Bushfire smoke wipes out 2020 vintage at several Canberra district wineries


While the haze blanketing Canberra has finally lifted, local wineries are only just beginning to feel the effects of months of smoky air.

At its worst, Canberra’s air quality reading during the bushfire period topped 7,000 — anything over 200 is considered hazardous — and there were 49 days locals were encouraged to stay inside because the air was too smoky.

But for local winemakers, the smoke has had a devastating effect, penetrating their grapes and, for several wineries, destroying their 2020 vintage.

“It’s been pretty devastating actually,” Tim Kirk from Clonakilla Wines, based in Murrumbateman, said.

“We’ve had bushfires before, but this was something else. The fires all around us, we just seemed to cop all of smoke and it hung around for weeks and weeks.

“What happens is it sits on the skins of the grapes and gets sucked into the grapes as they start to ripen. Once you crush the grapes and begin to ferment them, those smoke compounds are released into the wine.

As a result, Mr Kirk and his team, who usually produce between 15,000 and 20,000 cases of wine each year, made the “painful” decision not to have a 2020 vintage.

“The impact is going to be significant, there’s no doubt about that, and it will be quite a heavy financial blow for us,” Mr Kirk said, estimating a loss in the millions of dollars.

“We’re not going to make any wine from this vineyard at Murrumbateman, or indeed any of our vineyards from suppliers that we have in the Hilltop district or the Canberra district.

“We’ve been in this game a long time, it’s 50 years next year. We’ve never actually written off a whole vintage before.”

It is a similar story five minutes down the road at Shaw Wines, where owner Graeme Shaw has also decided to discard his 2020 vintage and feed the grapes to his sheep.

“For our vineyard, it’s through every single variety. There’s not a variety we’re able to pick, unfortunately,” he said.

“The Riesling wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t good. It had quite a harsh taste on it, you could definitely get the smoke, and for a fragrant wine you can’t have that in it.”

Mr Shaw is bracing himself for a twofold financial loss from not producing a vintage, and from the decrease in cellar door visitors because of the smoke.

“There was a definite decrease in foot traffic, probably half of what we would have had this time last year,” he said.

“It’s a bugger, having 12 months of hard work to produce top quality fruit and then having to drop it all; that’s hard. But it’s expected now and then.”

Indeed, while growers are no stranger to weather extremes — Shaw Wines lost their entire 2007 vintage to frost — the variety of weather events throughout December and January have undoubtedly taken their toll.

“It hasn’t been a great year in farming,” Sarah McDougall from the Canberra District Wine Industry Association said.

“This year not only did we have the worst drought we’ve ever had, there was also hail, then water, then smoke taint.

“Some wineries are already calling the harvest, but others are still doing some testing, as we’re all in different stages of ripening. So all is not lost.”

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Kangaroo Island bushfire recovery using GoFundMe fund for koalas


In the minds of Australians and many around the world, this was a terrifying inferno island – helplessly overcome by last year’s bushfires with little left behind.

The deadly bushfires were certainly devastating for Kangaroo Island, a patch of rugged beauty off the South Australian coast.

The flames tore through the western end of the island and claimed 96 per cent of Flinders Chase National Park, arguably its top tourism drawcard.

In total 200 cars, more than 80 homes were burned to the ground and tragically two lives were lost in the inferno.

RELATED: How Snowy Monaro recovered from the flames

RELATED: Things to do at Kangaroo Island, South Australia

But so much of the island was untouched by fire, and a year on, the wilderness is regenerating, wildlife is in abundance, new tourism experiences are launching and even the national park is open again. And locals are very keen to welcome us back.

“The fire impacted about two-thirds of the island,” Sam Florance, Operations manager for Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action, said in an interview for a new video series supporting bushfire affected communities, Open for Business.

“At one stage the whole island was in the red zone which means to evacuate. It impacted absolutely everyone on this island.”

But one of the biggest areas of devastation was the loss of wildlife on the island. Before the fires, Kangaroo Island had between 50,000 to 60,000 koalas living in the bushland, but after the devastation that figure dwindled closer to 5000 to 10,000.

Kangaroo Island Koala Rescue Centre was quick to take in as many injured animals as it could, and in the months following the inferno established itself as a park to care for the wildlife.

“Very quickly we realised there wasn’t anywhere else these animals could go,” Dana Mitchell, director of the centre explained.

