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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.