The trouble with water

AT MILKING time there is a job for everyone. Young Luke, a fearless four, wants one too. Then he sees his chance. As his father herds more Friesians into the stalls, Luke grabs a plastic pipe and charges over to cows in the holding pen. Like a little emperor, he stamps the ground with his new-found staff to get them moving. They part around him placidly, their big brown eyes mild and unquestioning. Here, man and beast understand their appointed places, and man — however small — has dominion.
Luke knows the drill because he has watched it every morning and evening from the time he was a baby, parked in his pram, off to one side. His father, Jeff Broad, working down in the dairy’s “pit”, has known it all his life too. He is a fifth-generation dairy farmer. Broad’s job at this time of day is in the low passageway between the two rows of stalls; he’s in the basement and cows are on the first floor. The machinery chugs steadily in the background but his own rhythm is irregular: he reaches up to snap vacuum cups on udders, detaches them when the cows look ready, squirts them with antiseptic. He’s in gumboots and an apron, and spatters suggest he needs them both. Mucky business, this, in every regard except the result: luscious, creamy, foaming, it looks like nothing ever poured from a supermarket carton.
Ruth Broad is tending to the babies. She scoops up fresh milk to pour into feeders for the calves in the nursery, a corrugated iron lean-to. They nuzzle her with soft noses and raspy tongues. These are the heifers and they will be kept for the herd. In a separate pen with their mothers are the boys; they will be sold as soon as their navels dry out, in three or four days. She checks their eyes for signs of ill-health. “The rim on the bottom of their eyes gets swollen and their eyes sink into their heads when they’re not doing too good,” she says. “That’s when you give them electrolytes.”
This is the busiest time of year for a dairy farmer, and the Broads have another 60 calves to come from their herd of 280 cows. But the twice-daily demands of milking always have them rising in the dark and then working through what in most families would be dinnertime. They bought the farm from Jeff’s father, who had bought it from his uncle, who had settled here after riding around the district on a bicycle in the 1930s looking for just the right place. He settled on this lot at Nanneella, 15 minutes’ drive from Kyabram.
Jeff has lived in the same house all his life. “You know what they say about some of these farmers?” laughs Ruth. “All they do is shift bedrooms!”
Jeff is a man of few words. Asked what he likes about farming, he says, “Your own boss. Just out and about. Being outdoors.”
Ruth teases, “Tractors!”
After 12 hard years of drought, the Broads and their four children and families like them should be sitting pretty this year. But now they find themselves facing a new kind of trouble, one that many farmers across south-eastern Australia fear threatens not only their own livelihoods, but the very existence of their communities and their whole way of life: water wars.
Kyabram is part of the Murray-Darling Basin, a vast irrigation district that stretches from Queensland down to New South Wales through Victoria and on to South Australia. Here in the wide brown land, water is wealth. The 2500 dams and weirs on the Murray River and the thousands of channels that run off them have spread that wealth among the farmers and country towns of three states. But now the river is dying from the mouth and authorities want to return water to its flow. That means taking it back from people like the Broads.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority this month released a basin plan guide that proposed taking back up to 37 per cent of the water from farmers in the Goulburn region. A study by auditing firm Marsden Jacob Associates suggested this might well kill not just Kyabram but Cohuna, Stanhope and Numurkah; a second study — by independent banking consultant Adrian Rizza — warned that eight other towns might not survive, including Robinvale and Mildura.
The proposal to take back between 3000 and 7600 billion litres a year across the basin has unleashed a tide of apocalyptic fury in irrigators. “You have hurt my wife and family, you sons of bitches!” roared one local at a meeting in Griffith, NSW. Another asked if the basin authority intended to bankrupt rural Australia, and a third threw a fake horse’s head at authority chairman Mike Taylor. Protesters burned copies of the basin plan guide.
Taken aback by the response, authorities quickly responded. A federal parliamentary committee chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor will spend six months inquiring into the economic impact of the proposed cuts. The basin authority has said it will research the social impact.
It’s not enough for the 90 farmers who turned up to a public meeting in the historic local theatre organised by the shire council in Kyabram this week. “We are the environment, and other people are destroying us,” said one, to loud applause.
Farmers are not just enraged but bewildered and, underneath it all, wounded. They feel they work hard to be frugal with water and other resources and that they changed their practices radically to cope with drought but now are being attacked as “environmental vandals”. They are outraged by assessments that assume less water is fine because they managed to keep producing despite the drought — assessments that do not take into account those who went bust, or the enormous debt many went into in order to keep going.
