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Surviving An Australian Firestorm – February 1983

by Dave Blakely (Missoula ’57) |

Project Leader Chuck George and I had been working with the wildfire research division of CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Org.) on a prescribed fire project near Busselton, Western Australia. We had been there about four weeks measuring the effectiveness of fire retardant chemicals on local wildland fuels. We were also perfecting methods for more retardant tests using the delivery system in a DC-6 air tanker a year later in southeastern Australia. We were now starting our trip back to Montana with a couple of stops along the way. We flew into Melbourne and were met by David Packham, one of Australia’s renowned wildland fire researchers.

We knew from newscasts that there were high winds and numerous wildfires in progress all across southeastern Australia. It was very hot. Driving from the airport in Packham’s car was an experience. His air conditioner did not function and the outside temp stood at 114 F. Rolling the windows down for cooler air was out of the question because it was like a blast furnace in your face, so we rode with the windows up. You would think that we would get wet with perspiration, but it was so dry the moisture just evaporated as it oozed into our clothes.

After checking into a motel outside Melbourne, we proceeded toward David’s home on the outskirts of Upper Beaconsfield. The going be- came increasingly slower because of traffic backed up along the highway. We soon stopped completely because all thru traffic was being diverted less than a half-mile from where a major fire was cross- ing the highway. After creeping along for several minutes, Packham realized that we were going to be diverted, so he pulled to the side, parked, and walked a short distance to speak to the patrolman who was directing traffic. It wasn’t long before he was back and said we would have to wait because the fire was crossing the road just ahead. Packham was worried. His wife, Helen, was at home and would not know of the lingering danger, even after the fire front had passed the house. Packham knew there was the chance of a sudden, dangerous wind shift, characteristic of SE Australia extreme fire weather situations.

Packham decided to approach the patrolman again, but this time he had a better story. He had me dig my Forest Service uniform shirt from my bag, put it on, and step outside the car to stretch my legs so that I was visible to the patrolman. Packham then approached the patrolman and told him that he was a CSIRO fire researcher and was doing a study of wildland fires with two Yank forest fire specialists, and we needed to get into the fire area. Looking up the road and seeing the badges and patches on my shirt, the patrolman was convinced and we were allowed to proceed. We drove into the area where the fire front had just passed. This fire had been burning for several hours and had consumed a path about half a mile wide and eventually 16 miles long. There was still a lot of smoke and fire from houses and outbuildings that had been mostly consumed. We passed completely across the fire area and, after several minutes, arrived at Packham’s house and met a very concerned Helen.

The fire was still a few miles west of us and moving toward the southeast, but on the side of caution, we began to do some preparation for a fire arriving. Chuck and I used shovels to cover the exposed plastic water pipe that ran downhill from the cistern, the only water source for the house. I was amazed at how hard it was to walk through the thick, meter high grass that covered the area. The inside bathtub was filled, and the outside hot tub was already full. To cool off after working, the four of us had a beer as we sat on the roof of the house. From there we could see a small town not too distant being totally consumed by another fire. Sometime during that period, a neighbor came over to talk with fire expert Pack- ham. The neighbor’s house was about 200 meters away. It had a metal roof and window shutters. The neighbor was somewhat troubled because he had brought his wife and newborn baby home from the hospital that day. Packham assured him that if a fire came this way, he could button down tight and they would be just fine.

Packham was anxious about the fire we had driven through earlier in the afternoon, so we all drove up the hill to an open area. There were several cars and a lot of people watching the glow from the distant fire. We all stood around discuss- ing what we were seeing and what we had seen. When we arrived at the open spot, it was light enough to see cars and people because of the distant glow all across the horizon. Suddenly it was as though a window shade was being pulled from the ground upward, and the bright glow rapidly turned into darkness, so dark we could hardly see the people around us. Packham knew what was happening. Of all the people there, he was prob- ably the only one who knew that there had been a cold front passage! He exclaimed to everyone in earshot that the wind had changed direction and the distant fire was now coming directly at us. The thick smoke and dust was now being blown toward us, and it blocked the glow of the flames behind. We all started stumbling back to our cars that were difficult to find until someone switched on headlights. We jumped into our car and sped back to the house to await something like we and few people have ever experienced and lived to tell about. This troublesome fire had suddenly changed from being a half-mile wide and 16 miles long to an ugly monster that was 16 miles wide and furiously burning its way to several miles deep.

