The bushfire period has just commenced and the residents of the Blue Mountains are reminded to stay alert and be prepared to act should fires be directed their way. Bush fires have accounted for over 800 deaths in Australia since 1851 and the total accumulated cost in damages is estimated at $2.5 billion according to the Bureau of Transport and Economics report. Just recently in Springwood 193 houses were burnt down, 109 damaged and over 3623 hectares went up in flames. Hundreds of firemen were engaged in battling the flames and some of them were injured in the process.
Laurie McCracken, Captain of the NSW Fire and Rescue team in Wentworth Falls and member of the Wentworth Falls Country Club, has been involved in fighting fires and protecting homes for over 25 years. His involvement in the community is admirable and noteworthy. Constantly on call and managing a team of over a dozen firefighters, Laurie takes us through his vocation, his achievements and a few tips on how to be prepared for the bushfire season.
Laurie McCracken is a Blue Mountains native, born in Katoomba and having lived in Wentworth Falls since 1974. He explains how, at a very young age, he watched firefighters in 1957 from a window at St Canice’s Primary School in Katoomba while they attempted to contain the mighty force of the bush fires that claimed over 600 homes in the Blue Mountains. These bush fires were arguably the most devastating this area has ever witnessed and most certainly not the only incident that has happened over the years.
As a young boy Laurie remembers watching the firefighters in awe and remembering the heroic actions that allowed many lives to be saved during that tragic series of episodes. In his early manhood he was introduced to the world of firefighters by his uncle who was a well-respected fireman in the local community. From that day he found his vocation to help the community.
Laurie joined the NSW Fire and Rescue in Wentworth Falls as a volunteer in 1986 and progressed through the ranks from engine keeper to Deputy Captain in 1998 and all the way to Captain in 2011 after 25 years of service.
Laurie McCracken was awarded a commendation for his efforts leading a team in Task Force Valentine for 5 days during the Victorian bush fires in 2009.
Many Australians will remember these fires as The Black Saturday bush fires where a series of fires ignited and were burning across the Australian state of Victoria on and around Saturday, 7 February 2009. The fires occurred during extreme bushfire-weather conditions and resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bushfire; 173 people died and 414 were injured as a result of the fires.
As many as 400 individual fires were recorded on 7 February. Following the events of 7 February 2009 and its aftermath, that day has become widely referred to as Black Saturday.
It was estimated that the amount of energy released during the firestorm in the Kinglake-Marysville area was equivalent to the amount of energy that would be released by 1,500 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs according to Gary Hughes from The Australian. However direct comparisons between explosives and fires in units of energy released is meaningless, as explosives release their energy almost instantly in a fast pulse, in contrast to a fire, which releases its energy far more slowly – over minutes, hours and days.
Beyond the casualty list detailed above, physical damage caused by the bush fires included: 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt, 7,562 people displaced and over 3,500 structures destroyed.
Laurie has received many other commendations for his involvement in fighting fires in and around New South Wales including Lithgow and Woodford.
What are the main factors effecting bushfires
A bushfire is a fire that burns in grass, bush or woodland and can threaten life, property and the environment. Where the suburbs or urban development meet the rural lands is of particular concern to fire services as it places a great number off our community at high risk from bushfire each year.
Fuel – Anything that burns is fuel for a fire, in particular leaf litter (which is the accumulation of leaves, twigs, bark and rubbish on the ground), undergrowth (shrubs, grass, seedlings), trees and other vegetation. Other structures (such as houses, stables, sheds etc.) are also considered fuel and any other object that will burn when exposed to flames; such as gas bottles, piles of firewood, tyres, etc.
When we talk about fuels we often refer to their height. This is because fuels are found on the ground all the way up to the top of the trees, and where there are fuels fire can burn so fires can be quite small but can also reach up to 30 metres. An important term to understand is ladder fuels, which is any vegetation that grows between the ground fuel up to about 2 metres. This vegetation provides a path, or ladder, for a fire to travel up, taking the flames from the ground right up into the tree tops, essentially growing the fire from 1-2 metre flames right up to 30 metre flames.
Weather – Weather plays a major role in the severity of bush fires. The hotter and dryer the weather is, the more likely it is for a bush fire to start and spread quickly. Most bush fires start in the afternoon, when it is driest and hottest.
Wind speed and humidity – Wind speed can influence a bush fire by pushing the fire forward, the stronger the wind the faster the bush fire can spread. Wind can also dry out the air by reducing the moisture, this is called “low humidity”. When there is low humidity the danger of dry lightning (lightning from a storm that brings little or no rain) starting a bushfire is very high.
Topography / slope – Topography is the slope of the land and it plays a major factor in bushfire behaviour. Very simply, a bushfire will move up much faster up a slope and slow down as it goes down a slope. With all factors being equal, a bushfire will actually double the rate at which it spreads for each 10 degrees that a slope increases.
If bushfire threatens your home here are some precautionary steps as recommended by the Fire and Rescue Service and Laurie.
1. Preparing your home
– Regularly clean leaves from gutters and fit quality metal leaf guards. Screen vents on roof voids with fine metal wire mesh.
– Keep woodpiles and other flammable materials well away from the house and covered.
– Keep your lawn short and the backyard tidy, free from any build up of flammable material.
– Consider purchasing a portable pump to use from your swimming pool or water tank.
2. In case of evacuation
– Turn off gas and power.
– Close all doors and windows and block gaps with wet towels or blankets.
– Move flammable curtains and furniture away from windows.
– Notify a neighbour, friend or the local authorities of your new address.
3. Survival kit: should include the following items:
– A portable battery radio, torch and spare batteries; water containers, dried or canned food and a can opener;
– Matches, fuel lamp, portable stove, cooking gear, eating utensils; and
– A first aid kit and manual, masking tape for windows and waterproof bags.
4. During the fire
– Wear protective clothing such as enclosed shoes, wool or cotton full-length clothing for protection, a hat and gloves. Close all windows and doors.
– Have eye and breathing protection.
– Ensure all family members and pets consume enough water to prevent dehydration.
– Ensure that someone has notified the fire brigade by ringing 000.
– Do not under any circumstances leave the house while the flame front moves through.
5. After the fire
– You can go outside and extinguish any spot fires in gutters etc.
– Beware of any electric power lines that may have dropped on the ground.
– If you cannot extinguish the fire move all family members to a burnt out area.
– If you have to leave your home because the fire has left it unsafe, protect the fire site from any further damage by weather, theft or vandalism. Do not leave the site unsecured.
Its thanks to the hard work, vigilance and dedication of people like Laurie McCracken that lives and homes are saved in our communities during bushfire periods, year after year. The forecast for this year is fairly bleak as this past week has registered some of the worst fires in the past decade. If you have a comment or a story to share please comment below and the Wentworth Falls Country Club will be sure to pass it on to our local hero: Laurie McCracken.
Be vigilant, be prepared and be safe.