Perhaps most importantly, the environmental arguments make no sense to them. Rural Australia is a heartland of climate-change scepticism. Jeff Broad is among the few who acknowledge, warily, that the rivers might need better flows, but many can’t believe a river that looks fine to them is struggling to survive. Farmers in Kyabram view climate-change science as rather like the tooth fairy: a foolish fantasy for those who like to believe it and not something sensible people waste time on. There’s been a drought and droughts break, they say confidently; it’s just natural cycles.
“Not many believe in climate change,” says Ruth Broad. “We don’t know anyone who believes it.”
Says Jeff, “It’s a dry period.” His father, Keith, also sitting at the kitchen table, tells of an international meeting in which “hundreds and hundreds of scientists say they haven’t got enough evidence for it”.
For them, water that runs into the sea is a waste. Says Ruth in disbelief, “We haven’t got very much water and we’re getting a bigger population. We can’t just tip it down the river. We’ve got people that need food.”
A survey last year of 1500 farmers by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries found that while 88 per cent acknowledged that rainfall and run-off had declined and 62 per cent agreed the state was experiencing more high pressure systems, only 30 per cent accepted a link between greenhouse emissions and global warming. Despite this, many were taking action that would reduce emissions or store carbon on their farms, such as tree planting.
Talking to farmers in Kyabram, it is clear they see themselves as custodians of the land and holders of its history. They refuse to discount the evidence of their own eyes, and they resent townies and boffins claiming to know better. At Kyabram’s public meeting, state MP Paul Weller said, “We shouldn’t accept that the environment is a big disaster.” He said the salinity in the Murray was now one-fifth of what it was in 1983 and that it had far more fish and invertebrates and much clearer water. “When I went to school, there were paddocks in our area that were bare with salt that are now green with trees . . . [They] have to acknowledge that the community has done a wonderful job of improving the environment.”
ANOTHER local jeered at scientific climate modelling: “You put something into a computer and let it tell you something at the end, and what it tells you depends on what has gone in . . . It means all the figures they are supplying are really vague and probably false.”
Other farmers said this was always a river that had had dry spells. They told of years in which locals had been able to picnic on the dry bed of the Murray, and one quoted explorer Charles Sturt writing of the river’s “putrid series of saline waterholes . . .”
Aren’t these the benchmarks of its natural history, they asked? Isn’t it overshooting the mark to want flows at the mouth of the Murray nine years out of 10? “It didn’t have that before white settlement,” claimed one man.
There was also fierce resentment at what is seen as a “water grab” in which vote-hungry politicians are diverting country water to city folk via the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. “Why should 10 per cent of the population have to pay for 100 per cent of the population?” asked an angry woman.
Between the greenie and the farmer there seems almost no common ground. Paul Sinclair is healthy ecosystems programs manager with the Australian Conservation Foundation and author of The Murray: A river and its people. He says Professor Ross Garnaut’s figures forecast that with less rain as a result of global warming, “under business as usual, we are looking at 92 per cent less inflow into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin over the next 100 years”.
He warns it is rural people who will be hardest hit by more extreme weather such as droughts and storms and by the spread of diseases such as dengue and Ross River fever. “Farmers can think what they want and that’s their right, but it’s about more than what farmers think. Sticking your head in the sand means you fail to exercise leadership to help your community.”
As for the river looking fine, he says farmers don’t have a helicopter view of the overall system: “One of the great truisms of the river is that if you are in Albury, you don’t know how it is at Echuca, and if you are in Echuca you don’t know how it is at Swan Hill.”
Sinclair has a litany of disasters to recite: the Murray contains only 10 per cent of the native fish it had 100 years ago and many of its redgums are dead or dying. Ninety per cent of the basin’s floodplain wetlands have been destroyed and 20 of the basin’s 23 rivers are in poor or very poor condition. Vast stretches of the Murray have already collapsed. Two-thirds of the Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia, has been devastated by overuse of water: “Rivers die from the bottom up. The consequences of over-extraction [there] are obvious: increased salinity, acid sulphate soils and no water for irrigators no matter how big their water licences are. For example, there used to be 23 dairy farming families around the Lower Lakes. Now there are three.”
Closer to home, “the Lindsay-Wallpolla islands, near Mildura, look like someone has detonated a nuclear bomb. It’s a system, so it won’t all die at once, but bits of it are under great stress.”
Sinclair says it is not valid to use local lore to compare today’s dry spells with those of a century ago or more. Back then the river was more resilient because it was not broken up by thousands of weirs and dams: “The river is like a boxer in round nine of 10 rounds. The river those people are describing hadn’t even got into the ring.”
There is, however, one point on which Sinclair and the farmers are agreed: it was appalling that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released its detailed environmental proposals without mention of the effect they would have on the human elements of the environment, other than a cursory (and widely derided) estimate that the changes would lead to only 800 job losses. For rural people who already felt abandoned by government and marginalised in the debate, the report was evidence they had been entirely erased from the calculations of distant, hostile powers-that-be.