We had not been back at the house long when we started to hear a low rumble and small embers began falling. Very soon it was raining embers. Chuck and I were outside with shovels trying to extinguish all the spot fires that were starting in the tall grass. We had no concept of what was about to happen. The embers were getting bigger and bigger and more numerous. Spot fires were all around us, and the rumble had become a rapidly increasing roar. I asked Chuck about the wisdom of our staying where we were, and he said he trusted Packham and his knowledge of the apparent situation. At that time, I was not very acquainted with Packham’s background. Besides, it was probably much too late to run to safer places. Those were wise decisions that we would soon appreciate.

Finally, the embers were fist size, and we could no longer attend to the numerous and growing spot fires. The sound of the approaching fire was also getting much louder, like several freight trains rolling down the track. When we finally decided to get into the house, it was almost too late. Suddenly, there was fire all around, and as we ran onto the deck and to the door, hand-sized fire embers were falling on us. I went through the door and Chuck followed. As he came through the door opening, embers were swirling in all around him. So I tried to minimize the invading embers by pulling the door drape across the opening. About then, Chuck shut the glass door on the drape and the glass cracked. When we opened the door to clear the drape, fire blew in and he quickly closed it. We both felt bad about cracking the glass, not imagining the same was about to happen throughout the entire house.

Happy to be inside, we watched as the entire outside world became red and yellow with flames. The noise was so loud we could hardly hear each other speak. Packham started, and we all helped, to rip down the fabric drapes and move the fabric covered furniture as far as possible from the large picture windows. Shortly afterward, these large windows started cracking because of the extreme outside heat, but fortunately they stayed in their frames. Had they broken into pieces the four of us would probably have been incinerated in short order. It became very hot inside, but the radiant heat, having been reduced by the windows, was not enough to ignite the flammable materials inside the house, including us homo sapiens. During some of this time, Chuck and I were snapping a few photos.

We were all together in the living room, rather startled at what we were experiencing and surprised by the increasing inside temperature. As the tall grass and trees flamed, it was very bright inside the house. We were beginning to think everything might be okay, but suddenly acrid smoke filled the room, and the four of us began desperately trying to find a place with clean air to breathe. Breathing was almost impossible; it was so painful. We choked and coughed, and our eyes burned so much that we had to keep them almost closed as we wandered about. David and Helen went to a low area in the living room and lay on the floor, Chuck went into the bathroom, shut the door and put towels under it to block the smoke. I ran around the divider into the kitchen and grabbed a handy dishtowel, wet it, and tried to breath with reduced pain. I soon found that breathing fast through wet cloth is sorta difficult.

During this time, I was looking through the kitchen windows. I saw an 8N tractor about 40 feet from the house in total flames. There was no vertical component to the flames. They were totally horizontal because of the 60 to 80 mph winds. The magnesium alloy frame ignited and the tractor collapsed into two pieces. This is also about when the brass caps on two large propane bottles melted away, and the bottles spewed flames uphill. They sounded like jet aircraft engines taking off. Had the bottles fallen, as the shed collapsed, and spewed flame downhill, large holes would have been burned into the side of the house, starting fires inside that we probably would not have been able to control.

As I looked out at the raging flames, I had serious thoughts about whether or not we were going to survive. I wondered exactly why I was there? I thought of my family and that my wife had no idea where I was. (No cell phones in ’83.) She knew that I was in Australia, but she had been sending mail to Busselton, Western Australia, not Upper Beaconsfield in southeast Australia. More thoughts went through my mind about us being burned to a crisp, and no one would be able to identify the extra two people in the house, much less identify them as Yanks from Montana. (Per- haps my FS Badge would survive and give some- one a clue.) And Chuck’s wife in Missoula was newly pregnant with their first.