“We opened our doors and took anyone who needed care.

“After we started receiving koalas at the start of January, we very quickly realised that we would need help to pay for their ongoing care.

“So we originally opened a GoFundMe campaign to get some donations … and with all the donations we received, we established the Kangaroo Island Koala Rescue Centre which is a functioning charity.

“Ongoing, it’s going to be supporting all the wildlife we have coming through here, and going forward doing a lot of research projects around supporting the koalas.”

The island, which is most popular with international tourists and interstate travellers, has traditionally struggled to attract visitors from South Australia.

But in an interesting twist of fate, border closures during the pandemic helped South Australians rediscover the unique island off their shore, and the next step is to let the rest of Australia know that Kangaroo Island is thriving.

“A lot of the businesses on Kangaroo Island are small businesses that rely on tourism and people visiting us,” Sabrina Davis, founder of Humans of Kangaroo Island said.

“It’s not just about the beautiful beaches or the wildlife or the nature that we have here, but it’s also all about the people.

“Everyone just wants to tell you about the island because it’s just such a hidden gem.”

Mr Florance added the wildlife appeal is what makes the island stand out in Australia.

“Kangaroo Island is magnificent and your one-stop-shop for Australian wildlife,” he said.

“You’re guaranteed to see kangaroos, koalas, we have echidnas over here plus our bushland is absolutely magnificent.

“Our coastline is the best coastline in the world … we have everything here you need.”

– With Lauren McMah

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Black Summer bushfire survivors who lost houses face years-long waits to rebuild


Bushfire survivors in Victoria and NSW are being forced to wait for up to two years to rebuild the homes they lost as the property boom fuels a massive shortfall in builders and building supplies.

It’s a problem facing thousands of homeowners in regional areas, after the Black Summer bushfires at the end of 2019 and start of 2020 destroyed 2448 homes in NSW and more than 700 in Victoria.

Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) managing director Michael Fotheringham said metro-based builders were prioritising city building and renovation jobs, including those being built under the HomeBuilder grant scheme, which have to be started within 18 months of contracts being signed.

The issue had been particularly difficult in regional NSW and Victoria where there were fewer builders, he said.

The long delays are being added to those already caused by the coronavirus pandemic, such as problems accessing building materials.

“If just one builder is swamped in regional Victoria that has a huge impact,” Dr Fotheringham told Domain.

HomeBuilder offered grants of either $25,000 or $15,000 to eligible applicants who were building or renovating a home, prompting record numbers of house and land sales between June last year and March this year, when the scheme ended.

In Victoria, 29,198 applications to build a new home with a HomeBuilder grant were made, while there were 16,266 applications in NSW.

While the building industry is booming, for bushfire-affected communities, the delays are adding to frustrations.

Based near Cobargo, Bega Valley Shire councillor Tony Allen said locals without permanent homes were doing it tough heading into winter this year.

Some residents were having to stay in modular homes where their houses had once stood while they waited for permits and available builders.

“The demand for builders is just so great … and with COVID it’s made everything more difficult,” Cr Allen said. “People are not spending their money on travelling so they’re doing home modifications like redesigning their kitchens and that’s happening as well as all the home building.”

Bega Valley Shire mayor Russell Fitzpatrick said 500 homes had been destroyed in the area, but only 100 people had successfully applied for a development permit and started building again.

“There are still hundreds to go,” Cr Fitzpatrick said. “We don’t have enough planning people at the moment, like every council along the eastern seaboard.

“We have planning people that haven’t taken a holiday in 18 months because they’re just so busy.”

In the Eurobodalla Shire in regional NSW, 500 homes were lost in the Black Summer bushfires. Affected residents there are also facing long waits. Eurobodalla Shire Mayor Liz Innes said there was a massive shortage of builders in the region, adding: “In our shire it is a real issue.”

The delays were also affecting the local rental market, she said. “We were always fairly short in the rental space because of holiday rentals and Airbnb but with 500 houses out of the equation rental accommodation is diabolical at the moment.”

In Victoria, it’s a similar story, with those who lost homes in East Gippsland also struggling to find builders or rental properties.

The region saw 367 dwellings lost to the flames, but only 70 permits to rebuild had been approved, East Gippsland Shire mayor Mendy Urie said.