Sinclair groans when asked about the insensitivity of the process: “The performance of the MDBA has been like watching someone walk slowly into a metal fan. I thought, ‘My God, what are you doing?’ ”
Rural researcher Professor Margaret Alston, head of Monash University’s department of social work, had a similar reaction. She received an early copy of the guide and after she flipped through it her first question was, “Where are the people?” She says, “You will find information about birds and frogs but you won’t find a word about children. I was very uncomfortable that it was a socially blind document.”
AND HERE is where the woundedness comes in. Hurt as they might be by what they feel are assumptions about their environmental recklessness, that is not the main fuel for the fury of farmers around Kyabram. There is a deeper vein of resentment and fear that has spurted like lava to the surface: the pain caused by 10 years of drought. Rain has turned the grass green but has done little to ease other hardships that will be with them for a long time.
Money is tight, so tight. Many had to borrow large sums to see them through; for dairy farmers, no rain meant little or no irrigation, which meant they could not grow crops to feed their cows. Buying in fodder is hugely expensive. “It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the largest farms,” says Jenny Reuther, who has relinquished her herd but not her links to the industry.
The drought forced most into ugly decisions of one kind or another. “Some people have said they want to keep going on the farm but others have said, ‘I don’t want to go into any more debt. I don’t want to erode my equity any further by continuing to borrow.’ ”
Many have left and their absence is felt by those who remain. The public meeting was told that the primary school in Stanhope had dropped from 140 students to 50, and many houses were for sale. Bob Winwood, a farmer outside Kyabram who has switched from dairy to beef, talks of a 20-kilometre road that in the 1990s was a sea of black and white cows. Now, “There’s one dairy farm at the top of it and then I don’t think there’s another one right through to the end.” He fears further water cuts “will just devastate this area”.
Deputy mayor and dairy farmer Neil Pankhurst estimates the Goulburn Valley has lost 60 per cent of its dairy farmers in the past decade and is producing a billion fewer litres of milk than at its peak in 2002-03. He warns of the risks for other rural industries if farms are hit any harder, listing milk factories and canneries in the region that depend on farm produce for work.
He says people were stunned and despairing when they heard the latest proposals piled on top of their existing problems: “There’s just so much uncertainty.”
Businesses are worried too. John Bacon has been in the mower and motorcycle shop on the main street for 32 years. He says the drought was purgatory: “The farm market was cut in half or less. So many businesses just survived by a little bit. Many had to tip money back in to keep going. At one stage one in five shops were empty.”
That’s because in a country town everything depends on the profitability of the farms: “If you pull out that bottom rung, it all falls down — the price of properties, the number of doctors and teachers.”
Then there are the private losses. People will tell you quietly that depression is on the rise, with all its sad sequelae, including family violence. Others have lost confidence; that fabled rural resilience is wearing thin. Local counsellor Allannah Jenkins says, “Communities where we had significant people who were enthusiastic and driven to nurture and drive that community have become exhausted.
We are seeing a lot of loneliness and isolation because communities are so fragmented and the people who are left are worn out and no one is stepping up to the mark.”
She uses government funding and donated goods to organise “pamper evenings” for women and “blokes’ barbecues” for men. Children are affected too. Alston says there are country schools where teachers set up anger management classes for children who were bringing the family tensions into the classroom.
The government has said no one will be forced off the land. There is $9 billion for the modernisation scheme and farmers can apply to have their water rights bought back by the government whenever a “subscription” is opened. “Farmers call it ‘the lucky dip’,” says Jenny Reuther.
She and her husband missed out the first time round and are hoping for a second chance to sell just part of their water rights, so they can retire debt but their farm stays workable for others.
Alston has been talking to rural people since 2001. She found gender differences in the family debate about whether to sell back their water rights. “Often it’s women who are going off-farm to source income that’s needed to get people through the next few years. It wasn’t uncommon to come across women in their 60s and 70s who were holding down full-time jobs, some of them in Melbourne. For a lot of them, buyback looks like a get-out-of-jail card.
“But for men, selling water meant revisiting the whole idea of who they are. Who are they if they are not farmers? In a small minority of cases, women were seriously considering leaving because it was just too hard to keep supporting that notion of the male farmer. They just wanted to move and have a dignified retirement.”
There is sympathy for those who put up their hands because the prevailing view is there are no “willing sellers”; people sell because they are financially pressed. But both those considering leaving and those who plan to stay are worried about what it will mean for their communities.
Peter Costello, Tongala farmer and United Dairyfarmers of Victoria district president, says farms that have sold out are now covered in weeds and pests, posing problems for neighbours. He also fears that if more than a third sell out, those left behind will have to share the cost of water between them: “I would expect the water price could double.”
