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    Bushfires and Heat Waves

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    Rachel
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    Age : 21
    Location : Adelaide, South Australia

    Bushfires and Heat Waves

    Post  Rachel on Wed Jan 09, 2013 9:05 am

    Bushfires probably aren’t relevant to anyone but me, but since I was caught in a minor one yesterday, I thought I’d mention something.

    Bushfires are quite common in Australia during ‘Bushfire Season’. Bushfire season varies from area to area. For me, it’s mid-summer until late autumn, or roughly December/January through to April/May. Because Australia is so hot and dry, during these months, it’s not uncommon to have days on end of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit), as well as months with no rain. The combination of hot weather and dry land results in lots of fires.

    The fires aren’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, they’re essential for many of our native plant species. Some gum tree and eucalyptus trees, and banksias, too, need fire in order to reproduce – the fire opens their seed pods. Fires also help new ground-plants to grow. The Aboriginals knew this and often lit the country as they left it so that it would produce more food for them when they got back to the area. European settlers have picked up this technique, too, and throughout winter and spring it’s not uncommon to see people ‘back-burning’ or ‘burning off’ – that is, purposefully burning large areas of forest or scrubland in order to clear fallen timber and such. Such fires are banned from the 1st of December until the 30th of April.

    Controlled fires are a good thing, but bushfires aren’t controlled fires. In fact, bushfires are defined as being “any uncontrolled, non-structural fire burning in a grass, scrub, bush, or forested area”. There are two sorts of bushfires – the first Flat or Grassland Fires, which burn along flat or gently undulating grassland or scrubland plains. They move quickly because of high winds and low fuel, but don’t pose much of a threat because they don’t burn very intensely, and it’s easy to predict where they’ll head next.

    The other sort are Hilly or Mountainous Fires, which burn in hilly or alpine areas. These areas are densely forested – they have lots of trees and such. The land is very rarely cleared in these areas like it is on plains, and a lot of these areas are protected, entirely or partially national parks. These are the worst sort of bushfire, because roads are narrow and difficult to drive along, and human settlements are isolated and completely surrounded by burnable bushland. This is the area where I live – halfway up a hill, completely surrounded by bush.

    Bushfires can start for all sorts of reasons. One of the most common is lightning or electricity from power lines. That’s why lots of bushfires happen at the end of a heatwave, right before a cool change. Sometimes the cool change will have a rain storm but a lot of the time it’s an electrical storm first – lots of lightening. If the lightening hits dry bushland, a bushfire begins really easily.

    Other reasons bushfires start include campfires (which, in my area, aren’t allowed for most of bushfire season), dropped cigarettes and matches, back-burnings which have gotten out of control (which, again, aren’t allowed in my area during bushfire season), grinding and welding machinery, agricultural clearing machinery, and dropped glass and bottles which reflect and magnify the sun (schoolkids learn to burn leaves this way, so it’s possible – if you drop glass or plastic, it could start a bushfire).

    There are ways of predicting whether bushfires are likely to happen or not. During bushfire season, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) gives fire forecasts by using the weather forecast and looking at things like temperature, humidity, wind speed, and how dry the land is. Local fire-fighting agencies (in my case, the CFS or Country Fire Service) work out what Fire Danger rating it is, and broadcast it on the radio, in newspapers, on the television, and on the internet.

    There are seven Fire Danger ratings; Low, Moderate, High, Very High, Severe, Extreme, and Catastrophic. Low and moderate is used in winter months – bushfires almost never happen during this time. A Catastrophic Fire Danger day initiates a Code Red and an evacuation – residents are recommended to leave their houses and go to their Community Hub, an area in their community which has been deemed at the least risk of being burnt down. It’s usually a school.

    This system usually works pretty well. People can be aware of the fire danger and act accordingly. But bushfires are still very dangerous. Since 1851, over 800 people have died in bushfires. Thousands of houses and buildings have been damaged or completely destroyed and properties and farms have been completely ravaged. Everyone, even outside of Australia, knows of the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, which killed 75 people and destroyed 2500 homes in 418 000 hectares of land across three states. More recently, in 2009, were the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and destroyed over 4500 buildings across more than 450 000 hectares in Victoria. Once a major fire gets started, it’s almost impossible to stop.

