02 January, 2020

Wingello - Situation Summary 1 January 2020

In order to help explain the current situation we are facing, I needed a longer post to provide a briefing for family and friends both in Australia and overseas. This is an overview so there is not much point observing I have a date or number slightly out. The overall story of Wingello presented here is based on all that I have read and discussed with locals over the last 20 years.


Wingello is a small village half way between Sydney and Canberra in the Southern Highlands of NSW. That is all you will get from the local shire's tourism information, responsible for directing visitors to our area. We are not one of the larger or more popular destinations and so are mostly left alone.
The Wikipedia entry is reasonably accurate.
Wingello was originally settled about 150 years ago with convict labour and mainly relied on timber and the railways for local work. For quite a while up until 1965 it also had a very busy fruit growing business with orchards, packing plants and more. The current population is around 400 to 500 and is considered a "micro township" in many planning departments.
A view of the Wingello Village Store
There is one General store and post office which we have run for almost 11 years. All mail comes to the store and villagers need to pop in and collect their mail. This makes the whole mail system very personal where you pop in and often before you can ask we are already getting your mail as we know who you are. The shop is also a central point where locals and visitors gather for a cup of coffee, food and companionship, with a number of impromptu groups gathering for scrabble or just social get togethers regularly. Life is lived at a country pace and there is enough room in the store so patrons can just hang around as long as they wish (until closing time).
We are home to a marvellous slice of Australian life. Villagers are from all walks of life, beliefs, social backgrounds, incomes and more. Typically you can live your way in Wingello so long as you let everyone else do the same and it is a great place to be. We have found the primary strength of Wingello is the truly diverse background of its residents, those that consider Wingello home and are willing to make their mark in ways big and small that makes Wingello their place. This can be as small as maintaining their garden or talking with their neighbour, up to volunteering in the fire brigade, school or village organisations or just being Santa Claus for one time. Each little bit by each villager adds to what makes Wingello great in our eyes.

Wingello Fire History:

The name "Wingello" means "The Burning Place" (or equivalent) in aboriginal. This is a very appropriate name considering in 1939 and 1965 over half of the village was destroyed by bush fire.
Like all country towns and villages we have our own fire brigade. This is a volunteer organisation with all the vehicles, equipment and protective gear provided by the State based government organisation - NSW Rural Fire Service. The RFS provides all equipment up to pretty rigid Australian Safety Standards. Local brigades often then do their own fund raising to obtain higher graded or supplementary gear they consider would help them fight fires and save lives better. The local "Firies" are not only responsible for fighting fires, but also assisting in Motor Vehicle Accidents and other emergency services in our local area.
In 1998 bush fires threatened the town. Deputy Fire Captain David Quinlivan died when the water tanker he was driving was overrun by fire. Turning the tanker around to bear the brunt of the flames, David saved the lives of his colleagues but lost his own life. During the blaze seven of David's colleagues suffered serious injuries.
This led to a change in the members of the brigade and a much higher focus on regular training. The current brigade is very well trained and has a lot of fire fighting and accident experience.
Traditionally, devastating fires have always hit Wingello from the west, backed by a hot North Westerly wind pushing flames and embers at incredible speeds, travelling the distance from the highway 7 km (5 miles) away in less than 10 minutes. Pretty much all our defences and plans are based on that basis. If a fire appears South of us, it is not a concern as the fire will only be pushed our way by a Southerly wind which is cold and moist which normally puts the fire out. The Southerly winds are normally great events where a hot day of 40C (104F) pops down to 20C (68F) in about 20 minutes with lovely cooling fog quickly rolling in.
The Currowan fire from our side of the gorge
about an hour before the wind change.

About Australian Bush fires:

The majority of Australian native trees are designed to propagate after fire. Eucalyptus (gum) trees drop branches, twigs and dry leaves all year creating lovely kindling all around. In times of drought, they save themselves by dropping excess branches and massive limbs to keep the core still alive with available water. That is why many gum trees are known as "widow makers" due to men resting under one on a hot summer day and not waking after a massive limb drops on them.
When we have a drought, Australia really makes the word mean something. For as long as we have records - and that includes verbal history of the aborigines - Australia has always been a place of flood, drought, fire and great natural beauty. We have had drought and bushfires throughout written history here.
Every year we don't have a fire, the amount of fuel (kindling created by gum trees and undergrowth) increases, making the next fire that much more intense. Traditionally this has been managed by controlled burning so that the fires are less severe, and flora and fauna have better chances to survive and regrow. The fire authorities have been warning us to expect a really bad fire season for at least five years. It hasn't happened so all the fuel loads have built up to disastrous levels.
Now add in a rather severe drought. In Wingello we normally get rain of around 1,000mm (40 inches) a year. This is enough to support every one's water needs via rainfall. We do not have "town" water - all our water is supplied by rainfall, hitting our roof and flowing into our drinking water tanks.
2017 and 2018 had rain around 700mm (28 inches). Last year (2019) we only had 400mm (16 inches). Other places in our state of New South Wales (NSW) have had even worse rain levels.
This has meant soil moisture levels at tragically low levels.
Throughout NSW and most of Australia, much of our forest areas are in hilly and almost inaccessible country. Over the last five years these areas have been building up for a major fire. Imagine surrounding your house with specially designed kindling which only takes a spark to turn into a raging inferno. Welcome to the start of this year's fire season.