Those worries seem a long way away as little Luke Broad swings on a farm-gate pointing out the smallest calf on the farm. The shadows lengthen across the paddocks and birds flock, chattering, to their nests in nearby trees. Their day is over long before the Broads’ is.
Jeff and Ruth plan to go to the protest meetings but are not as concerned as many of those around them. Their property straddles a “backbone”, a large water channel. They are doing their sums and hope to sell some of their water back to finance improvements to the farm that will make them more water efficient. They don’t want to see 37 per cent of flows taken from the region, though.
“The dirt in our area is rubbish without water,” says Ruth Broad.
Whether their family will see a sixth-generation dairy farmer depends on many factors, not least of which are the outcome of the basin plan and the ambitions of their children. Luke doesn’t want to be a dairy farmer, he admits shyly. What does he want to be? “A racing-car driver!”

Flooding rains plain truth of climate change: scientist

LONDON: Australia can expect more frequent devastating floods like those in Queensland this year, and the world is facing decades of unprecedented hardship as a result of climate change, according to the chief scientific adviser to the British government.
“We are facing what I believe will be unprecedented difficult times over the next 20 to 40 years,” Professor Sir John Beddington warned. He was speaking as chairman of a panel of scientists launching a major international report about the effects of climate change on people.
The report predicts that migration will increase markedly; that millions will move into, rather than away from, environmentally vulnerable areas; and millions more will be affected but not be able to move.
According to the head of the school of geography and the environment at Oxford University, Professor David Thomas, the cities most affected would include Singapore, Shanghai, Calcutta, Dhaka in Bangladesh, and the towns and villages of the Vietnamese delta.
Australia would experience rising sea levels too but “it will respond differently because of its different economy”, he said.
The report says that by 2060, up to 179 million people will be trapped in low-lying coastal floodplains subject to extreme weather events such as floods, storm surges, landslides and rising sea levels, unable to migrate because they are too poor or ill-equipped, or because they are restricted by political or geographic boundaries.
Two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations of more than 5 million are at least partially located in coastal zones, including rapidly growing urban centres in Asian and African “mega-deltas”, the report said.
Other large cities would suffer water shortages, with 150 million people already living in cities where water is limited.
“Cities need to be more strategic about their location,” said Neil Adger, a professor of environmental economics and program leader at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
Migration and Global Environmental Change is the result of a two-year peer-reviewed project by 350 specialists in 30 countries. It was released yesterday by Foresight, part of the British Government Office for Science, which sits within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Speaking after the launch, Sir John told the Herald that Australia should not expect the La Nina phenomenon that triggered the Queensland floods to be a once-in-a-generation event. The next one could not be predicted but it would return much more frequently than in the past.
“We know that climate change is happening,” he said. “We know that the greenhouse gases already in the upper atmosphere will determine the climate over the next 30 years [and there will be] more droughts, floods and extreme weather.
“Since 2008, on average, 25 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events, and that’s in a world of relatively benign climate change.”
Professor Adger warned, “extreme events threaten livelihoods and survival.”
The report recommended policies that allow for migration, better city planning, sustainable-low carbon economies and improved early-warning systems about catastrophic events.
The World Bank said it will meet in December to assess the report’s implications.

Earth, wind and fire

THE Black Saturday fires created 120 km/h winds, snapping trees in half. They created their own weather, triggering storm clouds and lightning strikes that started more fires. They fuelled flames that leaped 100 metres into the air and fireballs that barrelled ahead of a front and landed with explosive force in farmers’ paddocks.
And they fed on their own fury and destructiveness. The fiercer they became, the more strength they drew from the heat, wind and energy they had spawned.
The science behind them has been explained by fire behaviour expert Kevin Tolhurst in evidence to the Bushfires Royal Commission and in a report he produced for the inquiry on the physical nature of the fires that day.
Dr Tolhurst is senior lecturer in fire ecology and management at Melbourne University. He says the Black Saturday fires were unique in three ways: the speed of ignition, the intensity of the flames and the way they spread in ”pulses”, with prolific spotting up to 35 kilometres ahead of a front.
The Black Saturday fires were similar to previous Victorian fires in that they were at their worst following the cool change late in the day. The drop in temperature brings relief to baking cities but the associated change in wind direction can mean horror in country areas.
Cool changes ”turn the flank (side) of a long and narrow, cigar-shaped fire, driven by strong northerly winds, into a fire front several kilometres wide”, Dr Tolhurst says. ”Typically, about 80 per cent of the total area burnt occurs after this wind change.”
When five firefighters died at Linton in 1998 it was because a cold front turned a seemingly benign fire with flames less than half a metre high into a blaze with flames 10 metres high, he says.
