Burnt Out

We have been without power for the best part of a week, as all the power poles and wires were burnt down for 15 km. So I could only post to the blog from my phone. No email letters.
Sadly we were burnt out in the catastrophic bush fire that swept through Balmoral Village last Saturday. Luckily I was able to save the house, but the Pottery, kiln shed, the kiln factory and the wood shed were all burnt. I have started to clean up the mess, but it will take some time – and money. I think that it will take 12 months to get all this cleaning up done, get building plans passed through Council, then build a new pottery, and then finally collect some pottery equipment to get re-startted and build a new kiln. This last part I can do!

We have been offered several bits and pieces of pottery equipment, two kick wheels, a slab roller and a shimpo, so we are well on our way.Thank you to all of you who have donated money or offered help or equipment.We are very gratefull to you all. I don’t like the idea of receiving charity, but in this instance, I know that my time and resourses are limited. This is the third pottery that we have lost to fire in our 45 years together. I dont want to spend the next 5 years scrounging 2nd hand materials and building almost everything myself, like I had to last time.I was just 32 , so much younger back then,  and with plenty of energy. I had plenty of time, but no money. I assume that I only have 10 to 12 productive working years left in me. I need to get this done faster this time, so that I can get back to my real work.


I’m also aware that the national Park is not going away. The global heating crisis is going to keep on getting worse. Each fire is getting bigger, hotter, more devastating, lasting longer.Another fire will come back in the next decade, and next time it will be worse. I need to start preparing now. We will build entirely in metal.Our first pottery was a rented weather board shed. It burnt.We moved to Balmoral and decided to build with 2nd hand vertical galvanised iron sheeting for the walls. it burnt.This last pottery was built out of mud bricks, surely that will be safer? but the roof was framed in timber.  It burnt! So this time it will be a cheap, kit-form gal iron frame farm shed barn. Cheap and ugly, but hopefully, more fire resistant.We need to design and build something that can withstand this kind of fire in the not too distant future.


Thank you for all the messages of good will. I’m sorry that I can’t reply personally to each of you individually. There are just so many of you. At least I’m feeling well enough again now to be able to write this. My lungs got a bit affected from the heat, ash, soot and smoke.
We anticipate that we will have a couple of working bees to get some of the tedious cutting, clearing, carting and stacking done. If you are interested, please send me an email. Thank you all for your kindness and support.

There is a ‘gofundme’ site that our friends have set up for us. see below.

The title ‘Burnt out’ is not a description of our buildings on this ocation, but more an apt description of me at the present time.
Best wishes
Steve

The orchard
The chicken house and garden shed

My very good friends, Len Smith and Warren Hogden, help me clean up the old wood shed site. There is nothing there except the vertical stand of the brand new hydraulic wood splitter and some burnt iron.

My front lawn and the street outside the house

What’s left of our power pole and the moon scape with blackened sticks that is our front yard
The clay and rock glaze processing shed.
The gallery

A Bad Day

We lost most of our buildings, except our house on Saturday. The fire was too big, too hot, too fast. I had intended to get all the fire fighting sprinklers going on full , then leave when the fire approached. I had the dedicated petrol powered, fire fighting pumps already running on low to conserve both fuel and water. This may go on for several more days.

Suddenly, when all hell broke loose, I needed to get around to each pump, turn it up to full, and turn on the extra sprinklers on the walls facing the fire front.

By the time that I got around all 4 buildings, it took a few minutes, the driveway and the road was on fire. I couldn’t get out. I abandoned the truck, got our and ran with my bag, to the temporary makeshift shelter that I had constructed the day before, just in case of such an emergency.

I climbed in as the fire raged past burning all in its path. I could see the flames through the cracks in the joints. Thé air was orange red and filled with smoke. It was difficult to breath normally, very hot and acrid Smokey air. My breathing is still affected, I’m still coughing up stuff.

I’m very lucky to be alive. I lost my pottery and kiln business, but saved my life.

