Sunday, June 04, 2017

Fire Feb 13, 2017!

Sorry for the 6+ month gap in my postings. Life was very rudely interrupted by a huge fire on Feb 13. It started on Early Valley Road near the bottom of our 3.5k driveway and appears to have been caused by a fuse dropping out of a utility pole. Ross noticed huge amounts of smoke coming up the valley (there was a strong norwester). We put the dogs and a couple of essentials in the truck drove down our drive about 1k and found neighbours frantically escaping up the hill. After opening up stock gates, we decided we shouldn't drive back home as there was no vehicle egress route from the top of our property. So we drove over the neighbour's paddocks to a neighbour's driveway that goes up and got to Summit Road at the top of our ridge.  It was about 6:30pm at that point.

The fire rapidly moved up the hill. Our house is just behind the trees to the left of the bright flames in the middle of the photo. By 10pm, the fire was too close and the smoke was bad so we had to leave, assuming our house would be gone soon. This was confirmed by a neighbour on the next ridge north who could see our property was surrounded by fire. We went to a neighbour's house away from the fire for the night.

The next morning, our neighbour called to say he could see a green roof!! We couldn't believe it. Our house had miraculously survived. Well it wasn't a complete miracle. Ross had always been concerned about the possibility of fire and had kept the small lawn in front of the house short and well watered in the summer. And we always kept stock to keep the grass down in the paddocks close to the house. Plus Ross had trimmed the branches on the large trees behind our house to about 7 ft high and had cleared all the debris from under them. As Ross' father used to say, 'the harder you work, the luckier you get'.  It was sobering to see the scorched ground under those trees and realize that if Ross hadn't done that clearing, they probably all would have gone up in the fire and then the house. The fire came within 6 ft of our house at one corner and about 10 ft at another. Here's a drone photo showing how lucky we are to have our house. Over 100 of our 117 acres burned.
We went up to the house the next morning and this was the view before we got there:
And here's the view from the other side of the valley:

We spent the next 2 days putting out residual fires around the property with backpacks of water plus some help from volunteer firefighters. Most of the pipes from our two 30,000L water tanks burned so the tanks were empty the next morning. But all that water leaking out must have helped put out the fire.

The fire raged for about 5 days eventually covering 5000 acres and burning down 9 houses including our next door neighbour's house and two others on our street. The wind changed on day 3 and that's when things really got out of control. Because everything was burned around our house, we weren't too worried about our place even though the wind was blowing the fire back in our direction.
By the fourth night, we were able to stay at home for the night but it was probably stupid as the smoke stench in the house was dreadful despite leaving it open every day. It was almost 3 months before people didn't notice the smoke smell when they walked into our house.

We lost four sheds, most of our fencing, two heifers and only about 1/3 or so of our vegetable gardens  in the fire. Our three lambs survived as did all of our chickens - thank heaven for that huge chook palace all covered in roofing iron! Our old cow Milkshake turned up two days after the fire looking pretty bad but with some fresh hay and water she started to perk up. And after about a week, she wandered over to our neighbour's bull (the fences were burned and not much of a barrier) so she must have been recovered enough to answer nature's call!

Our lemon tree!
It took about two months to clean up all the shed debris. Our 24m long propogation area with office, shade house, glasshouse and raised beds took forever! As we have decided to turn it into grass, gardens and a sitting area (maybe even with a spa!), we had to remove all the gravel and underlying half burned plastic sheeting that had been there for 20 years. I'm now most of the way through digging over all the compacted clay soil and adding gypsum and compost.

Ross is a happy man now as he has rebuilt the retaining walls near the house and the steps down from the house and he is now rebuilding sheds.

And we've even managed to get away to a friend's bach at Lake Tekapo for 2 nights!
While Ross is building, I am planting (or digging over compacted clay!). I've planted over 300 natives so far mostly along the driveway. But I also put some in a steep bit of our garden after first putting in coir matting.

My friend Rosemary helping with planting
The retaining walls have been repaired and the fence lines are bulldozed ready for the fencer and look how green things are getting. Although we spent a lot on aerial grass seeding, most of the green is broom, California thistle, bracken fern (native at least!) and blackberry! But at least it's green.
Digger driver putting in concrete (non-flammable!!) poles for retaining wall
Some trees that burned have new leaves and the tussock grass is sprouting. The flax has survived remarkably well. After being burned almost to the ground, most of it is coming back.
Tussock regrowth

Grass growing along creek
And even the burned cabbage trees still look cool!