On Black Saturday much of the bush was dried out from more than a decade of drought and 11 days of temperatures over 30 degrees. This meant it was easier for embers to bring fuel, such as bark or leaves, to kindling temperature of about 300 degrees.
They did not have to smoulder for long periods to dry the fuel because the fuel was already desiccated. Dr Tolhurst says the speed with which embers ignited spot fires was unique to February 7.
Even mountain ash and rainforest areas, usually moist, had been dried out.
”Normally you wouldn’t have a chance of trying to ignite or burn those areas . . . (but they) are the areas where the greatest fuel accumulation occurs so when they do burn, they burn with great intensity.”
A fire burning fiercely interacts with fuel, air, its own spot fires and the energy it produces to create a self-sustaining system. The more it consumes, the more it can consume.
The fires that day also set a record for spotting distance, due to the prevailing winds and the winds and heat the fires created.
The Kilmore fire on Black Saturday developed a smoke plume about 5200 metres from the ground and a huge white pyrocumulus cloud 8500 metres off the ground.
The plume acts like someone sucking on a straw, Dr Tolhurst says. As air rises into the plume, more air is drawn into its base. This vacuuming effect pulls on the thousands of surrounding spot fires, encouraging the burning areas to come together and form a whole, and drives the direction of the fire front. The formation of the pyrocumulus cloud adds further heat to the smoke column and reinforces the updraft of air.
If the atmosphere is unstable, it is easier for a parcel of warm air to rise. Thunderstorms develop in unstable atmospheres because warm moist air rises readily and forms thunderclouds.
Late on Black Saturday, pyrocumulus clouds developed into a fire-induced thunderstorm that produced lightning strikes and small fires in Melbourne’s water catchment forests, including the Upper Yarra and Britannia Creek catchments.
Bushfires create their own winds when air is whipped into the convection column at ground level.
”In the 2003 fires in Canberra, we saw the fire tornado that was a result of that convective effect,” Dr Tolhurst says. ”In the fires here on February 7 we saw trees snapped off – down at the Bunyip Ridge fire, for example, where the winds would have had to have been in the vicinity of 120 km/h or more.”
Fire whirls, balls, flares and willy-willies of flame are moving air filled with combustible gases, ”and the quickest way for these to rise is to actually spin in the same way as a tornado or willy-willy would rise by spinning. When it has got combustible gases in it, we get a fire whirl.”
A lot of people on Black Saturday saw ”fair dinkum fire flares or fire balls”, he says.
”The fuels were so dry and the temperatures were so high, the rate at which the volatile gases were given off was much quicker than normal, if you like, and so the likelihood of getting black smoke and these parcels of unburnt volatiles moving through the air is much greater.”
Those parcels of gases need to mix with air to ignite and often travel long distances through the fire zone before igniting when they hit fresh air at the edge of it. ”You only need to go down to Southbank to see the gas flares in front of the casino there. It is the same phenomenon. We see it separated from the source, and it won’t last, but it is there.”
Many people have described the noise of the fires that day as being like the rumble of dozens of freight trains or the roar of hundreds of jet engines.
That noise is not heard until the front is upon you, says Dr Tolhurst. Video of Marysville just before the fire showed it still and quiet, with hardly a flutter of leaves in the trees, because prevailing winds and the winds of the bushfire cancelled each other out. ”Often as the fire is approaching things will go calm,” he says.
Many things make up the roar of the fire front: ”One is just the strong winds associated with the fire, with updraughts and so on, so that you get the thrashing of leaves and twigs and branches and other material. You don’t even need much wind. The fire actually bursts the cells of the plants . . . the crackling of the cells as they explode with the heat from the fire is quite deafening.”
The Black Saturday fires burnt out 300,000 hectares and produced flames that leaped 100 metres in the air and had temperatures of up to 1200 degrees . ”The energy of the fires was equivalent to more than 1500 atomic bombs the size of the one used at Hiroshima . . . but bushfires release their energy in a ‘storm’, not a ‘blast’,” he says.
”The total amount of heat released from the fires on Black Saturday would have been sufficient to provide the total energy needs for all Victorian domestic and industrial use for a year. This energy was released in just a few hours.”
Dr Tolhurst told the commission the fires that day showed up holes in scientific knowledge and, therefore, in the advice given to the community.
Video around one fire observation tower showed severe flames for an hour and strong radiant heat for five hours in total. Dr Tolhurst says this phenomenon of ”areas of fire” that burn for long periods has not been studied adequately and is not reflected in fire advice that tells people they can shelter briefly in houses while a fire front passes quickly over.
Areas of massive spot fires that can burn for hours, rather than a passing front, are not captured well in scientific models or in training, he says.