Domain_Bushfires_-_Blue_Mountains_43_vmfvt2
The bushfires burned through much of Victoria and NSW including the Blue Mountains, pictured. Photo: Helena Dolby

Around 40 short-term modular homes had been delivered to the shire, with 37 of them now occupied, she said.

COVID-19 added a layer of complexity to the bushfire recovery of the area, as many people had struggled to make a decision whether to rebuild while in lockdown, unable to talk to others in the community.

“I think people are rebuilding at their own pace,” Cr Urie said. “Across the communities there’s such a range of where people are up to – some are rebuilding while some are still deciding.”

Along with the delays in obtaining a builder, the extra planning needed to rebuild in bushfire affected areas was also making it more difficult, with extra safety measures and materials needed before rebuilding, she said.

Experts say there are no quick solutions to the building supply and builder issues in bushfire-affected areas. While some supply issues may be solved through extra wood mills opening, a lack of builders could add to delays for some time.

“There are no easy answers,” AHURI’s Dr Fotheringham said. “This is one where the federal government, the states but also industry need to get together to fix the problem.”

The Master Builders Association Victoria added they sympathised with bushfire survivors who were facing long waits.

MBAV chief executive Rebecca Casson said the association was continuing to work with all levels of Government – and industry partners –  to manage supply chain challenges.

“Although HomeBuilder has lifted some demand, supply chain issues are still affecting the pace at which builders and tradespeople can complete work. Specifically, there is a shortage of timber, which is causing significant delays,” Ms Casson said.

“We understand there’s real tension at the moment, and our message to consumers is, please be patient with builders and tradespeople.

“Everyone is trying their best in some very challenging circumstances.”

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After the horrors of the Gippsland blazes, Victoria had a ‘really good’ bushfire season


Under the shadow of COVID-19, Victoria’s latest fire season slipped by almost unnoticed.

After the terrible destruction of the 2019-20 season, it was a welcome relief for Alen Slijepcevic, the CFA deputy chief officer.

The 2020-21 fire season turned out to be moderate, as predicted, with La Ninja bringing wetter than normal conditions.

Fires seldom lasted more than a day and there was plenty of rain.

One of those fires in mid-December last year threatened the communities of Mount Cottrell and Truganina, burning sheds and old cars, but it was quickly brought under control.

There were 1,677 fires between October and March and 9,100 hectares of land was burnt.

The average number of hectares burnt over the past 10 years was about 250,000.

“So [it was] a really good season from that perspective,” Mr Slijepcevic said.

“The largest fire this season was around 200 hectares in comparison to hundreds of thousands of hectares for individual fires in 2019-20.”

Compare that to early 2020: there were 3,067 fires and more than 1.5 million hectares of land was burnt.

Trapped residents eventually had to be evacuated by Navy ships.(

Instagram: @travelling_aus_family

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There were 98 days of fires in Gippsland — three months of continuous smoke, burning, and destruction.

Fires around ten communities including Omeo and Swifts Creek threatened communities for weeks.

Images from Mallacoota of people huddled at the wharf under an eerie red sky waiting to be rescued illustrated the extent of the catastrophe.  

No question climate change is having an impact

This year there was just enough rain to “keep a lid on” the fire season,  Mr Slijepcevic said.

But thanks to climate change, this year’s ‘good’ fire season is likely to be the exception to the rule.  

Mr Slijepcevic said there was no doubt the increased frequency and severity of bad fire seasons was linked to climate change.

Consider the statistics:  before 2004, there were two recorded fires that burnt 1 million hectares of land.

In the past seven years, there have been three of those seasons. 

A lone woman in an orange high-vis vest walks through a burnt forest as blackened gums tower above her.
The 2019-20 fires scorched the landscape and killed many native animals. (

ABC News: Emilia Terzon

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Dealing with fires and COVID would’ve been ‘difficult’

Then consider the implications of a bad fire season coupled with COVID-19.

“If we had a busy fire season in which we had to keep people away from each other, that would be a difficult season to manage,” Mr Slijepcevic told the ABC.

“Our colleagues in the US managed … they had different strategies, keeping people in small teams so it doesn’t go through large teams.

“It is manageable but it would’ve been very difficult.”