What more could I ask for Xmas.

Ground Zero Today

The fire storm hit at 1.00 pm today, taking almost everything in its path. Everything caught on fire at once. It was horrific. Nightmares are made of this. There was no warning! Just total explosion of everything in the garden all at once. I have now witnessed total catastrophic ember attack.

It burnt down our pottery building, our kiln factory, and our woodshed. the house survived. It came so fast that in a few minutes that it took me to start the pumps and turn on all the sprinklers . The road was on fire and the driveway was alight. I had already grabbed my bag and started the truck, but realised that I needed another plan.

Luckily, yesterday, in a calm moment, It crossed my mind that I needed a plan B. So I built a makeshift Raku kiln from ceramic fibre parts that I had around. Big enough to lay down in, and behind a stone wall for radiation protection.

I grabbed my bag from the Ute and ran down to my ‘hide’. I crawled inside with my bag full of hard drives and laptop + back up disks. I had prepared it with a bucket of water, drinking water, a fire blanket and an extinguisher. I was able to watch the firestorm pass over me. All the tree canopies were in flame as the fire ‘crowned’ over me.

A terrifying golden radiation glow illuminated everything. I must admit to being too scarred to look back to see if the house was on fire. Quite literally, everything else was. The pottery burnt down as I watched, then that set fire to the kiln shed.

During the 20 minutes that I was hidden in the makeshift ‘kiln’, I drank my water bottle dry. More from shock and distress than thirst, as I wasn’t at all hot. Heat can’t get out of kilns, so it can’t get in either. I was safe.

When the pottery was well Alight. I decided that discretion was the better part for me to play, as the pottery was straight in line with my kiln-like ‘hide’. I crawled out of my ‘kiln’, and made a run for the house, which was luckily still safe. I realised that the railway station was on fire in the roof. I used one of the spare hoses to put it out.

I had set up 4 different Petrol powered high pressure fire fighting pumps. Two failed, because the inlet suction hose was made of poly pipe, and it melted. A hard lesson there. the best laid plans!

Still. I survived , due to my fore-thought with the small coffin kiln. I’m here to tell the tale.! I have no internet, no power, all the power poles burnt. I have my house.

Pity about the Power House job, that will be history now,

I count my blessing’s and my improvised kiln building skills.

I regret that i don’t know what has happened n the rest of the village. Time will tell. It cant be a pretty sight, I’m sure!

sent from my ipad

A Lucky Day

Yesterday the fire came up the gully behind the house with the wind driving it from the north east. It was blown away from us yesterday, and today it is being blown back towards us.

The sun rose a scary orange and the air is thick with smoke. A big plume of smoke announced the fires return with the hot wind and lower humidity.

My neighbours were not able to return home after work from the previous day, so I rang them and offered to feed and water their dogs. The asked me to bring the dogs to Mittagong for them, but if I leave I won’t be able to return here, as the village is in lock-down.

We made an agreement to meet in neutral territory at the road block. Stop and park and walk to the neutral zone and hand over the dogs. It was like a James Bond movie. The spy who came in from the heat. The hardest part was trying to get two German-sheprds into my ute cab. The dogs don’t take orders from me. It was quite an effort, but we got there and managed the hand over. The cops were nice, but strict.

I made another arrangement later in the day with Janine to meet her at the border. She had purchased another roll of al-foil for me to complete the garlic bread like wrap-up of the front of the house. I took a photo for ‘Christo’. I now have all doors and windows facing North and West, plus the weatherboards facing west.

Its a very eerie feeling.

Luckily for us, there was an early and concerted effort by both air and ground crews to keep the damage to a minimum. No houses lost that I know of at the moment. But the total stands at 20 houses lost, two firemen dead and 5 in hospital badly injured.

We had both of the large ‘Elvis’ water bombing helicopters working over us all day. They lumber over with their jet engines screaming louder than the heavy percussive pulse and thud of the rotors. They fly very low and quite fast. I can hear them way before they appear from behind the trees, a sweep over.