”If a fire is only travelling at a maximum of five or 12 km/h per hour, why do so many kangaroos get killed, because they can travel much quicker than five or 10 kilometres an hour? It’s because they basically get surrounded by fire; they get engulfed in an area of fire. So we need to actually change our conceptual framework and follow that up with research that fits that pattern.”
1 Directly under the smoke plume and driven by a northerly wind: This is the fastest and most intense phase. The fire burns out relatively quickly but could still last for an hour. This kind of blaze destroyed Humevale and Strathewen.
2 To the left (or east) of the left-hand flank: This kind of fire will affect an area for a long period of time. The area could be struck by firebrands coming from high up in the air and travelling long distances. Running fires could go on for two hours or more but the process is more gradual, and its intermittent nature may leave people confused or disoriented. This kind of fire attacked Kinglake and Pheasant Creek.
3 After the wind change: The long flank (side) of the fire turns and becomes the front. There is a massive release of embers and spotting is prolific.
Areas that were previously in clear air will fill with smoke with little warning. Spotting may occur five kilometres ahead of a front that is now 20 kilometres long. The danger of getting caught, surrounded by fire, is very high. This happened in Marysville, Buxton and Flowerdale.
A million microscopic particles can enter your body in a single breath. The tinier the particles, the greater the threat they pose. A human hair is 70 microns wide.
15 MICRONS AND LARGER Half of particulates inhaled lodge in the mouth, nose and throat.
Possible effects Dryness, irritation, inflammation, chronic runny nose, nasal and throat cancers.
5-15 MICRONS Particles are deposited in trachea, pharynx and air passages in lungs.
Possible effects Breathing difficulties, cough, aggravation of existing heart and lung disease, influenza, bronchitis, lesions and lung cancer.
5 MICRONS AND LESS Tiniest particles penetrate the alveoli where lungs perform gas exchange. Some are removed by cells called macrophages; many will remain permanently.
Possible effects Pneumonia, emphysema, reduced blood and oxygen flow, loss of macrophages and alveoli.
2.57pm DSE spotter Colin Hind at Mt Despair tower sees start of fire at Murrindindi mill. Phones regional district officer at Broadford DSE.
3.06pm Operations manager and crews arrive about 3.30pm.
3.30pm Mt Gordon spotter Andy Willans tries to call Marysville CFA captain Glen Fiske to warn him town under threat. Cannot get through.
Calls local Pauline Harrow instead.
3.45pm Alert message issued that fire burning in Murrindindi area and moving S/E direction.
4.30pm Andy Willans reports spotting in Narbethong.
4.45pm First urgent threat message for Narbethong issued by DSE (crossposted on CFA website 10 minutes later.
4.47pmWarning announced on ABC.
5pm DSE air observer flies over blaze and says there is fire “all around Narbethong”.
5.27pm Urgent threat message issued for Marysville. “The communities of Narbethong, Marysville and Buxton can expect to come under direct attack from this fire. Healesville residents are advised to remain on high alert.”
5.34pm ABC broadcasts threat message for Marysville.
5.45pm – 6pm Map predicting fire would hit Marysville produced in the IECC.
6.20pm Spot fire in Marysville (before main fire).
6.30pm South-westerly wind change hits, Narbethong and Marysville spot fires merge.
7pm DSE office on fire (partially destroyed).
Fire contained by 6pm, March 5 2009
11.49am Kilmore East fire reported to CFA.
12.33pm Infrared “linescan” of fire area taken by aircraft.
12.40pm Awareness warning for Wandong and Clonbinane.
2.25pm Alert message for Wandong.
2.40pm Urgent threat message for Wandong.
3.05pm Urgent threat messsage for Hidden Valley 3.18pm First time a threat to Kinglake is mentioned on radio. “Kay” from Kinglake calls 774 ABC and reports smoke in the sky, believing it is from a fire at Kilmore. “If I didn’t know about those fires I’d say we’re about to be hit by a wall of flames.”
3.53pm Urgent threat messages issued for Whittlesea, Hidden Valley, Heathcote Junction and Upper Plenty.
3.30pm Fire spotting into Pheasant Creek and Strathewen.
4pm-5pm Spotting starts in St Andrews.
4.01pm 774 ABC broadcasts urgent threat message for Whittlesea and Hidden Valley.
4.10pm Kilmore ICC drafts an urgent threat message warning for Clonbinane, Mt Disappointment, Kinglake, Heathcote Junction, Upper Plenty, Humevale, Reedy Creek, Strath Creek.
4.24pm Seymour RECC asked to distribute the Kilmore message through its fax due to problems with communications.
4.24pm 774 ABC radio reports fire is south of Kinglake escarpment.
