Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Misinformation, attention-seeking and other bad bushfire behaviour

It has to be said. Well, I feel the need to say it, so here goes. During the recent bushfire emergency here in southern Tasmania, social media was both a source of very useful information (how good are the Tasmania Fire Service, Tasmania Police and TasAlert?) and a cesspit of exaggerated claims, misinformation, unsubstantiated drama, attention seeking and just plain silly behaviour. Among the rubbish I saw online during the two weeks of high alert included:
  • Geeveston is being evacuated!! Everyone is being door-knocked and told to leave!!! (Actually no, they weren't).
  • Photos of people in the centre of town and many miles from the fire front hosing down their houses using town water, encouraging others to do the same. At one point, Geeveston (which really did need the water at that point) almost ran out, not helped by this crazy over-preparedness no doubt. I reckon any work you do hosing down stuff that far in advance is a waste of time and will evaporate in minutes with the heat of an approaching fire... but then, I'm not a fire expert so don't take my advice!
  • Our whole valley is BURNING!!! 
  • The fire has crossed the Huon River!!!
  • People misinterpreting the useful data on the Sentinel Hotspots web site from Geoscience Australia.
  • Some folk were driving up roads with active fires just to take photos for Instagram. I saw videos of flames licking the edges of Bermuda Road (what the hell are you doing there taking video?!) and photos of smoldering tress taken up our road while the fire service was still backburning and creating fire breaks. Seriously, get out of the way and let the firies do their job.
  • A couple of very good local photographers took some amazing shots of the fires at night, making it clear that the photos were taken with a zoom lens - which people then re-posted as if the fire was bearing down on them.

One of my neighbours lives on her own up here hear the forestry and was so anxious for five days before we actually needed to evacuate that she called or texted me almost every hour, asking "should we leave yet? Are you leaving now?" This wasn't helped by the misinformation and drama she was hearing. Please, before you post a dramatic, dare I say inflammatory, post on social media in an emergency situation, get your facts straight and think about the potential impact of your post on people who are already stressed and anxious. There's a reason the Tasmanian Fire Service alerts seem a little vague - everyone needs to make the best decision for themselves at the time based on known facts. What's right for a fit couple with the equipment and will to defend their own property is probably not right for a frail elderly person, someone with severe asthma or a family with five children and a menagerie of animals.

A couple of days after we were able to return home, I received an invitation to join a Facebook group that aims to help people near the Tahune fire to communicate. I love what the group admin had to say about sharing information in the group:

*** Please make sure that any information you share is ACCURATE. By accurate, we mean from TFS, police, a 100% accurate conversation you have had with someone on site or you have seen it with your own eyes, NOT what your mate heard from someone else. We don't want people scared for no reason. Also, when regarding your safety, ONLY follow advice from emergency services! Stay safe!

Hear, hear.

A couple of other tips that might be useful if you're thinking about how to prepare for the increased likelihood of extreme weather events in the future:

  • Put a computer backup strategy in place now, well, before disaster strikes. What about all those photos on your home PC? My husband David runs a computer help business and was contacted by customers wanting to know what to do when it was really too late to be thinking about it. You can read his article about it here.
  • Internet-connected security cameras are a good investment for peace of mind. They can send you alerts and allow you to monitor what's happening at your back door when you are not there. Ours allowed us to know that we still had power and a house! And we saw when the firies door-knocked to check that no-one was still home in our road when the fire was getting close. Totally worth it.
Security camera shot of the firies door-knocking our place.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

After the fires

On Monday we were able to return home, thankful and relieved. Hooray! We did a huge pile of washing and emptied and repacked our suitcases (properly this time) in case we needed to evacuate again. Made a dash to the vet as our old dog Baerli didn't seem well. There was still thick smoke and a constant stream of fire trucks and heavy equipment going up our road and choppers going over which made me uneasy, but we found out they were back burning and clearing fire breaks behind us. The yard and paddocks are littered with blackened leaves and chunks of bark. Things could have been a whole lot worse.

