~Fighting Bushfires In The Kimberley~

Written and posted on-line 26th February 2011

So how has a fire crew of one to two people managed to fight Bushfires on the ground out here at Mt Hart in The Kimberley of North West Australia, over the past 20 years?

One of the most important factors has always been to take preventative measures, early in the year during the cooler months of April, May and June. We grade fire breaks early in the year around the perimeter of the homestead surrounds, which gives us a means of fighting ravaging wildfires & provides some element of protection. But in the heat of the day in November, when temperatures reach 40 degrees plus, uncontrollable and destructive mountain and grassland fires can still jump these roads very easily due to the sheer height and intensity of the flames.

Late in the dry season during November and December, the wildfires fierce flames average seven meters in height. Most years this flaming fiery behemoth travels from The Gibb River Road (50km away) all the way up to the Mt Hart Homesteads. This blazing inferno consumes everything in its path, leaving the country a desolate wasteland of charred ash, burnt trees, and smoldering stumps.

When we see the flames high on the horizon, in order to stop infrastructure loss, and in order to protect our own lives, the two of us do what has to be done – we prepare to stand and fight. The flames radiate incredibly intense heat, and spew tones of shimmering gases, sparks & smoke into the air as they consume the countryside. The air becomes thick with smoke, making it hard to breathe, and stinging our eyes. The Department OF Environment and Conservation of Western Australia provide us with a fire fighting trailer and tank unit which holds 400 liters of water.

We have to keep driving back up to the homestead to keep refilling this fire fighting tank unit, whilst a blazing fiery inferno tears down on our back door step.

Often, by the time we get back to the fire front, after refilling the water tank on the fire fighting trailer, the wildfires have spread even closer to the infrastructure we are trying to protect and ultimately save… But we keep on going, because if we don’t the whole place will burn...

In order to stop the fierce flames jumping the road next to the homesteads, we go up and down this road with the fire trailer wetting down vegetation that has caught on fire along the edges of the road. This stops any debris, that has caught alight, flying across the road on the wind and setting fire to the vegetation that borders the homesteads on the other side of the road.

When paper bark trees catch on fire really close by the homesteads we put the fire on them out, in order to stop the wind carrying any flaming bark that could set any dry grass & vegetation alight surrounding the homesteads.

We also back burn off the road near the homesteads with a fire torch, towards the blazing fire front that is bearing down upon us. This creates a burnt out section of country, which stops the wildfire from travelling any closer towards the road, and stops the fire from jumping the road.

Once we have the fire under control on one front, we drive along the fire break tracks around the perimeter of the homestead, and start fighting the fires coming in towards us from the other fronts. We normally have two cars, so that one of us can drive back (in between fighting the fires coming in on the next front) to check the sections of burnt country bordering the fire break roads. This needs to be done because sometimes the fire can accidentally jump the road in places that we think are ‘secure’ due to a smouldering bit of debris, and a strong wind.

When bushfires occur out here, we can spend up to 2 days fighting fires. By the time we finish, very late in the afternoon, we are totally exhausted and gagging for a beer.

It’s times like these you hope and pray rain will come, to put out the flames, lay the ash, and give some relief from the dry intense smoky heat. After the wildfires have completely ravaged the surrounding wilderness, the flies become really thick for a couple of weeks, due to the lack of vegetation. Populations of grass dwelling native wildlife such as wallaby populations, and grass nesting bird life such as quails…vanish. We go through this together, nearly every year - we fight to survive and defend Mt hart homesteads and gardens, against a raging fiery inferno.

And this is just one example of the battles, the risks and dangers we face out here. But despite it all we have stayed the distance, met the goals and expectations of The Department of Environment and Conservation of Western Australia, and literally given everything to this place and to the country. This story is just one example of how Mt Hart holds many memories, and some relate to extreme pressure.

We spent 12 hard, relentless hours fighting the last lot of bushfires that completely devastated the pristine wilderness country up here in late November 2010. After we had finished fighting the flaming behemoth for the day, Kim took the trike I built for her, out for a spin on the airstrip to try and get some much needed relief from all the flies & smoke, whilst I made my way to the beer fridge...

Kim started yelling out to the clear blue skies above her, over the noise of the engine of her trike;

“Rain…rain…please rain…”

After about 2 runs up the airstrip doing this, there was a deafeningly loud “crack”, and a very bright flash, as a lightning bolt came down and struck the ground just across from Kim on the other side of the airstrip.

We have since found out that this type of lightning is known as “blue lightning”. Even though there weren't any clouds directly above Kim or in the sky near her, “Blue lightning” is where lightening travels through the air well in advance of a storm front - sometimes up to 20 plus miles in front.

Kim started screaming, and quickly rode the trike I built her, back to the shelter and safety of a nearby shed. Within a few minutes rain came bucketing down for well over an hour. The remaining fires were put out, and the ash was laid.

And this is just one story we have out of 100's, about the awesome power of the forces of nature at Mt Hart, about the power nature has to heal itself, and the transcendent experiences that happen out here.