Fire by the side of a road in a planned burn between Kennett River and Wye River.
The calmer conditions this year have allowed fire crews do double the amount of planned burning done the previous year.(

ABC News: Cameron Best

)

For example, moving resources around the state, or even interstate as they did with the NSW fires, would have been very difficult.  

Mr Slijepcevic said any downtime this season was spent in preparation for the next one.

All of the fire agency’s procedures were reviewed to work out what would need to change in the event of a COVID outbreak during a fire.

The CFA and Forest Fire Management Victoria have also doubled the number of hectares of planned burns. 

There have been 380 burns so far this year totalling 110,000 hectares.  

Asked what the forecast is for the next season, Mr Slijepcevic said it was about three months too early to know for sure.

The basketball backboard and ring are burnt out, only the metal pole and frame remain. Burnt out buildings are in the background
The 2020 fires destroyed the school in the tiny community of Clifton Creek, north of Bairnsdale.(

ABC News: Billy Draper

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One thing is certain: while it may seem like it was a wet summer it really wasn’t.

“People in Melbourne would probably think this was a really wet year but even in Melbourne it was just an average year,” he said.

“Yes we received more rainfall than previous years but it would still only be an average year for Victoria.

“Conditions are returning to what we’ve been seeing for the last 50 years. There is quite a significant decline in the rainfall, in late autumn and winter, of about 15 per cent less.”

He said the fuels were 35 per cent drier than they were 30 years ago.

So his prediction for the fire season ahead?

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Victims launch $150 million legal class action against SA Power Networks over Cudlee Creek bushfire in Adelaide Hills


A class action lawsuit seeking $150 million for victims of the 2019 Cudlee Creek bushfire in the Adelaide Hills has been lodged with the South Australian Supreme Court.

Maddens Lawyers is seeking compensation for up to 1,000 victims of the blaze, which destroyed more than 90 homes and killed one person in December 2019.

It claims SA Power Networks’ inadequate fault protection settings led to the bushfire, which started when a tree fell on power lines and then a fence.

Brendan Pendergast the Victorian law firm Maddens Lawyers said South Australia’s energy distributor knew it was a catastrophic fire danger day, with a total fire ban in place.

“And yet we see in the Office of the Technical Regulator’s report that the fault mechanisms were adjusted to normal settings and quite alarmingly the auto-reclose device operated twice so it de-energised the line and then re-energised it after the tree fell on the line and brought it down to the ground,” he said.

A CFS firefighter stands next to a koala close to the fire front during the Cudlee Creek fire.(

Facebook: Eden Hills Country Fire Service

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In its report on the fire released in August, the Office of the Technical Regulator said it “could not identify any indicators that could have enabled a reasonable person to identify this tree failure prior to the event”.

Mr Pendergast said he would present experts who said the tree was already “severely compromised” three years before the fire and should have been identified as “dead, dying or dangerous”.

Range of losses from bushfire

He said losses went beyond the destroyed homes and 1,000 hectares in damaged vineyards.

“So we’re seeking to recover compensation for those aspects of the fire as well.”

An SA Power Networks spokesman said the company had not yet seen “the detail of the claim” but would defend its actions.

“An independent government report concluded the fire start was due to a tree falling from outside the vegetation clearance zone surrounding power lines, and that SAPN had acted in accord with its bushfire and vegetation management procedures and equipment settings,” he said.

SA Power Networks is controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.

The remains of a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills after a fire swept through.
The remains of a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills after a fire swept through.(

ABC News: Shuba Krishnan

)

Maddens Lawyers is also representing victims of the November 2019 Yorketown bushfire, which was caused by a power network fault.

That case is heading to court-ordered mediation next month.

“We’re optimistic that proper resolution can be achieved at that time rather than taking the matter before the court for a determination,” Mr Pendergast said.

Mr Pendergast’s firm has been involved in a number of lawsuits relating to bushfires, starting with the Ash Wednesday fire that struck the Adelaide Hills and parts of Victoria in 1983.

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Community development workshop to cover COVID-19 and bushfire response


Professionals working in the community development sector and passionate residents will have the opportunity to gain local insights on the impacts, similarities and differences of supporting the community through disasters like bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the upcoming Community Agents of Sustainability (CAOS) session on Tuesday 13 April, Sharna Whitehand will share her experiences in her role supporting the community though numerous disaster situations as the Municipal Emergency Management Officer at Corangamite Shire Council.