Our kind host during the time we were away from home had warned me that the time after the fires might be hard. That coming down after being in a constant state of worry and high alert can take its toll. The Beyond Blue web site has some information on looking after yourself after a disaster, but somehow I don't feel like David and I experienced a "disaster" as such - we are safe and well, as are our animals and the house. It's 10 years since the horrific Black Saturday fires in Victoria, which killed 173 people. We know how lucky we are that Tasmania has seen no loss of life in the current spate of bushfires.

I confess I've wished our house had burned down. Only a fleeting thought, but the "what if" discussions (and black humoured banter) between us and our dear neighbours during the evacuation time sparked my imagination. Maybe we could just pack up and go housesitting around the world, use the insurance money to buy a nice camper and go sit next to a beach for a while, rebuild the kind of home we'd really like... or any number of new and interesting options. Instead, it's back to the grindstone and struggling with two weeks of backlog at work, a pile that I can't see any way out from. Nothing exciting ahead.

Today it's raining, good solid rain that should dampen the fires that are still burning out of control around the state, help consolidate the work of the firefighters, refill our tanks and make the garden happy. We've had 30mm today and it looks like the rain is falling where it is needed here in southern Tasmania. For that I am grateful. And happily, Baerli has perked up again now that the weather is cooler and she's back in her favourite spot on the lounge.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Limbo land

Like most people in the Huon Valley right now, we sit and wait. Wait to find out if our homes will be spared from an approaching inferno. We wonder how all our friends are faring. I worry about everything, real (like whether my chickens still have any water) and imagined. It's quite nerve wracking. Today, Walkley award-winning cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, who lives on the other side of the river from us, posted a series of vignettes accurately summing up how it feels to be here.

A couple of weeks ago, David and I were sitting at our kitchen bench after dinner, when a large black cloud moved overhead and we heard rolling thunder in the distance. It was pretty impressive, and a sound we don't hear often in Tasmania. We looked out the window to see great bolts of lightning far to the south west of us. Shortly afterwards the Tasmanian Fire Service web site lit up with alerts. It turned out those dry lightning strikes sparked a lot of fires around the state, particularly in the south west wilderness area. Many miles from us.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, it's a Wednesday night and we (David and I and the two dogs) have been staying with dear, kind friends in Huonville since Sunday night. A week ago, some fires started by that lightning had spread to become a larger one that threatened the Tahune Airwalk, a tourism attraction attraction run by Forestry Tasmania. Yesterday, photos revealed some of the damage it sustained. The smoke last Tuesday was awful, although the fire was still around 17km from our house. We put our bushfire survival plan into action, packed important documents like insurance papers, some clothes, toiletries, dog food, the chainsaw (in case of fallen trees), computer backups and so on. Both cars were ready to go. David cleared all our gutters and removed anything wooden or explosive from around the house. One of our neighbours who lives on her own was very anxious and starting calling or texting me every hour, asking "should we go yet"? But the alert level in our area was just "watch and act", with no need to evacuate. You just need to prepare and stay informed.

Last Friday was expected to be a horror day for bushfires, with temperatures around 36 degrees and high winds. At that point, our friends Scott and Karla made the offer that should we need to evacuate, we could bring the dogs and stay with them. I was so grateful, but as Friday passed and was fairly uneventful, we didn't really think we'd need it. But by Sunday the fire was a lot closer, and our power went out in the afternoon. We couldn't see what was coming, and facing the prospect of no water or electricity up in the hills near forestry, we decided it was time to leave.

So now we're now waiting, waiting, in a kind of limbo land. It seems quiet, we know our home is still there (our security camera at the front door is still sending images), but we also know the nearest fire in the last 24 hours was at best guess 1.8km from our house (see map below where I've circled our house in red). It doesn't take much for that to turn bad and the TFS agrees. So for now we are staying put. It's hard to concentrate on anything. I am constantly checking everything from the TFS alerts to ABC Radio bushfire emergency updates at quarter to the hour, Facebook (more on that separate disaster zone later) to weather apps and the Sentinel Hotspots site, hoping to glean information. Or we are checking in on friends, calling, texting or popping in to visit those who are camped at the evacuation centre at Huonville PCYC. It's kind of shocking to see your town's name on the TV list of emergency zones - see photo below.