I wasn’t aware that there were two of the large ‘Elvis’ style helicopters. They flew so low that I could read the numbers on their fuselage. We had Nos. 730 and 520 here yesterday.

We also had three large choppers with water buckets on long lines. They seemed to make less motor noise, but more percussive rotor ‘thud’. Its amazing how I could feel it in my chest when they approached, but this disappeared when they wore over head. Then there was more motor noise.

I had the roof sprinklers on from 12.30 when the ember started to fall, till 5.30 when it had more or less stopped. I learnt something. My fire pumps can run for 5 hours on low throttle, running the roof sprinklers on one tank of fuel.

Wetting the roof like this kills the energy of the embers as they pass through the spray, but the water also keeps the gutters filled with water, as it is collected and returns back to the tank through the gutting system.

I used 1/4 of my water tank storage and 1/4 of my petrol reserves. I can hold out for 3 more days at this rate.

We are surrounded by fire now on three sides, West North and East. Todays wind will be 40 km/hr. from the West. Very bad. I plan to set the pumps and roof and wall sprinklers going and evacuate to the fire shed, ‘safe area’ in the village as soon as the big black plume appears.

Embers to the left of me, embers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle you fuel.

The Fire Arrives

Today the fire arrived in our village. Fortunately for me it was just to the north of us with a strong westerly, that turned southwesterly. This blew the blaze away from our house.

Tragically, it appears that 3 houses were lost today in that blaze. Two fire fighters were badly burnt and had to be airlifted to hospital for emergency care.

We have been well prepared for this day for the past couple of weeks. The last thing that we waited to do was to wrap the house in al-foil. Just the wooden weatherboard front room, as it is most vulnerable.

‘Elvis’ the large orange water bombing helicopter that we share with Canada was here and flew over to check us out, just as the fire truck came to tell us to evacuate. I told tham that I was staying to fight. but Janine wisely decided to leave for safety.

The fire really blew up into a massive plume just after that. It was a bit scary I must admit. but I have 4 different fighting high pressure pumps set up with sprinklers on all the roofs and northern walls on all the sheds and the house. I gave them a run to test them out again, but turned them off to save water, as there was no ember attack, because the wind was blowing it all past us and away.

So now the fire front is to the West, North and East of us. Tomorrows wind is forecast to come from the North East. That is going to be bad for us. The next two days will be make or break for us. It will all depend on the strength of the wind and the temperature. I expect that it will be at its worst from mid day onwards for the following 4 hours.

If it looks to be catastrophic, I’ll start all the pumps and just leave.

Life is a Tale

Yesterday the village was accosted by the full force of the NSW Rural Fire Service Heavy industrial might. The service has been using the lull in the winds to do a lot of hazard reduction burning along the back road here to reduce the risk of crowning fires when the wind returns. Given that it was also a weekend, there were multiple units from all around the area, even one from Bundeena in the Royal Nation Park a few hours drive away.
With so many appliances on hand, a large area of bush between Balmoral village and Buxton was chosen for burning.

All went well until around 1.00 pm when the humidity dropped, the temperature rose and the wind picked up. Suddenly it was all a little bit out of hand and a huge plume of black smoke warned us that something was up. As this operation was to the north of the village, away from us, we were completely unaware of the situation. I was on the pottery roof, still trying to figure out a way to fireproof the old building by sealing all the little gaps here and there with improved galvanised metal flashing, especially to The North Face – The Hard Way. In full sun, at mid day on a hot tin roof.