Ms Whitehand’s experiences with recent bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic draw similarities and stark differences, with many lessons to be shared with attendees.

Deputy Mayor Trent Sullivan said the CAOS events are a great way for industry professionals to develop their skills.

It’s really important those working in the industry have the opportunity to learn from each other and experts in the sector, which in turn strengthens community development capacity within the region.

Cr Sarah Mansfield, Chair of the Community Health and Aged Care portfolio said participants would benefit from the insights in this session as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The upcoming session is a very timely one, as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt in our community.

I encourage those working in the industry or residents considering a career change or passionate on this topic to consider attending this free event.

CAOS is a community development network that was established in 2004 with the goal of enabling community sector professionals to engage with each other on a regular basis, share insights and improve knowledge within the sector.

The CAOS free professional development workshops will be delivered bi-monthly throughout 2021 and cover a variety of topics through presentations from expert guest speakers.

The free event takes place at 10:00am on Tuesday 13 April at City Hall.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions places are limited and bookings are required. To book to attend this event and find out more visit http://bit.ly/bushfirecovid19.

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Women the focus of state government funding for bushfire impacted areas


Domestic violence services in regional areas of Victoria severely impacted by the 2019-2020 bushfires are set to receive $700,000 in funding, as agencies warn there is often an increase in family violence after disasters.

The Victorian government said the cash injection would be used to help women with economic recovery and boost critical support for the prevention of violence.

About $500,000 will go towards preventing violence against women — including $140,000 for Gippsland Women’s Health and $75,000 for Women’s Health Goulburn North East to support local councils to deliver primary prevention initiatives using their expertise, local knowledge and existing relationships.

Wangaratta-based Women’s Health Goulburn North East chief executive officer Amanda Kelly said the money would be used to expand on work already being undertaken in the region.

She said the health service in partnership with Women’s Health in the North would build on a significant body of research which they started after the 2009 bushfires looking into the gendered impact of disasters on communities.

 “One of those unfortunately is that there is an increase in domestic violence against women after a disaster like this.

“And then when we also have the impact of COVID-19 on top of this we’ve got a recipe for some really unfortunate situations.”

Ms Kelly said there are several “complex reasons” for the increase in domestic violence.

“One of the basic reasons for it is around expectations of how people manage after a bushfire, so we have situations where men are often expected to be and lauded as heroes in disasters like this,” she said.

“But what we’ve seen with the ferocity of these fires in 2009 and the most recent one’s last year is that it is bigger than anybody.

She said broadly speaking men are often at the frontline.

“They are the ones that are talked about in these sorts of environments and women sort of say, ‘oh look I’ll step aside the impact of me isn’t as big, I’ll step aside,” she said.

“What can happen is unfortunately frustration and anger turn to violence and there is no excuse, there is the choice to be violent but then there is little help when there’s difficulties and working out how to get help.”

Ms Kelly said the funding will be used to increase the work which is already being undertaken in the region.

She said they will work with local councils to help them understand the gendered nature of the impact of the fires.

“Often when we are looking at developing programs, we think about what the program is about but not how it is going to impact different people in the community, so we’ll be supporting them in that way.”

An additional $285,000 will be shared between East Gippsland Shire, Mansfield Shire, Towong Shire, Alpine Shire, and Wangaratta Rural Shire to support activities that stop family violence and violence against women before it begins.

Minister for Women and the Prevention of Family Violence Gabrielle Williams said last year’s bushfires were devastating for entire communities but for women the impacts have been even worse.

 “We want to work with local councils and local health and financial service providers to improve services for women who faced the added challenge of the coronavirus pandemic while rebuilding their lives after the devastating impacts of the bushfires,” she said. 

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Bushfire prediction tool can simulate dangerous ember showers and fire-generated thunderstorms


On January 6 and 7, 2016, a dark, dense and rotating plume of smoke grew over the West Australian towns of Waroona and Yarloop.

Known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, it brought thunderstorms, lightning and strong winds.

What followed were intense ember attacks, which went on to destroy the town of Yarloop and kill two people.

The extreme behaviours of pyrocumulonimbus clouds and ember attacks have made some of Australia’s biggest bushfires significantly worse — not only due to the volatility of these phenomena, but because they are difficult to predict.

But after years of struggling to predict bushfire conditions, researchers believe they have built a helpful tool which may curb the impact of these events.

