Last Thursday week, the third of January, I was driving home from Hobart, south along the Arthur Highway. A pretty normal day, really. Christmas and New Year had been celebrated, the much-vaunted Mayan apocalypse hadn’t happened, and with Tasmania at the height of its tourist season, traffic along the road was fairly heavy. The weather was unusually hot, with a scorcher predicted for Friday. I was hurrying home so as to be able to take the family down to the beach before dinner. The Tasman Peninsula boasts many spectacular beaches, and our favourite is a well-concealed one that’s not on any tourist map and is effectively a private resort for locals, and a handy escape from the summer heat.
Passing the slow-vehicle turnout at Inala Road at Forcett, I saw a bushfire in a paddock about a kilometre from the highway. It wasn’t a particularly large fire, maybe three hundred metres or so across. What was unusual was the amount of attention being paid to it; at a glance I guessed there were over a dozen fire crews on the ground, plus a chopper water-bombing from above. I now understand what they saw at the time: that if they were unable to contain the fire at Forcett, with Friday’s forecast of strong northerlies, single-digit humidity and temperatures nudging 40°C (104°F), the fire could run away to the south, all the way to the Tasman Peninsula, forty kilometres away.
Friday dawned searingly hot, the temperature well over thirty degrees even in the early morning. The radio news suggested that a number of Tasmanian temperature records might be broken that day. Worse, the Forcett fire had already spread south to Carlton River and was headed directly for Connellys Marsh and Copping. Although I suspected the water at Blackman’s Bay to the east and Dunalley Bay to the west would stop the fire from actually spreading to the Peninsula, I was becoming very uneasy. I decided to cancel my plans for the day and monitor ABC radio, which doubles as Australia’s emergency broadcast system.
I started to think about something I wrote on this blog two years ago; that in an emergency situation, you need two plans, one to stay, and one to go. Mrs. Oz and I had discussed this a long time ago; The Ozboy estate is a mixture of open paddocks and dense eucalyptus forest, some of which borders our house very closely. There is simply no way that we could defend the house from even a half-serious bushfire, and what was heading straight towards us, by all accounts, was a firestorm. So I asked my wife to gather up all our important documents, plus some spare clothes for the kids and ourselves, while I collected some essential supplies and started to pack up the ute and lock the place down.
By 1pm, the radio reported that the temperature in Hobart had hit 41°C (106°F), a new record, that Dunalley was in flames, and houses on the south side of the Denison Canal were under ember attack. Built in 1907, the 700-metre Denison Canal enables boats to travel from the east coast to Hobart without having to round Tasman Island; in the days of sailing ships, it cut a day or so from the journey. It also effectively made the Forestier and Tasman Peninsulas into an island, with a two-lane swing bridge connecting us with “the mainland”. The radio announced that the fire had taken hold on the Forestier Peninsula, that the bridge was blocked and all residents south of Dunalley should evacuate immediately, southwards to the Tasman Civic Centre at Nubeena. I didn’t need any second invitations; we were out the door and on the road within two minutes.
Once at Nubeena, we were told to stay put until the all-clear was given. Little did I realise at the time that that would be a week away. I also heard then that the localities of Murdunna, Pirates Bay, Eaglehawk Neck and Doo Town were now under threat, and started wondering if in fact the fire would make it all the way down to us in Nubeena. What then—jump in the water?
We slept in the ute that night. And the next. A formal evacuation centre was set up at the Civic Centre, so at least we didn’t have to worry about food. But with two thousand tourists and locals gathered there, resources were stretched to the limit. With hundreds of cars parked in the sports ground, and long queues lined up at the makeshift kitchens, we resembled a strange parody of a refugee camp. I wondered how long it would last.
It was on the second morning when we learned that several of our friends had lost their homes. The father-in-law of one of them informed me he had heard the night before on the SES radio that my place, too, had been destroyed. I was stunned: everything I owned, photos and mementos of a lifetime, gone in an instant; yet I dreaded telling my wife even more than contemplating the loss. We spent the night, I guess you could say, grieving; but also planning for the future. We were insured, we could rebuild, bigger and better than before. We weren’t going to let this beat us.