After ten minutes or so, the acrid smoke was diluted and replaced by just wood and grass smoke. We were able to breath easier, but still with burning throats and lungs. We determined later that the noxious, acrid smoke came from a black plastic tarp that covered a pile of lumber near the end of the house. The smoke had come through a window that had cracked and part of the pane fell out. Every window in the house was cracked, but fortunately only the one in the bedroom fell out and let smoke into the house.

As breathing became easier, David and Helen started searching for the Yanks. They found Chuck leaving the bathroom because it was becoming untenable. They found me with my head under the kitchen sink still looking for fresher air. We all were in the kitchen now and finally discussing our options. To our surprise, a flame began to appear in the roof ridge above the kitchen sink. Packham’s house was built purposely to withstand a wildfire. The floor was made of bricks set in sand, the walls were stucco in and out, and the roof was metal with no ceiling. The flames were from burning leaves that had blown under the metal roof cap. I climbed onto the kitchen cabinet, dipped water from the sink with a small plastic cup, and threw it at the flames. It took half a dozen cups to extinguish.

Our plan now became preventing the house from burning down around us and surviving this bizarre ordeal. Packham checked the inside of the house, found the broken window and covered the hole by taping foil-wrapped cardboard over it. We then started carrying water from the bathtub with a mop bucket to quench the fire in the woodpile. I remember filling a bucket from the bathtub, going to the door, taking in as much breath as possible and holding it. Then I would then squint my eyes, follow the side of the house to the burning woodpile, throw the water onto the flames, and run back for more breathable air and water. It was very hot out there and impossible to close my eyes enough to stop the irritation and still see in the very thick smoke.

This went on for several minutes. When we ran out of bathtub water, we started dipping from the outside hot tub. We had gotten that fire nearly out when Packham discovered that another pile of lumber, lying against the house on the kitchen side, was burning fiercely and was about to burn through the kitchen door. The fire brigade then began a new mission with similar procedures. This time it was David who opened the door as the water bucket arrived, and we did not have to go outside to apply the liquid. In fact, as we applied the first few bucketsful, the flames and smoke were blowing into the house.

By now the flame front had passed, and all the tall, thick grass was totally gone. Standing eucalyptus tree trunks were still burning and giving off a lot of smoke. Then very inconveniently, I began to have a dire need to go to the bathroom - a number two. There was no water for flushing the toilet. Despite all our efforts to bury the plastic water pipe, it had melted and burned. I definitely had to quickly find a latrine. I rolled off a handful of tissue paper and went off into the smoking countryside. It was 2 a.m. I wanted to get far enough away from the house so I could not be seen squatting there amongst the flame
and smoke. I stumbled amongst the glowing logs wondering that if I succumbed to the smoke or fell into a hot stump hole, how long would it be before my charred remains were found? I rapidly did my deed there amongst the burning embers.

I do not know for sure, but strongly suspect that all that excitement and breathing and swallowing smoke got to my digestive tract. (Things like this really aren’t supposed to happen to an ex-smokejumper/ex-navigator/pilot who had survived flying at low levels with dead and/or dying engines through heavy turbulence in thunderstorms, typhoons and mountain passes. Must have been the meat pie and Emu Bitters I had on Qantas.)

We had all survived! We stood around assessing the fire’s damage, giddy with the knowledge that we would live to see our loved ones again. Pack- ham was still a bit worried so he went off through the glowing countryside to check on the neighbors’ wellbeing. On David’s return, we learned that the neighbors had survived the fire without a scratch. They had closed the windows and shutters, and no smoke had even entered their house. Newborn baby and Mom were fine. While David was gone, the three of us kept extinguishing small fires, smoldering boards, and embers around the property.

At some point during the fire passage, Chuck had the foresight to take a few more pictures. The pictures he took through the large picture windows are no less than spectacular! Bright flaming and glowing of individual fires with the bright glow of the fire front as it proceeded beyond us and into other homes and lives with death and destruction. Chuck regretted that he had not taken pictures as the fire was surrounding us with 200 feet high flames, but during that time we were just trying to stay alive. Pictures taken later show the badly scorched house and hot tub in a landscape completely devoid of anything besides blackened tree trunks. Packham’s car that we arrived in was parked on the downwind side of the house. Surprisingly, it had survived the heat with only some scorching and one melted plastic tail light cover.

