Nick Kohn, a seasoned outdoorsman but with no prior experience fighting fire before this season.
Firefighting in order to protect assets of Forestry Corporation of NSW
Palerang Fires, near Queanbeyan, NSW
30 November 2019
My bandana is around my neck, as per usual, but this time, it’s so I’m not breathing excessive amounts of dust and smoke. Shadows are elongating while I run into my 15th hour of work for the day. Earlier, I was on dozer watch – ensuring that the machine of destruction and mayhem doesn’t get into any trouble, whether it be fire, flipping or falling trees.
Protecting The Forest
The Cat D8T is simultaneously incredible and terrifying. The yellow cage bellows black smoke and fills its shovel, as it flattens two blade lengths of foliage from each side of the road that my crew leader, Mitch, and I’ve been assigned to. This bleak and awful task will certainly kill many trees, however the number that will potentially be saved (if all goes to plan) outnumber them by countless fold.
To the right are young Radiata Pines only planted in 2012, while to the left of the new dirt track, remains as native old-growth, consisting of countless species of gumtree, bracken fern, razor grass and banksia.
Mike, the dozer driver, is a hefty man. Solid in stature with a shaved head, dressed in a heavy cotton orange work shirt, blue jeans and tan boots. Seated behind his mesh cage, he plays God. He has the power to control what gets mowed down and what will live to photosynthesise another day. I watch him crush 40m tall Ribbonbark and Brown Barrel Gums with ease.
Around a bend, or in a gully, the clinking and clanking and enormous plume of dust created by the Cat, seems to disappear, as if someone was able to mute that specific noise. What remains, is the distinct cracking of tree trunks as they snap from the impact of the Caterpillar. This horrendous noise of death is, for whatever reason, audible from a far further distance.
When the trees get caught up in one of their neighbours, Mike, perched up in his hydraulically suspended throne (complete with joysticks, screens and all), simply reverses slightly and knocks it on repeat until the foliage either falls out or crumbles. Leaving the trees up there could be catastrophic for the firefighters who are defending their line below, if the tree were to collapse due to wind, fire or being unable to withstand the massive load any longer.
Over the VHF (‘the big radio’), we can hear the panic in the voices of firefighters, crew leaders and incident commanders as people describe themselves as ‘trapped on the paddock of the asset to the south east of the pine’. We stare at the radio’s handset as the poor souls tell of their inability to see, due to dense smoke as well as the hellish and disturbing glow of the wildfire gaining ground on all sides.
Read more: How To Explore Safely In Bushfire Season
The Surrounding Situation
There’s a fire in Batemans Bay, with just 29km (as the crow flies) separating our fire from theirs. There’s a severe weather warning tonight too. In our briefing, we were told of potential golf ball sized hail, thunder, lightning, high winds and of course, no rain. There are fears that the fires will be attracted to each other, which could form a disastrously large blaze that would be almost impossible to control.
It’s fascinating to see how necessary the destruction of the plantation’s outskirts are for the longevity of the overall forest. At times it seems like there’s no plan at all and that the whole scenario is absolute insanity. But the cool, calm and collected voices that are projected out of the loudspeakers attached to every vehicle on the fire ground, show that there’s in fact some method to this madness.
Naked trees, mostly topless or missing the majority of their limbs, stand in the ruined wasteland created by machinery. Not long before they arrived, the fire was ripping through Bald Hill and Forbes Creek, but it was slowed down through quickly established containment lines.
In the sky sits an upside down moon. It’s only visible intermittently, when the dense and dark clouds of smoke part. It’s as if it’s foreboding some kind of sad and horrible event to come. Maybe, it has already come, for most of the country up here is already blackened.
Earlier in the morning, while conditions were benign, it was decided to light up a small section that remained unburnt. This is an important procedure, as country that’s already been burnt is no longer a threat – the fire will die when it runs out of fuel.
Read more: After The Flames – What A Fire Leaves Behind
Igniting The Flame
Winds were in our favour and temperature and humidity were moderate. Mitch explained the pattern and direction that was sent down the line. I was to walk with the drip torch in a semi-circle, lighting up small sections, leaving a gap and repeating the process, so that we could redirect the fire, black out that portion, whilst avoiding creating a blaze hot enough to spot over.
I grabbed the once-red, oil and dust covered drip torch, opened up the wand and cracked the breather after pulling my bandana over my mouth. I marched towards the flame, over, under and around fallen trees, wombat holes, blackberry and of course the wildfire itself.
As I got in, the wind changed. Suddenly I went from being on the flank of the fire, safe as gold, to right in its path at the head. This is what is appropriately known as the ‘Deadman Zone’ – something we‘d heard about so many times at Fire Camp but that I was yet to experience.
I immediately regretted not having slipped my goggles down from my helmet and was very glad to be dressed in otherwise full fire-retardant kit. I took a knee, lowering my head towards the ground in an effort to avoid the blinding smoke and unabating heat. It wasn’t working as well as planned – it was absolutely scorching. The flames were easily the most intense heat I’ve been exposed to. Worst of all, I was in this brush holding 6L of a diesel/petrol mix in my hand.
Not wanting to leave without finishing the job, I lay the torch’s wand and stone in the flame to get her started, while the flames crawled closer and closer over the bone-dry tinder that shrouded the forest floor. That couple of seconds that it took to light felt like ten minutes and I damn near dropped the thing in order to bail out. But she lit up and I quickly scurried over limb and trunk and termite nest to get out of there.
I emerged, full-blown shaking – partially with fear, partially with excitement and partially due to the insane adrenaline rush from so nearly becoming roasted. Or so I thought. As it turns out, I was apparently a-ways away from the fire and the excitement of the experience got the blood pumping a little harder than required.
Mitch and I had a good laugh about it afterwards, giving high-fives and talking about how bloody good this job is. Bloody good, but awfully scary too.