormic buds by reflecting away the heat of
bushfires. Both types of eucalypt have lignotubers... root structures with
buds protected by a layer of earth. The passage of fires stimulates their
growth. When it comes to bushfire, eucalypts are real survivors.

Over the six months or so after the 1994 fires, I watched the bush return to
Royal National Park. Today, Royal is burning again but, over the coming six
months, the bush will return in exactly the same way as new life grows from
the old. 

Like the vegetation, the bushfire cycle too will return. Over the coming
years - as after every severe bushfire - the eucalypts will shed their
leaves and branches and the fuel layer will accumulate on the floor of the
bush. Then, when  the right conditions of vegetation dryness, relative
humidity, summer heat and wind converge, a new conflagration will decimate
the forests and grasslands.

The cycle is a recurring one because the eucalypt forests sets the scene for
its own destruction. As well as accumulating an increasing fuel load over
the years (which, in areas close to towns and houses, controlled burning is
supposed to reduce), the leaves of the trees carry inflammable eucalyptus

It is eucalyptus oil that, suspended in the air over the forest on hot days,
gives the Blue Mountains their name. You get to see this same oil in action
when hot fires fanned by strong winds race  through the bush. This is the
phenomena of the crown fire, when a raging bushfire speeds through the tree
canopy well in advance of any fire on the ground, igniting the pre-heated
eucalyptus oil and advancing with a loud roar at a pace well in excess of
that at which a firefighter can run. This is the fire that is the most
feared in the Australian bush; this is the fire that firefighters cannot

The fires that have consumed so many thousands of hectares of bushland these
last few days have demonstrated another phenomena - spotting. This occurs
when the air heated by the advancing bushfire lifts burning leaves and other
debris and drops it, still glowing, well in advance - sometimes kilometres
in advance - of the fire front. New fires start, making life difficult for
firefighters and sometimes trapping them. It is this same debris that, now
cooled, is at present falling as ash on Sydney's suburbs and beaches.

The front page of this morning's Sydney Morning Herald (27 December - is splashed with a huge colour photo of a house in flames.
Many of the inside pages bear similar full-colour spreads of fires around
Sydney, in the state's north and along the south coast.

But it was the editorial that stimulated my memory of Blue Mountains(those
same Blue Mountains that are now in flame) permaculture educator Rosemary
Morrow. The Herald's editorial stated: "By their destruction the fires are
stern reminders of the fragile interconnectedness of modern life. About
12000 homes are without electricity because of burned power lines or other
fire damage to the supply system. Such damage has, in turn, affected water
supplies. Residents of Silverdale lost not only the convenience of local
shopping when the nearest shopping centre, at Warragamba, was burnt. They
also lost running water when the fires interrupted the electricity supply on
which pumping stations for the local reservoir depended. Also, residents in
Helensburgh, Otford, Stanwell Tops, Stanwell Park and Coledale have been
advised to boil their drinking water over the next few days as the fires -
by causing power failures - have defeated water filtration systems.

"In Queanbeyan, residents were evacuated, not so much because of the
immediate threat to their homes by fire, but because flames moved
dangerously close to a fuel depot . As well, the fires have caused the
closure, even if partial or temporary, of many  roads... rail services have
been interrupted... ".

As the Herald states so clearly, damage to one part of a regional or
national infrastructure grid - such as power, water and roads (along which
food is carried to the towns and cities) - affects other parts. It can
affect the services we so blandly take for granted. Convenient it might be
when it is working properly, modern society is also extraordinarily
vulnerable to natural and human-caused disruption.

It is this vulnerability that became the focus for Rosemary Morrow in the
days after the September 11 attacks in the USA and the subsequent anthrax
scares and public fear in Australia. Rosemary wanted to address people's
sense of helplessness in the face of events beyond the power of individuals
to deal with. Now, it is clear that  Rosemary's concerns are just as valid
when it comes to natural disaster, such as bushfire.

A long-time permaculture teacher and aid worker, Rosemary was stimulated to
revisit the designing for disaster content of Bill Mollison's book
'Permaculture - A Designer's Manual'  and of her own book, 'An Earth Users
Guide to Permaculture ' (1993, Kangaroo Press, Sydney).

In November, she told me that she planned to offer a one-day workshop on a
community-based response to disaster (members can see Rosemary's article in
Permaculture International Ltd's 'Planet' , Spring 2001 edition). What
Rosemary proposes - a home water supply not connected to the water mains
system, access to locally-produced food and other strategies familiar to
permaculture designers - in addition to cooperative action in the
neighbourhood and wider community  - is timely and is probably where
permaculture can find a role in disaster planning.

Today, summer's sun is hidden behind a pall off grey smoke for the third day
in succession, as the smoke of the fires ringing the city drifts eastward
over the Tasman Sea.

Last night, about four in the morning, the smoke in the air became so
stifling that Fiona had to get up to close the windows. This morning I
noticed that the falling ash was again coating the bathtub and that the
garden was littered with burned leaves. Looking up, I could see the
occasional black cinder drifting, zig-zag, from the pall.

In a few days, New Zealanders walking the glaciers or snow fields of the
Southern Alps will know that there have been bushfires in Australia, for it
is there that those smoke plumes visible from my window, moving east over
the Tasman, will  drop some of their load of ash. That's how Australia's
forests sometimes end up on New Zealand's snowfields.

...Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson + Fiona Campbell
Media, training and communication services for sustainable development.
PO Box 446 Kogarah NSW 2217 Australia
Phone/ fax: 02 9588 6931    pacedge at

MEDIA: journalism . online content production . publication and website
design . photojournalism . TRAINING: organic gardening . community garden
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