4.35pm Alex Caughey at Seymour RECC sends out the Kilmore urgent threat message to IECC and others (message inexplicably goes missing, never appears online).
4.35pm Urgent threat message issued by CFA for areas including Whittlesea, Humevale, Arthurs Creek, Nutfield, Eden Park and Doreen.
4.43pm CFA spokesman mentions Kinglake is under threat in an ABC radio interview. First official threat warning on ABC about Kinglake.
5.20pm Kilmore incident controller Stuart Kreltszheim asks for urgent threat message stating communities from Kinglake to Flowerdale will be directly affected to be issued (Kinglake West, Pheasant Creek, Wandong, Wallan, Humevale, Kinglake, Glenburn, Flowerdale). Strathewen never mentioned.
5.35pm Map predicting fire spread produced at IECC based on 12.33pm linescan. Predicts that by 9pm fire could hit Kinglake, Pheasant Creek, St Andrews and Smith Gully to Diamond Creek.
5.40pm Kinglake-Flowerdale urgent threat message sent.
5.50pm Kinglake-Flowerdale message “reviewed” 5.55pm Urgent threat message for Kinglake and Flowerdale appears on CFA website. First time Kinglake mentioned online.
6pm – 6.30pm Fire hits Kinglake 7.44pm CFA chief officer Russell Rees interviewed on 774 ABC radio.
Says fire is “putting enormous pressure on areas like Kinglake West and Kinglake”.First published in The Age.

Rocking the boat

KAREN KISSANE TALKS TO JENNY WARFE   The co-ordinator of the Blue Wedges coalition against dredging in the bay returned to her childhood home for a quiet life. She got anything but.
JENNY Warfe was born in a small local hospital across the road from Dromana beach. Her mother told her that the nurse who delivered her had sand on her feet because she had just returned from walking there.
Warfe herself spent all the warm months of her childhood on that same beach, playing in the curve of its bay with her brothers and a brood of cousins while the aunties knitted and chatted in deckchairs nearby. That beach was the edge of her world, the landscape of her childhood dreaming.
She left it, as you do, to enter the adult world; she studied, trained, moved interstate and had a string of serious jobs behind large desks surrounded by lots of people. Until she got sick. She doesn’t say how sick, or what her ailment was, other than to clarify that she is not facing a death sentence. But the setback made her stop and think, and what she found herself thinking about was her childhood beach. She decided, she says dryly, that she would rather die in Dromana than behind a desk.
She quit the big job and moved home, hankering for a quiet life. She found the perfect setting for it: a low, wide 1970s bungalow on a ti-treed block set into a hillside, with sweeping views of treetops and her beloved beach (Dromana is about 90 minutes south of the city on the Mornington Peninsula). From her deck she can also see the nearby roof of her childhood home, where her father and one of her brothers still live. But the second half of the equation – the quiet life – has not eventuated.
Warfe is working 80 hours a week, fielding 100 emails a day and managing an incessantly ringing phone from her dining table, which is littered with paperwork and laptops. She is the co-ordinator for Blue Wedges, the umbrella group of strange bedfellows who have united in a desperate attempt to stop the Port of Melbourne dredging millions of tonnes of silt and rock from the bottom of Port Phillip Bay. The State Government says it is an economic necessity, that without it Victoria will lose jobs and become a second-rung international port. Warfe fears it will be an environmental catastrophe.
The group suffered a big setback when it lost a Supreme Court challenge to a smaller trial dredge, which began this week. From the timber decking that runs along the back of her house, Warfe photographed the large pale clouds of sand that stained the blue surface of the water around the dredge.
It is this cloudiness – technically known as “turbid plumes” – that she dreads. Speaking wearily with her head resting on one hand, she launches into yet another explanation of why sand and silt in the water, and coating the plants and sponges on the bay’s bed, would be dangerous.
“The whole food chain of the bay is reliant upon light, and plants producing their own photosynthesis and nutrients, and higher-order organisms feeding off that. There is a nitrogen-cycling process that goes on in the bay because of all the little organisms; they filter the waste in the bay and turn it into nitrogen, which is the main component of the air we breathe. The bay provides this incredible service by this really delicate balance of an ecosystem that depends on how much light is in the water.
“If there isn’t much light in the water, if it’s cloudy (from dredging), you run the risk of the whole thing spinning out of control and tipping into a poisoned state. In areas around the bay you could have algal blooms, or in the worst possible case” – she sighs heavily – “as the (State Government) panel hearing said, the risk of a baywide catastrophic incident has not been sufficiently eliminated. If things went as badly as they possibly could, that whole ecosystem in the bay could tip over. And, however much money you threw at trying to correct that, you wouldn’t be able to bring it back to how it was.”