    But it’s not all bad. The various fire-fighting groups are skilled in fighting fires and they very rarely get out of control. Most people are aware of the danger and prepare themselves accordingly, preparing ‘Bushfire Plans’ and preparing their house for a fire. This is done by ensuring there’s a safe escape route from the house to a safe place and making sure that there’s a system of making sure everyone’s present and the livestock have a way to escape (even if that just means opening all the gates and letting them fend for themselves).

    There are other ways we’re encouraged to prepare our house for a fire, too. Most are simple things, like keeping the roof and gutters clear of leaves, cutting back overhanging trees and shrubs, keeping grass short, keeping mulch away from the house, and making sure that fences are non-combustible. All of this reduces the chances of a house catching fire. In the case that it does, it’s good to have a hose that’s long enough to reach everywhere, and buckets and a ready source of water. Unfortunately, less than half the people living in Fire-Risk areas don’t both doing any of this.

    Of course, if you’re in danger of your house catching fire, you’re meant to leave immediately with valuables and go to a safe place, a Community Hub such as a school or town hall. But some people choose to stay and protect their house and lifestock. In that case, they need to have ways of trying to fight the fire. They should fill up the bathtub, and all sinks and buckets and pots and pans and bowls. They should wet sheets and towels and place them in cracks of doors and over windows. They should have a hose which can hold back the fire. When all else fails, I’ve heard stories of people climbing in water tanks so that they’re not burnt when everything else around them is.

    It’s important to remember that catastrophic bushfires such as the ones I’ve mentioned don’t happen very often – perhaps every four or five years. Yes, there are minor bushfires every season, but they are usually put out within the day, with little to now damage to property and no loss of life. In fact, it’s the somewhat less dramatic quirks of Australian summer weather which prove to be more deadly.

    I’m talking about heat waves. And I know you’re probably thinking, sure, heat waves. Big deal. We get them all the time. But there are heat waves and then there are Heat Waves. The former is a couple of days of slightly above-average temperatures, preceded and followed by rain. The latter is a week or more of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius every day. In Australia (or South Australia, at least), heat waves are usually very dry, but in other places, it can have high humidity.

    Heat waves happen when a high pressure system stays over an area of several days. In South Australia, a heat wave is defined as being five consecutive days at or above 35 degrees Celsius (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit), or three consecutive days at or over 40 degrees Celsius (about 110 degrees Fahrenheit). In other countries, the definition is different. For example, in Sweden, it’s defined as at least five days in a row with a high of more than 25 degrees Celsius (about 80 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Heat waves account for more deaths in Australia than even bushfires, floods, and cyclones. A major heat wave in early 2009 lasted for almost three weeks, and caused 374 deaths. Over 2000 others were treated for heat-related problems such as hyperthermia or heat stroke. This particular heat wave also caused the Black Saturday bushfires I’ve already mentioned.

    Lots of records are set during heat waves, though. During the early 2009 heat wave, Adelaide set records for 13 consecutive days over 33 degrees Celsius (about 96 degrees Fahrenheit), 6 consecutive days over 40 degrees, and 4 consecutive days over 43 degrees. The average daily maximum temperature in Adelaide for the duration of the heat wave was 40.5 degrees Celsius (about 110 degrees Fahrenheit), which is 11 degrees above the average. Adelaide also set a record for the highest daily minimum temperature, when it didn’t get below 34 degrees Celsius (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in the city centre overnight. And Adelaide, being south and on the coast, had nothing compared to other parts of the state.

    Heat waves drag on. Time seems to stop. Days turn into weeks and you think you’ve melted away but it still goes on. During heat waves, you can see the air shimmering above cars and on flat surfaces. I’ve spent nights awake at midnight watching the thermometer still on 40 degrees. I’ve gotten up for school in the morning and stood waiting for the bus in the half-light, knowing that it’s already 45 degrees. I’ve purposely spilt water on the ground and counted the seconds until it’s all evaporated. I’ve spent days in poorly-air-conditioned classrooms, glugging down water and pressing a drink bottle to my head while the teacher knows no-one can concentrate. I’ve literally fried an egg on the pavement. I’ve even stood on the school oval at recess and lunch while all the students and even some of the teachers get hosed down, knowing that no matter how soaked we all get, we’ll be dry before the end of the break.

