Situational Awareness

Cycle touring gives you many skills. One of those is situational awareness. You become very good at reading your surroundings and noticing what has changed or doesn’t feel right.

So about 10.30pm on New Years Day, I heard a lot of traffic on the Snow Road. I live close to this road and can see it from my bedroom window. Normally, by 10pm, that road is very quiet. So I looked out the window and could see groups of cars and caravans heading west. The Snow Road is one of the main roads that leads up to the tourist town of Bright and the high country beyond. It’s the quickest route to take if exiting northbound from the freeway further west (read: coming up from Melbourne).

I knew immediately that the Advice Warning that had been issued yesterday evening for fires ignited on New Years Eve Day had been upgraded. So I looked at my phone, and yes, the advice had been upgraded to Watch and Act. Apparently, the CFA had been around to all the campgrounds and caravan parks and urged people to leave if they weren’t residents.

And so they did. The traffic continued until 3am. It picked up again around 6am. And it continued for the next 48 hours as the 15,000 tourists vacated Bright and surrounds. The pub, bakery and takeaway shop in Milawa were packed as people stopped for a snack.

I went out for a ride in the afternoon on the 2nd, knowing that with that many fires burning nearby that the smoke we had been experiencing was going to get much worse. So I rolled out on the mountain bike for 20km spin with the westerly winds blowing the smoke away, wetting down my shirt before I went since it was still 35C at 6pm.

Looking over to Mt Buffalo and Mt Emu 1 km from home. There is a wall of smoke over there and plumes within it that don’t show up in the photo. 2 Jan – 6pm
I was right about the smoke. This is from about the same spot on 5 Jan, 11am. The smoke would get worse later.
Back to the 2 Jan ride, here we are looking at Mt Buffalo. You can see some of the smoke rising below the arrow. That will grow to 1000 ha by 5 Jan.
If you see anything green around here at this time of year, it’s being irrigated. They got this hay cut (you can see it lumped in rows) before the next round of intense heat coming in a few days time. This is across the road from the free range chicken farm.
Here’s the old flour mill from another angle showing its location next to the rail trail.
If you weren’t watching the news or looking at all the smoke to the east, you’d think it was just a nice hot summer evening.
This is and will be a common scene for a couple days. Two caravans pulled up by the side of the road, another caravan heading west – all the tourists fleeing the potential for fire.

Now, back on Monday, long before the fires started near here, I saw the weather forecast for Friday and Saturday and quickly booked a motel room in Albury. High of 41 on Friday and high of 45 on Saturday with strong, northwesterly winds. No way did I want to be holed up in my hot house with no A/C for that in the smoke and no way I wanted to be at home on that Sat forecast. Any fires that might start to the west of me (NW, W or SW) could threaten town – it’s only a block deep on any side and mostly surrounded by grassland.

When I left on Friday morning, the situation looked like this:

I’m at the red dot. The different colours represent different warnings.

I enjoyed the A/C in town on Friday and Saturday – though the smoke is thick everywhere and has gotten into all the buildings everywhere. Saturday has strong NW winds and breaks a heat record in Albury at 46.1C.

I head back home on Sunday. The cool change finally came through. It’s cloudy with spits of rain. The smoke has gotten even worse because now the wind is blowing from the S and SSE off the fires. It is also driving the fires closer to where I live – albeit at a much slower pace.

When I get home, the sky gets darker and darker. The whole sky glows orange. It is so dark in my house at noon, it is like last light… long after sunset. The darkness and orange and pink hue is very, very creepy and quite ominous. Everywhere in the region is orange and smoky, but the darkness is eerie.

The darkness in my place at noon with that pink glow is very creepy and weird.
Looking over to my neighbours less than 50 feet away. No filter on that.

I call my parents. Just after I get off the phone with my parents, I see that Milawa is included in an emergency warning (which basically says to leave now if you are going to leave). It is included in the message text but is not included on the map.

That’s close enough for me. It looks like the actual fire is about 15km away. It is tracking northerly and I am northwesterly.  I am not so much worried about the fire reaching my place, but the smoke levels may be too much for my asthma. I did pull the bins away from the house, disconnected the gas bottles and brought in all the outdoor doormats on Friday just in case. I also packed the car on Friday with all of my important documents, photos, etc. I have not unpacked the car. I may not unpack it all summer.

So I leave and drive all the way back to Albury to stay with friends. There is a layer of ash on the car as I go to leave. The smoke is thick all the way to Albury with visibility ranging from 50-100 metres to about 250 metres.

There’s a layer of ash on the car when I go to leave.
This is the greatest visibility I’ll get in the entire 1 hour and 20 minute drive.

Here is the situation at 10am on 6 Jan. The nearest fire hasn’t moved much and is unlikely to today. When the temps pick back up, the winds will blow it east or back on itself. So all is fine – except for the terrible smoke.

I live at the red dot. The orange warnings are the level below the emergency warning.

None of it has been as dramatic at Bill’s experiences for sure. But the heat, the smoke and the heightened awareness is exhausting. So is watching most of the places I’ve enjoyed touring burn, and thinking about the ecological devastation to plant and animal communities. They will not get the funds to rebuild like the humans.

So I’ve had two weeks off work with the Christmas closure and not accomplished much. It was just waaaay too hot for most of it, and waaaaay too smoky for the rest. Ugh.

And that is what I did with my summer holiday. I go back to work tomorrow.


Nerdy chick in Australia who loves to ride and is accompanied by the crew: 'The Commander' Verne and the 'Mental Health Specialist' Kermit.