Spark Operational, developed by the CSIRO and the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services (AFAC), is a simulator that produces predictions, statistics and visualisations of bushfire spread.

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Similar to other simulators, it combines specific and localised weather information with topography, fuel loads, vegetation type and on-the-ground fire behaviour information to simulate and predict the path of a fire over six to 12 hours.

But Spark has the ability to easily incorporate new developments in science as they occur.

And with the increasing scale of bushfires in Australia, researchers and firefighters know they need every tool at their disposal to help protect lives and property from some of the more extreme fire behaviours of ember attacks and fire-generated thunderstorms.

Ember showers a major threat

Fire-generated thunderstorms form by intense updrafts from the heat rising from the fire — similar to the way a thunderstorm develops.

The danger is these thunderstorms can produce sudden and very powerful downbursts of wind that can quickly whip up fire behaviour, including spot fires and lightning.

A diagram of a firestorm: Fire causes an updraft, which creates strong gusty winds. A pyrocumulonimbus cloud forms, which can extinguish the fire but may cause more lightning.(

Drake/Wikipedia

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Ember attacks are often linked to the powerful downbursts from the pyrocumulonimbus clouds, but have also been known to develop when there are gusty, erratic winds conditions in certain topography.

DFES WA rural fire division executive Mark Bowen said ember showers had caused fires to expand significantly, so predicting their likelihood and spread was important.

“In the past, we’ve had examples of fires in Sawyers Valley heading south-west and then jumping the Mundaring Weir — a whole dam — to start a fire on the other side,” he said.

The platform has been under development for six years, with Phase 1 of the rollout having just begun.

A log smoulders after a bushfire rushed through Yarloop
A log smoulders after a bushfire rushed through Yarloop and the surrounding area, January 9 2016.(

Supplied: DFES

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CSIRO Spark project lead Mahesh Prakash said while current fire simulators were helpful, there were limitations to their utility.

Dr Prakash said scientists often struggled to incorporate new prediction research into existing simulators, and had been stymied by the lack of a consistent national platform.

“The main thing is the consistency across all states,” he said.

“There is [also] a lot of scientists in CSIRO and universities and BoM who are working on new fuel models and ember transport models.

“Spark will be able to bring those into operational practice much sooner that the normal process it takes to get it onto operational systems.”

Accuracy of weather forecasts boosted

There are currently ember transport models used in simulators, but Dr Prakash said they relied on empirical data.

A “more robust”, physics-based ember transport model is being trialled on the Spark platform, through collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology.

Two men from DFES stand in building between desks
Jackson Parker, from DFES in WA, and Mark Bowen say fire simulators have provided huge benefits in battling fires(

ABC: Tyne Logan

)

DFES WA director of bushfire technical services Jackson Parker said WA’s simulation tool, Aurora, had been a “game-changer” in fire prediction since its introduction a decade ago.

But he said Spark’s additional functionalities — particularly its ember transport model and potential to incorporate atmospheric effects, like fire-generated thunderstorms — would bring benefits.

Mr Parker said having a second modelling option would also strengthen the accuracy of forecasters’ predictions.

Fire storms a research challenge

Reliable models for predicting fire-generated thunderstorms are still in development, with several research organisations trying to better understand the physics behind their occurrence.

Bureau of Meteorology fire, heatwave & air quality team leader Bradley Santos said there were a few factors that made the storms so difficult to predict.

“The first one is that it requires an interaction of the weather and the fire and there’s also the complicating factor of the local variations of the weather due to topography and fuel,” he said.

A huge smoke cloud over a large landscape of hills and trees.
Spark is aimed at helping predict fire clouds like this one in Queensland’s Darling Downs region in the midst of the Ravensbourne bushfire.(

Supplied: 17 Mile Cottage

)

While research has helped shed light on fire-generated thunderstorms in the past, there continues to be a significant gap around creating a prediction model that can tell if and when they will occur.

Spark will not be able to predict firestorms until there is sufficient research to support it, but Dr Prakash said the simulator would eventually be able to incorporate it — something other models could not do as quickly and easily.

“You’ve got research projects that take three to five years to reach a point where it can be operationalised, or in some cases, that research just stays there,” he said.

“Whereas now what we’ve got is a system that self translates that research into something that can be operationalised.”