But then came the roller-coaster ride. Lining up for breakfast after a sleepless night, I was approached by a friend from Boomer Bay. Hey Oz, he chirped, did you hear the good news about your place? What are you talking about? I asked, Bob heard on the SES squawk box it went up last night. Nahh, he said, they saved it. Go ask Davo from the SES – he’s right over there. And sure enough, it was confirmed. I was one of the lucky ones after all. Or so I thought.
After two days, large 200-passenger catamarans started bringing down supplies from Hobart to Nubeena’s deep-water port, and taking out stranded tourists, who left behind hire cars, caravans and boats. We were inundated with bottled water, long-life milk and breakfast cereal. After four days, a local approached us and offered us his spare cottage a few minutes’ drive away. I continued to drive in to the Civic Centre each morning and evening for the regular briefings by the police and fire brigade, waiting for news of when we would be able to return to our homes.
The media had also descended en masse to our little backwater community, not only the national TV, radio and print outlets but also journalists from overseas. The latter presumably being flown in and out by the choppers that kept landing behind the Nubeena SES station at frequent intervals. It felt quite surreal to be collared by one journalist after another wanting to know how are you coping? How do you bloody well think, I felt like answering. I have no desire to be a public figure, and experiencing all that media attention has made me even less so. James and Co. can have that all to themselves, thank you very much.
I was particularly grateful that, safely moved into the nearby cottage, my kids were now removed from that situation. After four days with so many people packed into such a small space, tempers were becoming frayed. The tourists who remained were mostly those with motor homes and such, who were unwilling to abandon them. Our mayor, on the other hand, was concerned that resources were stretched beyond the limits of the local council to cope, and was unsuccessfully cajoling them to leave by boat. Tired and stressed herself, matters came to a head at the Monday afternoon briefing, which was broadcast by the nation’s news media and which unfortunately (for us) has since gone viral:
Following this exchange, police (possibly fearful of unrest if they allowed things to continue as they were) began to allow tourists with cars to leave in police-escorted convoys to Sorell, beyond the fire-affected area. But there was no stopping or turning off the highway allowed, so local residents like me were not permitted to join them (I’ve since found out a few of them did anyway). The police also had to search every house in the burned area, to make sure no bodies were found.
By Wednesday, some mobile reception and internet connectivity had been restored, and I managed to get a few minutes on a communal computer, where I discovered the e-mails and messages of concern for us from around the world, some of them from LibertyGibbert’s own blog community (thanks once again for those). I only had time to write a brief comment on the previous thread, but rest assured your sentiments meant a lot to us.
By Thursday, the fire was more or less kept to within containment lines, and we were shown maps of the extent of the blaze. Over 23,000 hectares, or nearly 90 square miles, had been burnt to the ground. My own home was within this area, so I did not know what to expect when we were finally allowed to return.
Finally, on Friday the police gave the all-clear for Peninsula residents to return home. We said farewell to our new friends from Nubeena (their kids and ours have become friends too), and headed off home, armed with a 5kVA petrol generator they had loaned us. We needed it too – the majority of power poles south of Copping had been destroyed, and though Aurora (our local power supply company) were replacing up to 75 poles a day, we were warned it could be weeks before power could be restored to our homes.
What greeted us as we pulled in at home was something from beyond the apocalypse. The whole region, not just my place, had been burned black. The Ozboy estate had been turned into a lunar landscape of blackened trees and scorched earth. Giant trees over a metre in diameter at the base had crashed to the ground, or else were leaning at crazy angles in the loosened, sandy soil, and will inevitably come down sometime soon. Kilometres of fencing are destroyed, empty post holes often the only evidence of fence posts that have been totally consumed. Fire containment lines bulldozed across my fields remain as ugly scars on the landscape. My beautiful piece of paradise, so far as I can see, is gone.
The fireys managed to save my home, though. It’s quite amazing, really: the fire front appears to have split in two, gone each side of my house, and reconnected behind my back shed; an island of green in a sea of black. There are question marks over the house, though. There is clear evidence that structural damage may have occurred in the roof and possibly the floor, and my outside deck was partially burnt and will need to be replaced. I’m insured, so it’s not a question of money. Rather, one of psychic damage—a sense of violation, if you like.
Then the cleanup started, and will go on for weeks, or more likely months. Yesterday I cleaned out and disinfected my chest freezer. I can only show you pictures, not smells, but I can tell you that a whole freezer full of food, including a dozen lamb and pork roasts, kilograms of minced meat and sausages, left without power for a week in the stifling Australian summer heat, has a pungency that will linger in my nostrils forever. I made sure the family were far away when I did this.