The first big lesson I've learned so far is not to underestimate the amount of time you may be away from home if you have to evacuate in an emergency. We packed enough fresh clothes for maybe four or five days, but the friends we are staying with once had to evacuate for three weeks from a fire in NSW! We really thought that in three days either we would have lost our home or the danger would have passed and we could go home. Now I see how this could easily stretch on, with peak bushfire season in Tasmania being in February and so many fires out of control in wilderness areas that could potentially encroach on population centres.

The second thing this has shown me is the incredible support that people give each other in times of crisis. So much kindness, generosity and plain smart thinking. We live in a wonderful community. I am in awe of the firefighters trying to keep this beast at bay and keep people and property safe. And the helicopter pilots, the police, the volunteers and local council and so many others. Tensions are high and they must be truly exhausted in these conditions. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts.


Friday, January 18, 2019

To the end of the world and back

Tasmania certainly felt like the end of the world to me this week, after spending more than 23 hours in the air and around 7 hours in airports to travel home from a business trip to New York. It's longer on the way back. It takes only (!) 19 hours in the air to get there, and it also feels shorter as you arrive the same day you left, thanks to the international date line. Then on the way back a whole day is erased from your calendar somehow (what happened to my Sunday??) and every time I feel somehow ripped off. The flight wasn't the only shock to the system, as the temperature at home the day before I left was 36 degrees Celsius (97F) and -6C (21F) when I arrived in New York! I feel very lucky to be able to travel to meet my peers and leadership team and experience different parts of the world. This time, I stayed in the lower east side for a couple of nights and managed to hit the New Museum, a couple of distilleries, the northern end of Central Park and some Jewish food spots. I love NYC to bits.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Hazy days of summer

The evening before last we sat at the kitchen bench eating dinner, as a large black cloud moved across the sky, wiping out the afternoon sunshine. Then the thunder rolled in, in great heavy waves, with brilliant flashes of lightning to the south of us. The storm wasn't close, but still impressive. Shortly afterwards, the Tasmanian Fire Service web site lit up with alerts of bushfires all around, across the river and in the great wilderness to the west. One was quite close to us in Glen Huon, but by the next morning it had dropped off the alerts list. Since then the smell of smoke has hung thickly in the air and the mountain range we normally look out at has disappeared behind the smoke. There's more hot weather forecast. I hope everyone stays safe.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

NYE in the country

Happy new year! Last night we spent the evening with a lovely bunch of locals at some friends' place just down the road. The weather smiled on us and the freshly mowed paddock was the place to be on a long summer evening. We ate delicious pizzas from an outdoor oven, lamb slow cooked over an open fire and fabulous desserts (I so love banoffee pie), enjoyed with celebratory beer or sparkling in hand. Dogs and kids running round and round and playing near the dam. Standing around the fire pit at midnight with the stayers waving sparklers. The sky was clear and we watched the International Space Station go overhead. I'm not keen on fighting crowds, travelling far or paying crazy money to be near big fireworks on New Year's Eve. Low key, low stress and nearby is definitely the way to go. All the best to you and yours for 2019.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The good stuff

Earlier this year I bought a kilo each of blackcurrants and redcurrants at a local market, intending to make some kind of spirit with them. But months later they were still in the freezer, so I thought blackcurrant jam would be a great way to use them. What I didn't realise is that it's near impossible to remove all the woody parts from frozen berries, which you have to do to make jam from these tiny fruit. I gave up after about 20 berries were in the pan and started searching for an alternative recipe... syrup or cordial perhaps? Then I saw a recipe for blackcurrant jelly which means you don't need to remove the stalks, as you strain it through muslin overnight. I think it is even more delicious than the jam. It set easily and now I have two jars of the good stuff. It was perfect on a slice of fresh 'Ursi bread', as we call it, after the Swiss friend who gave us the recipe.