The technology’s development has received funding from the Minderoo Foundation and is expected to become fully operational, with its additional functionalities, in the next two-to-three years.

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Bushfire on Figure of Eight Island raises questions about Indigenous history, future management


Only a handful of people ever knew that Figure of Eight Island was on fire.

During the horror Australian summer of 2019–20, the nation’s eyes were fixed on the east coast’s bushfires when a lightning strike hit the small, uninhabited island off the coast of Esperance in Western Australia.

It triggered a blaze that burned for a couple of days before fizzling out.

But the full scope of its impact is just now being measured.

Last month, more than a year after the fire, a team of researchers and rangers travelled to the island to be met by only a lone baby bird.

The chick was a short-tailed shearwater, also known as a Tasmanian mutton bird, and its presence confirmed what marine biologist Jennifer Lavers long-suspected: that Figure of Eight Island may have once been home to the nation’s western-most population of the species.

Jennifer Lavers may have found Australia’s western-most population of short-tailed shearwaters.(

ABC News

)

But for now at least, it appears that home has been destroyed.

“We had heard that at least part of the island had experienced a bushfire,” Dr Lavers said.

“[But] almost immediately after we arrived we could see that almost the entire island had been encompassed in the fire.

“The burrows that the seabirds would normally live in have been completely washed away and it is essentially just a barren habitat.”

Only one baby bird found

Figure of Eight Island is off the south-west coast of Esperance, at the western point of the Recherche Archipelago, a group of more than 100 islands.

They are wild and unforgiving and over the years have become known for extraordinary stories: a murderous pirate, marooned prisoners, fearless surfers and sharks.

Figure of Eight Island is located approximately 30km south-west of Esperance.(

Supplied: Google Maps

)

But Dr Laver’s interest in Figure of Eight lay in old records from the 1950s, that indicated the island might be home to a short-tailed shearwater colony.

That would be significant, given the next closest colony was believed to be on Wickam Island, 200 kilometres away on the far-eastern side of the archipelago.

After years of visiting the Esperance region, conditions were finally good enough for Dr Lavers and a team of rangers to make the treacherous ocean crossing last month.

Charred island scrubland
Fire has decimated shearwater habitat on Figure of Eight Island.(

Supplied: David Guilfoyle

)

But the island was eerily quiet when they arrived.

At this time of year, Dr Lavers said the island should have been alive with the seabird colony in the middle of its breeding season.

But the only trace she could find among the many abandoned burrows was the one baby chick — a meagre offering but enough to confirm the species’ presence.

Yet questions about the rest of the colony linger, and, given the suspected decline of the species’ globally, those answers may have broad implications.

Dr Lavers said it would definitely be the subject of future research.

Understanding an ancient story

The missing shearwater colony was not the only mystery created by the fire.

During the research trip, traditional owner Doc Reynolds said rangers and in-house archaeologists discovered stone tools on the island, which he said was probable evidence of Aboriginal occupation.

Two people walk across the island, the ocean is visible in the distance
Rangers map the location of shearwater burrows on Figure of Eight Island.(

Supplied: David Guilfoyle

)

Mr Reynolds said this made sense as the islands had been connected to the mainland before sea levels rose thousands of years ago, and cultural sites had already been discovered on other islands in and around the archipelago.

He said after consulting with local elders, the rangers would likely return to the island and carry out an excavation to try and find material that could be dated to give a likely timeframe of when people last lived there.

Sand dune’s age determined

The discovery tied in well with another project that rangers from the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNTAC) had been working on, which dated the age of sand dunes east of Esperance.

Using a PVC pipe, they collected sand from about a metre below the surface of a dune at Wharton Beach.

The trio stand on the island, with the ocean behind them
Rangers and Dr Lavers look for short-tailed shearwaters.(

Supplied: David Guilfoyle

)

After sending it away from analysis, they discovered the sand had not seen sunlight for about 4,700 years, which meant the sand dune was at least that old.

David Guilfoyle, the healthy country plan coordinator for ETNTAC, said the studies could give insights about how people coped with sea level rise and climate change, which could provide today’s society with valuable lessons.

“It’s an epic journey that people have been on for thousands of years.

“And we’re just getting glimpses of it from this type of work.”

Mr Guilfoyle said the island’s Indigenous ancestors had a “deep understanding” of the land.