    Heat waves are a fact of life, and most of us have learnt to cope with them, even if we hate them. But there are all sorts of physical effects of heat waves, from hyperthermia (or heat stroke), to heat rash (which can become infected), to heat cramps, to heat exhaustion. A good way to prevent most of these is to drink lots and lots of water, sometimes with added salt. Sugary or fizzy drinks just make it worse. Watermelon is a favourite food. Heat rash occurs under clothing, at the nape of the neck, and in creases or joints such as elbows. There’s not much you can do about that one.

    Heat also causes stress and tiredness, although both of these can be a sign of heat exhaustion. During heat waves, most people become irritable and grumpy and stressed out. Everything seems harder in the heat – sometimes it feels like you’re trying to walk through butter.

    There are lots of infrastructural effects of heat waves, too, from blackouts and lower electricity voltage due to overuse of air conditioners, to rather more extreme things such as causing roads and railways to buckle, water lines to burst, and power transformers to blow (this one happened on my street a couple of years ago).

    Heat waves, in turn, lead almost inevitably to bushfires. As I type, most of Australia is experiencing a heat wave coupled with high winds, and there are thousands of bushfires. A quick glance at the CFS website shows about twenty or thirty bushfires being fought at the moment, and the list is updated every five minutes. We reached Catastrophic Fire Danger Day last Friday, causing the camp I was leading at to tell parents not to bring campers until the evening. There was a fire burning nearby that day, and on Tuesday, there was a fire on the camp grounds, not 200 metres away from our safehouse. We were so thankful to God that the fire occurred after all of the campers were safely away.

    But don’t think living in Australia is all bad news and death and destruction. These are the things we prepare for, but that rarely ever happen. That was the first bushfire I’ve been in in seventeen years of life, and it was out within the hour. Every kid knows about fire danger, but most have never witnessed it. We hear about fires but they’re always distant, they don’t effect us. And heat waves? Well, we call that summer.
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    Jordyn

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    Join date : 2011-08-10
    Location : Indiana

    Re: Bushfires and Heat Waves

    Post  Jordyn on Wed Jan 09, 2013 3:21 pm

    i used to think of Australia as a hot dry desert land. but really it had hills, tropical forests, the bush and the ocean
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    Rachel
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    Join date : 2011-08-01
    Age : 21
    Location : Adelaide, South Australia

    Re: Bushfires and Heat Waves

    Post  Rachel on Fri Jan 11, 2013 10:25 am

    Yes, Australia is very varied.

    In the north (northern Northern Territory, Queensland, northern Western Australia) it is very tropical because it's really close to the equator, very humid and hot all the time with rainforests.

    The south-east (New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania) it's much drier (even though we joke about Victoria being so wet), with mountains and sometimes even snow (there's a range called the Snowy Mountains which has snow every winter).

    The southern part of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and most of South Australia, are very hot and dry - most of the middle of Australia is desert. Around the coast it's almost always green and nice though. In the south-east of South Australia there are grassy plains (and caves like holes in the ground).

    Around Adelaide is a ring of hills, so the city has hills on three sides and the sea on the other. I live in the Adelaide Hills and it's usually cool and pleasant and green here, even when it gets warm in summer.

    3/4 of Australians live in big cities on the coach. According to Wikipedia, South Australia has some of the most arid land in Australia, and only 8% of Australians live here. Of those 71% live in Adelaide, and most of the others live in the six other coastal town/cities. Some very very small percentage actually life in the Outback and desert, so although there's a lot of it, most of the Australia that people know and where they live is much like America or Europe.

    It is a little weird to think that the population of London and the total population of Australia are about the same, though.

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    Re: Bushfires and Heat Waves

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