The pottery roof is complex. A mansard configuration with several intersecting planes involving under cuts and deep reveals. All framed in timber and needing to be covered.
The first thing that I noticed was the fall of a lot of black ash and burnt leaves arriving on the tin roof around me. Then my neighbour rang my mobile to say his house was under ember attack. He is half a kilometre to the north and closer to the fire ground. It was another 15 minutes before the black plume became obvious to us. But then it was the noise of the helicopters. At first we couldn’t see them. Then one became two, and two became three. There was quite a percussive thrum  in the air from the rotors, the smoke in the air, and the smell. It’s all a bit nauseating. Principally because we have lost two potteries to fire in our 45 years together. I hate the smell of wood smoke in the morning. But here we are again, in Coppola’s movie. Only this time it’s Eucalypts Now – reduction. The helicopters, the smoke, the noise. I’m feeling anxious – and bored! It’s weird, I want all this to be over. But I know that it’s not going to go away any time soon.
The road in and out is closed in both directions, North and South. We are well prepared, so we are stayingto fight. It’s like we are at war. And in a way we are. We are at war with nature, but it’s more than that. All this is man made, and made by man to be so much worse, 4 1/2 decades on from our first encounters with wild fire. Now it’s not just bad luck or ‘the drought’, as proclaimed by the coal hugging, happy clapper. And yes! Now is the time to talk about it! If not now, then when! We don’t need your prayers. We need leadership.  We are at war with ourselves. Society is fractured down the middle. This is actually a subtle form of civil war. The Pro-coal carbon lobby and their profits at any cost, vs, the environment. Black jobs vs Green jobs. This is an extension of the culture wars. Playing loose and fast with the truth and the environment. And all the people who loose their homes are just so much collateral damage to the big institutional share holders.

 
If the heat, the noise and the smoke, and the embers and the ash weren’t enough. 


Then the bombers arrived! Not with napalm, but red retardant, lumbering overhead in slow motion with the deafening, screaming noise from their jet engines thrust. Flaps down, flying so low that I can read the 911 phone number on the tail. Slowly, well as slowly as a jet can fly, and still stay in the air, circling the village. Two of them, huge DC 10 jet liners, water bombing the fire front. stopping the flames from encroaching on the buildings up the ridge, on the north western side of the of the road. They circle and dance in perfect choreography with a couple of other small fixed wing prop aircraft and the smaller helicopters. Someone is coordinating all of this aerial ballet, but I have no idea where from. Possibly from one of the helicopters? I have no idea. I’m certainly glad that they are though. I watch impotently. I have no part to play in this frightening, noisey, hectic scene from a real life war movie. 

Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of noise and fury, signifying nothing.
The afternoon passes, the planes depart, the noise subsides, we wander next door to take up their invitation for a swim in the pool. We open a bottle of wine and share it together. I can only hear just the one small solitary chopper still working on into the dusk a long way off. The wind has changed and has blown the smoke away. it’s quiet. My mind begins to wander.Life is surreal. Suddenly it is as if nothing has ever happened. We water the veggies and pick some tomatoes for dinner. They are getting ripe earlier and earlier each year.Global Crisis – What global crisis!

Self-reliance in dry times

As the drought deepens and the climate crisis escalates unchecked, with our politicians heads firmly buried deep in the sand. Crisis, What crisis? We muddle on in our independent, self-reliant, way. With the dam water very low. Actually, extremely low. We are saving what water we have in it for use in the coming weeks with the imminent arrival of the massive bush fire that is ravaging a lot of Eastern New South Wales.

The fire closest to us has burned over 112,000 hectares, or half a million acres, in the last two weeks. It is now just 17 km for our Village. When the next hot, dry, North Westerly wind blows in it will bring it here. Currently, the wind is in our favour and mostly blowing from the west. Inevitably to will swing around at some point. Then our time will come to deal with it Nothing can put out a fire of this scale – only good heavy prolonged rain. That is unlikely in the next month or two. So we just sit and wait.

We have tested all the roof and wall mounted sprinkler systems on the house, pottery, barn and kiln shed. I have even set up temporary, ground mounted, sprinklers on hoses in front of the wood shed and Railway Station building. We have done everything that we can, so now we wait.