15 response to "Situational Awareness"

  1. By: Bill Stone Posted: January 5, 2020

    Yikes! All too familiar! In ’17 and ’19 Deb and the dog headed to safe territory. I loaded my car with all the important stuff–photos, documents, etc–they didn’t take, ready to go at last moment if necessary. When the crisis passed and Deb returned, she insisted all that stuff needed to remain boxed up in the garage next to the car for easy loading. It all stayed there until the rains finally came weeks later. So I understand about not unloading your car. We also had “go bags” at the ready, and I found my bike touring equipment lists very helpful in choosing gear for possible evacuation to uncertain locale. While Deb was gone, I also put rack and Ogre on Forester. I don’t expect I could pedal faster than a wind-driven wall of flame, but in a nightmare gridlock on traffic-jammed evacuation route, in the worst case I could bike away rather than sitting in car while flames closed in. Anyway, I guess my point is that in addition to situational awareness, bike touring experience might be useful in thinking about what to take, and how to plan for escape and being forced to remain away from home for uncertain period of time. Stay safe.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      Hi Bill – if I wait for the rains to come to put the fire out… all that stuff will be in my car until May! Luckily, the threat has eased. All my photos and impt docs will probably live at work the rest of summer though.
      To me what to pack is easy. I carry an emergency kit, first aid kit, water, fire extinguisher, toolbox and jumper leads in the car all the time. Bike and gear takes care of the basics, impt docs and hard drive live in a box year-round and then the rest is deciding on the most sentimental things I guess. I think I learned about packing from hiking and backpacking which I did before cycle touring. I just transferred what I’d learned from that context to cycling. I also learned about having back-up plans for your back-up plans from learning to climb big peaks with alpine starts. But the situational awareness is something women start developing early, but certainly something I honed with cycle touring where you are in contact with a lot more people in more vulnerable situations than you get when you hike or backpack.

  2. By: gregblood Posted: January 5, 2020

    Damn, it all looks and sounds so scary–especially that pink, smoky sky. If I had the power, I would airlift all of the snow in the upper Midwest and dump it on southeast Australia. No place on earth needs it more than you do.

    Also, I think Bill makes a valid point about the preparedness of bike tourists.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      Thank you for the thought of snow. We’d take all of it in a heartbeat. You have sent some American firefighters to help out and they are working on a fire on the top of Mt Buffalo (that is just the plume of smoke in the pic above but is now many thousands of hectares).

  3. By: Rich-Illinois Posted: January 5, 2020

    Great first person account post! Excellent photos.
    Absolutely tragic and terrifying at the same time.

    From what we understand its a long way from over.

    Stay safe!

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      The fire threat has eased here for now. It is still very smoky and hazardous for breathing, but the weather is a bit more benign now so they can start to try to contain the fires. It is likely they won’t be considered “Safe” or extinguished until summer is over (april or may).

  4. By: Suzanne Posted: January 6, 2020

    Thanks for keeping us up to date! This is absolutely terrifying. Hard to even imagine living with this kind of threat breathing down your neck. And the smoke down your nose and throat already.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      The smoke is constant and thick and it is not very nice to have to stay inside all the time. Luckily, the threat has eased for now and should be okay all week.

  5. By: Lednar De Nalloh Posted: January 6, 2020

    If in doubt…get out. It’s going to be a long summer, they reckon the weather might go back to normal now. Lot’s of rain would be nice.
    Hang in there.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      I don’t think we’ll get the sort of rain that is needed to extinguish those fires until May, so here’s hoping for more benign days with temps in the 30s, low winds and higher humidity so they can at least be contained.

  6. By: NancyG Posted: January 6, 2020

    Your photos definitely tell the story. We get forest fires in eastern WA every summer, some worse than others. There have been times that we here in western WA could see the pink sky and smoke everywhere. Those times were considered bad air quality with warnings to stay inside, or wear a mask or other protection. Not fun.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      Yes, they say if the visibility is less than 1.5 kms you shouldn’t really be outside in it. We’ve had visibility down to 50 metres at times and many days since New Years that was 500-750 metres. So I’ve been spending my time inside… yearning for the bike!

  7. By: Tony Cullimore Posted: January 10, 2020

    Jeez Emily – it’s just like on TV! I noticed Myrtleford and now Whitfield are in the firing line but missed Milawa was in the zone. Good to hear that the tourists left Bright – unlike the south coast where so many stayed, hung about and were, basically, in the way.

    We had a big blast of smoke from the mainland last Saturday. Winds blew it over the Strait to us. That was bad enough. Look after yourself and stay safe.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      I don’t think Milawa was ever really threatened. We were in all the text warnings, but not in the map warning area. We all got a little freaked out on Wed night when the wind picked up a little and the smoke came in the thickest yet. I had a thick layer of ash on the car in the morning. The nearest fire was making a run at night with little wind… but was still throwing embers 8 kms from the fire. So we had fears that should the fire back itself up all the way over to Whitfield, that on the cool change southwesterlies predicted to be 70-90kph winds, that we could get embers here when the fire started to run with the change. However, the fire did not get itself over the Black Range and into the King Valley, so that threat never eventuated. We did get 70kph winds and the teeny bit of rain made everything smell like an ashtray… but no threat, thank goodness.

    • By: The Navigator Posted: January 12, 2020

      So far none of the rail trails have been affected, but it’s early in the season yet. The King Valley is okay for now – though Rose River and South Cheshunt are in the line of one if they don’t get it contained this week while the weather is more benign. Normally we wouldn’t even start worrying about big fires until about now. Hopefully this means they won’t be doing any planned burning this autumn, so those really nice stable, clear days in autumn when you are riding will be smoke-free.

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