The current situation.

In September, early in our traditional fire season, fires started during in North NSW and Queensland. Lightning was the cause of many of the early fires. Since then arsonists - either malicious or oblivious - have caused many more of the fires. They are STILL burning today.
Many more fires have started since then. Some have been able to be contained and stopped, but many CANNOT be stopped as the fuel levels and moisture content in the soil makes the fire IMPOSSIBLE to stop. All fire fighters can do is their best to contain damage to people, homes and property.
The total area now burned since September is an area greater than the size of Belgium. The 2019 California fires burnt around 215,000 acres. In NSW we have burned around 21,000,000 acres and we're not finished yet.

Danger to Wingello

Click to make the picture bigger
For the last few months we have been monitoring the fire situation through the app FiresNearMe. This shows the status of all the fires in NSW and how much has been burned. Have a look and see the extent of CURRENT fires. Once a fire is out it is no longer displayed. The blackened areas represent the area the fire has covered. Typically the edges are still active, but spot fires often continue within the blackened centres.
This has worked really well until the last few weeks when it has become overloaded with so many fires raging out of control and so many people now affected. To the South West of us a small fire began and we recognised that it was South so wouldn't be a problem. Then it grew and on one day doubled in size. Suddenly we became more concerned. Between it - the "Currowan" fire - and us is the Shoalhaven Gorge. This normally should keep it from us.
But this is a time of new fire lessons for everyone. The normally cold and moist Southerly winds were only cooler, but dry. It was hitting the hot air of the fire and pushing it along, sending embers (burning leaves, twigs and small branches) kilometres ahead of the fire and spreading it closer to us.
Then on New Year's Eve the weather dropped from the mid 30's (90F) as the Southerly hit. In 90 seconds, the air went from a lovey Summer blue to grey and then red mud brown smoke. Breathing was difficult and eyes staring stinging from the smoke.
Rudy, a very experienced fire fighter, helping us water down
nearby combustibles before a potential ember attack.
This is at 4pm in Summer. Note how dark it is.
We thought we were ready - and in many ways we were - but the reality was much stronger than our mental preparations had expected. We have read all the literature and information provided by the RFS, listened to the verbal instructions and advice of experienced fire fighters and locals and knew mentally what to expect. But even so, the reality was a powerful hit. And this was only a prelude. We didn't get the ember attack and the fires were still over 10km on the other side of the gorge.
Our preparations included:
  • Ensuring all our water tanks are full
  • Fuel operated high pressure water pump attached to multiple hoses and the water tank. No point relying on power which is the first thing to go when power lines get cut from dropped branches or trees or poles are burnet.
  • Protective gear of smoke mask, goggles, helmet, cotton or wool clothing covering all skin, gloves and so on.
  • All combustible material removed from near the house and area to be defended.
  • Buckets and bath tubs filled with water to help put out embers.

But the sudden onslaught of smoke and wind meant breathing was difficult and eyes started to stream. It was worse than cutting onions!
The aim is to defend against Ember Attack. We do not have any tree lines in range of us to threaten a wall of flame so we will be defending our home and the store. if we had large trees in range we would be leaving. Defending a burning wall of trees in these conditions is almost impossible.
With so many fire attacks on towns and villages across NSW, Wingello and our neighbouring villages of Penrose and Tallong are pretty much on our own with each village's local brigades and the NSW Forestry firefighters all we have to defend against this fire. This same fire is already attacking and destroying homes and towns on its Eastern and Southern edges affecting many more people than our little home.

What now?

The Wingello Village Store defenders
We are upgrading our protective gear and getting ready for the next danger day, Saturday 4 Jan. The temperatures are expected to rise to 42C (108F) and then once the Southerly hits, drop to 26C (78F). The heat will make the fire hotter and spread on all sides, then if the wind is strong enough, it will pick up burning leaves, twigs and even branches and send them flying across the gorge into the State forest South of us, potentially starting spot fires. The fire brigade and forestry fire fighters have bulldozed through access tracks that will allow them to have a safer forward fighting position and hopefully give them the ability and reach to stomp on spot fires before they catch. But as mentioned, the dry nature of the soil, undergrowth and trees makes this a difficult fight.

To all our friends and family in Australia and overseas, your prayers do make a difference. "The prayer of a just man avails much" [James 5:16] 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the well-written history of your area. It is frightening to think of the fires around you. Please know that we will be praying for all of you to be safe from harm. God bless you.

Valerie said...

Thank you for sharing your story and insights. Stay safe

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this up!

Anna May said...

Very enlightening. Living on the opposite side of the world, but very concerned about people I know living in your area, it told me so much about everyday life as well as the nature of the cyclical threat posed by the combination of terrain and weather. What you said about the build up of combustible material helped me understand why your primeminister argues that this is not global warming. What you said about preparations and the nature of the threat - burning materials etc - helped me understand why people have opted to stay and defend their homes. Understanding doesn't make me any less horrified by a situation what is almost unimaginable to those of living on a rainy, almost incombustible island! My thoughts will be with you until this season ends.