“We see the immense value of integrating cultural knowledge systems into research and planning,” he said.

“They’ve experienced climate change, been through it, they knew how systems function — the seasons, plant life, the animal life — so we’re tapping into that now.”

Rangers work on the dune, the ocean is seen in the background
A sand dune near Esperance was found to be about 4,700 years old.(

Supplied: David Guilfoyle

)

‘Pristine’ islands require protection

Mr Guilfoyle said the stories recently exposed at Figure of Eight Island showed that even though the Recherche Archipelago was pristine and relatively unchartered, it needed management and care to remain that way.

Mr Guilfoyle said work needed to be done to reduce the island’s fuel loads, manage invasive weeds, monitor significant wildlife and protect cultural sites.

A weed shoot in the sand
Invasive weeds are colonising the charred island.(

Supplied: David Guilfoyle

)

Currently, the islands are managed by the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).

The department says that Figure of Eight Island will recover on its own.

“Results from previous survey work indicate the islands recover naturally after bushfires,” a spokesperson said.

“As with previous bushfire recovery, bird populations are known to return to the islands within a few years to reoccupy burrows.”

A decade of recovery

Mr Guilfoyle believed the best way forward for the Recherche Archipelago was a collaborative approach where the ETNTAC rangers pooled funding and resources with DBCA and universities.

Mr Reynolds said continued support from the state and federal government was critical to continue cultural mapping.

He wants to see the local rangers at the forefront of researching and protecting the archipelago into the future.

Dr Lavers said the community could help by providing photos or drone footage of Figure of Eight Island before or after the fire.

But she warned that if anyone was to visit the island they should not venture off the beach as it could destroy the shearwaters’ nesting habitat.

“But it will really be the rangers and community telling me just how right I am in making that prediction.”

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Bushfire recovery cricket match attracts hundreds of people one year on from fires


Two bushfire-affected communities in Victoria’s east have competed in the inaugural Sandhill Ashes in a bid to attract local crowds more than one year on from the devastating 2019/2020 fires which tore through parts of the Gippsland region.

Hundreds of people gathered to watch mixed social teams from Clifton Creek and Sarsfield battle it out, with the Sarsfield side taking the game home by one run, 144 to 143.

The match was borne from a local bushfire recovery survey and was played under Twenty20 rules.

Co-organiser and Sarsfield player Phil Schneider said the day was a great way for the neighbouring communities to reconnect after bushfires and COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I think bushfire towns were forgotten a bit during the pandemic, but now that everything has started to relax it’s the perfect way to bring everyone together and have a laugh at ourselves on the field,” he said.

The match garnered support and funding from several Gippsland community groups which Mr Schneider said had helped Sarsfield and surrounding towns to organise a number of new and exciting local events.

“We’ve had small movie and trivia nights, but this cricket match is the first big event since the fires. It’s been so good for our spirits especially after all the tragedy,” Mr Schneider said.

“It’s onwards and upwards from here.”

The two teams competed for a replica ashes urn made from a piece of tea tree salvaged from a peat paddock fire that burned for weeks on a nearby farm.

The coordinator of the Sarsfield Recovery Hub, Neil Smith, helped craft the special urn and said it held historic local significance.

“It was pretty well preserved so I collected a few bits of it … and when the Sandhill Ashes were proposed I took the pieces down to a wood turner in Lake Tyers and we worked together to make it what it is.”

Locals have not just been busy picking up their bats and brushing up on their cricket skills.

A grassroots photography project titled Sarsfield Snaps has children and young people from across East Gippsland capturing moments important to them while their communities recover.

Head of the initiative Tiana Felmingham said the program received a 20-camera donation from Fuji Film in February last year, and she is expecting more cameras to arrive in coming months.

“We have over 50 kids now and the program has really helped to build their self esteem,” she said.

“We have a calendar that the kids made last year, large prints have been displayed all over the outside of the recovery hub, and we’re even planning exhibitions in Melbourne and Canberra,” Ms Felmingham said.

Twelve-year-old participant Ashley Wolf said she enjoyed learning new skills and making new friends.

“Sometimes it can be really hard for us to express how we’re feeling and communicate with everyone how we’re coping, so taking Snaps has really helped.”

The project was recently granted $40,000 from the Bushfire Recovery Appeal which will help to develop a short film through young eyes.

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