The three of us went for a walk around the neighborhood to check out the destruction. We found no people. All had left in time and were safe elsewhere, or they left their houses too late and were caught and overcome on the roadways. We saw houses and outbuildings that were burned completely to the ground, ones that were burning furiously, and those that were just starting to burn. Had some of the occupants stayed and survived, as we had done, they possibly would have been able to save their house with a few pails of water or shovels of dirt. At one place, we took time to try to extinguish a small fire that was burning into the side of a large, very nice house. We found nothing to use to fight the fire. Beside the house was a large propane tank that was being threatened. Understandably, once knocks on locked doors went unanswered, we did not stay long. The next day when we drove by, that house was completely burned to the ground.

After our survey of the damage to the neighborhood, we returned to Helen’s house where she had discovered that the pancake batter she had mixed for dinner had been cooked by the hot air in the house. David and Helen wanted to stay with their house for several reasons, but Chuck and I decided to go back to the small town where we had checked into the motel after our arrival. Thank goodness Chuck had made this trip before and knew where we were going, because I was totally lost in the dark and totally changed landscape. On our way out, we saw several burned-out cars that had been abandoned beside and in the road. We never found out the fate of their occupants.

It was getting along toward daylight when we arrived at the motel. The owners were quite concerned about our condition when we checked in and told them what we had been through. They had heard much from the newscasts and understood the seriousness. They told us about the loss of human and animal life and property. We learned later that 75 people had died that day in fires in South Australia and Victoria, plus thousands of livestock and hundreds of destroyed homes. Twenty-one people had died in the Upper Beaconsfield Fire.

We tried to get some rest, but our eyes were burning so badly and we were coughing so much, sleep was near impossible. Finally, we gave up on sleep and headed back to Packham’s. On the way, we stopped at a special aid station that had been set up to treat victims of the fire(s). We got the spirometer test, which indicated we had severe loss of lung function. We also got some medicine that helped lessen the difficulty of breathing, and eye drops made it easier to see with severely irritated eyeballs.

We were with Packham for three days. He had planned this but had not, in his wildest dreams, thought it would be under these circumstances. We were treated like honored guests many times because we were known as survivors with the Packham’s in their house. We were given guided tours by fire officials in several areas where other fires had done similar property and forest destruction, but not nearly as much loss of human lives. Some of the larger fires were still burning, but OUR fire was mostly out. It had made its big run in a matter of a couple of hours or so. The wind had died after the front passed, and the extreme fire behavior was over. And over (almost) for two Yanks that had just been in the right place at the right time. Chuck and I used to say we would do it all over again if we knew our outcome would be the same. The only difference - take a lot more pictures. Nah! I don’t think so.

After leaving Australia, we had scheduled an enroute trip to Tahiti for two days. We got to Tahiti at about 7 a.m., checked into the motel, ate breakfast, and headed for the beach. We had not slept much in several days. We went down and lay on the beach and with the sound of the waves and wind in the palm trees, we finally slept. One problem - big problem. Palm trees do not give a lot of shade and shade moves, and two very light- skinned Yanks from Montana with sun-sensitive skin got tooooo much sun. We spent two days touring the main island with road maps blocking our burned bodies and bare legs from the beating sun. We bought out the city of Papeete of all the Solarcaine in stock. When we were not touring in the rented Citron, we were under the motel air conditioner applying more Solarcaine! The beach and swimming had totally lost their luster.

Arriving back in Missoula, we were met at the airport by our wives, who had not heard from us in more than a week. They had many questions - why our feet were so swollen, why we arrived with no shoes on, why the whites of our eyes were so red, why we couldn’t give a hello kiss without coughing, and especially, why we didn’t want hugs with loving, welcoming arms wrapped around our shoulders and touching our backs?