The sun is orange because there is so much smoke and fall out from the sky of charred leaves and fine ash, it slowly blankets every thing. The car is covered in fine dust. All the roofs are dusty. Today I had to wash the solar panels 3 times, with mop and squeegee and 3 changes of water in the bucket, in order to get the water to run almost clear. The output from the system jumped up almost 500 watts straight away as I was washing the panels. Not just because they were cleaner, but the washing would have cooled them and made them more efficient.

We have scaled back our summer vegetable garden to just about half its usual size to reduce our water usage and we are only watering the younger and most dependant fruit tress that are one and two years old. All the older trees with deeper and more established root systems are having to fend for themselves. Several garden plants and a couple of older native trees have just keeled over and snuffed it. The times they are a changing. We will emerge from this very dry period with a different garden. When the rains come, it will probably flood. We have been told to expect more extremes in the weather. We will find out which plants can cope with draught and flood.

We have been doleing out our drinking water from the water tanks to keep the blue berries and young berries alive and producing, as well as the early peaches. That will be the sum total of our fruit for this summer. It’s all we can manage to support. Other trees that are not being watered, like the quince trees, have shed all their small partially formed fruit in an effort to save them selves. Ditto, the apples and pears. All four of our fig trees appear to have died, dropped all their leaves, turned brown and lost any sign of green tips at the dried out buds. I spoke to our neighbour at the shopping centre yesterday, and she told me that her parents are buying two truck loads of water each week to keep their garden alive. That’s hundreds of dollars worth of water being trucked in. We have never had to buy water in the past 43 years of our life here. We are frugal and we have planned well in advance. I guess that we will have to learn to live without figs. A small price to ask. But I can’t help but think, which trees are next?

In the mean time we have peaches, youngberries and blue berries to pick and preserve. This last basket full of the early peaches smell divine, fresh off the tree and so warm and fragrant. They are such a treasure, we eat most of them raw for breakfast and deserts, but we also vacuum seal some of them for later.

Todays job was to pick the berries. Both Young and blue. This will be the last pick of young berries, the canes started producing on the 24th of November. A whole month earlier than when they were first planted in 1977. We remove the netting and let the chooks in to clean up. The birds will get all the other higher odds and ends. We roll up the net and dismantle the hoop frames. Stored away till this time next year.

This last pick is about 700 g, making a rather small harvest this year, but exceptional, given the difficult conditions. We harvested about 5 to 6 kilos altogether. We have youngberry ice-cream in the freezer and 5 jars of vacuum sealed fruit in the pantry. It’s a pleasing reward for our efforts.

Janine whips berry puree into our local, pure, Picton dairy cream to make ice-cream. Nothing could be more natural and flavoursome. This has to be the most delicious way to get plaque build up in your arteries. At least there are no colours, preservatives, chemicals or artificial substances in there. Not too much sugar either.

The blue berries haven’t looked back since we potted them and moved them into the netted vegetable garden as a border. This keeps the birds off and makes sure that they get a bit of water every time we water the veggies. They reward us with their fruit. 3 kgs so far this summer and the season has only just begun. The will continue fruiting for a couple of months, into February, as we have chosen early, medium and late varieties.

Blue berries ripen over time, with only just a few ripe blue ones every so often spread out over all the little bunches. They are quite time consuming to pick. But which fruit isn’t? We have to pluck each individual berry from its neighbour in the tight little clusters. Today we manage 700g in half an hour with both of us at it. I have no idea how they produce these things commercially for just a few dollars per punnet. Slave labour?

Its a beautiful and rewarding thing to share this wholesome activity together. We are managing to eat them all fresh for breakfast and desserts so far, but there comes a time when the novelty wears off and we start to freeze some for later. Janine has experimented and learnt to make a beautiful blueberry sauce with a little brandy and cream. We force our selves to eat it 🙂

Banana fritters with berry ice-cream as a second course for breakfast after the berry fruit salad. Someones got to do it!