And yet, I have every reason to be thankful. My family are all still alive and well. Many of our friends have lost everything. Some, we believe, were not even insured. My son’s school was burned to the ground. Nearby cattle and sheep farms have lost all their stock, either to the fire, starved in the aftermath or, in the absence of fences, are roaming freely about the district. Several businesses whose owners I know have had their premises destroyed, and those that survived may not for another year: tourism is our area’s principal industry, and the peak season from Christmas to late January sustains many businesses over the lean winter months—a summer season destroyed will probably send many of them under.
Inevitably, vultures have descended, seeking to exploit this tragedy for their own ends. Environmental activists are crowing loudly, blaming Global Warming for the Tasmanian fires, as if the fact that last week’s disaster was somehow caused by it being 0.6 degrees hotter than the same bushfires a century ago. What a load of bullshit. Anyone suggesting this doesn’t understand bushfires at all (and I have lived through many). Bushfires, especially the Australian variety, are tricky beasts, whose severity depends on a host of variables, including wind fluctuations, ground fuel load, topography and distribution of vegetation. Certainly, a higher density of human population leads to an increase in “trigger events” (this fire was started, I’ve been told, by a farm hand trying to burn out a tree stump) but natural triggers, most typically lightning strikes, produce an indistinguishable effect.
Nor are they aware of very much history. As devastating as last week’s bushfires were, a far more severe event occurred in Tasmania almost half a century ago, which destroyed ten times the land area, left over sixty people dead, 900 injured and seven thousand homeless, all in the space of a single afternoon. The rather obscene triumphalism of so many thermageddon enthusiasts in the local media this week has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many local residents and fireys, who are all too aware of the real cause of this disaster.
So what have I learned from the last week? I can tell you this has been for me, and for everyone down here who I’ve spoken to about it, a life-changing experience. In terms of this blog and Libertarianism, there’s certainly an impact. Looking back over the last two and a half years’ worth of articles, I think I may have erroneously painted a picture of Libertarianism that equates it with a kind of gung-ho, rugged individualism. Yet even before the fires, I was pondering the social structures that need to be in place before a truly Libertarian society has any chance of succeeding. Family was the one I had in mind, and was to be the subject of my first article this year; for me, family remains the core social structure in our society. We survived as well as we have, and will bounce back from our loss, precisely because we are doing it together as a family. And the family who took us into their home last week, for no reason other than a desire to do something worthwhile, has heightened that perception for me. It’s also made it seem very clear to me why the institution of the family is under attack from totalitarians, and I’ll be having something to say about it later this year.
But last week also made me sharply aware of the importance of community. The entire relief and support effort down in the Tasman last week was organised by the local community, not by government (if you exclude the contribution of the local council, which is really just an extension of our community anyway). To see old and young locals showing up every day last week, cooking in the kitchen, washing dishes, carting supplies, chipping in wherever they could, was not only heart-warming, but indispensible. Without them, the disaster would have been magnified many times. Even the fire itself was fought principally by the local rural fire brigade—a volunteer force. Apart from the professional Fire Service, and Tasmania Police (who I have to say did a magnificent job, and cooperated extremely well with the public), the government did everyone a favour by largely getting out of the way.
And having been given so much by the local community, I’m now determined to find ways of putting something back in. I think that, rather than simply writing about an ideal society, I can be more effective by rolling up my sleeves and actually doing something about it, even if my efforts are anonymous and go unnoticed. So, between that and rebuilding at home, I may not have as much time for blogging this year as I’d like. You’ll still see me about, but probably not as much.
Once again, thanks to everyone here who sent messages of concern and good wishes. I hope the pictures convey an impression of what’s been going on down here the past week. Rebuilding will be a slow and painful process, but it’s underway already. The insurance assessors are contacting me later today. Plans are already underway to rebuild my son’s school, and classes are set to commence in demountable classrooms as per the regular school term. I can see the Aurora trucks racing backward and forward past my place, replacing power poles and infrastructure at an astonishing rate. And in less than a year, the bush will have commenced its natural regeneration process and will be bursting with green, as it always does. Yep, things are lookin’ up.