She argues that the cloudy water that would kill off small plants and organisms would also damage the small fish in the bay upon which three of our main tourist attractions rely: dolphins, sea lions and penguins. For example, if toxic sediments at the mouth of the Yarra are stirred up and kill off the anchovies that spawn there, this might damage the penguin colonies that rely on the anchovies.
“Until I got involved in this campaign, I didn’t realise that 20,000 penguins from Phillip Island rely on Port Phillip Bay. They make a three-day round trip into the bay to feed and then go back to Phillip Island again to feed their chicks. If there’s not enough anchovies there . . .”
A small woman, Warfe wears her thick, honey-tinted hair loose in the unstyled abandon of the ’70s, but she wears her doggedness discreetly, behind the diplomatic front of the experienced bureaucrat. In the job she threw in to return to Melbourne, she had a staff of 100 and a budget of $25 million and the often-fraught task of administering hearing services for the Federal Government (she is an audiologist by profession). It was excellent training for her current gig, she says cheerily – constant interruptions, too much to do, big issues to cope with – but she does rather miss having staff to whom she can outsource problems. And that $25 million budget. Blue Wedges has never had more than a couple of thousand dollars in the bank.
“We’ve got about $1000 in the bank now. And a bill for $1000 for the pamphlets for the last rally. Contrast that with the Port of Melbourne Authority, who have access to taxpayers’ funds to print their glossy brochures and put on their information nights.”
It’s a battle that has been likened to David and Goliath, or more prosaically, as she points out, The Mouse that Roared. Does she think they have a hope?
“Yeah!” she yelps, as if startled by the idea of doubt. “Of course! Because we are right! I just think common sense and reason have to prevail.”
She will not be drawn on the group’s future tactics – perhaps it has yet to decide them – except to say that it is time to become more structured, dividing up and assigning roles such as fund-raising and media management, and that Blue Wedges is still considering whether to appeal against the Supreme Court ruling. But she is wary of pouring too much time and energy down the legal route. “We have to keep the ability to be reactive. I’m not attracted to being locked into the legal system.”
It could be argued that the very fact that the group still exists as a group is a triumph in itself, consisting as it does of people who would normally be at loggerheads, such as deep greens who are opposed to the whole capitalist system and commercial fishermen worried about their livelihoods.
Monash University marine biologist Simon Roberts says Warfe and her brother Len have held the group together because they have not played power games and listen to the different concerns of all parties. He says Warfe “is morally very sound. She’s genuinely altruistic and is there because she feels she has to protect something. She’s not putting herself up for the sake of kudos. She’s not power hungry at all.”
Asked to name her weakness, he nominates the flip side of the same quality: the fact that she is not a charismatic speaker who demands to be the centre of media attention. But, he says, while a pushy personality might have made a bigger blip on the public radar, he or she would not have been able to maintain the fragile unity of the group.
Warfe herself doesn’t see it as fragile and nor does she believe that her personal qualities have held it together. The members’ fear for the bay is a unifying factor that overrides all other differences. Looking back, the only thing she would have changed about the group’s strategies was to “go harder” earlier, “come out with economic arguments sooner than we did, rather than talking about it in isolation as an environmental issue”. She believes that dredging risks destroying local jobs already based in the bay in the fishing and diving industries to increase profits for foreign shipping companies. How can the dredging be necessary, she asks, when the Port itself estimates that its business will quadruple by 2030 either way?
Her chief opponent in the debate, Port of Melbourne chief executive Steve Bradford, says he believes Warfe is misguided and “has not understood our debate”. But, he says, he has found her unfailingly courteous. He says Blue Wedges had more success early on and that some protesters’ actions, such as sailing surfboards dangerously close to the dredge, have been seen by the public as misguided.
Warfe, in her turn, says that the Port has moved into “shutdown mode” to try to deprive the debate of oxygen and accuses it of releasing “sanitised” information. She has been waiting nine months to see the results of toxicity testing from the Yarra, she says.
She is used to the role of thorn in the side; at her previous workplace she was often told she was like a broken record. She was politicised by an English teacher in her teens, who once told her class that they always had the right to question. “From that time on I’ve always felt like having a say, or at least thinking a bit differently . . . I was probably a bit like that in the organisation I worked in. I always liked to pose an alternative view on the executive.”
She looks over with her direct gaze. “There wouldn’t be any change in society if people didn’t challenge things. We’d still be sending kids up bloody chimneys.”
Warfe is adept at side-stepping difficult questions (she received media training as a bureaucrat that included the advice, “Don’t answer the question they ask; answer the question you want to answer”.) So she will not be drawn on what it will be like for her if Blue Wedges fails.
But there is no doubt that this experience has changed her life. After years as a single woman, she has a new partner, Queenscliff diver Len Salter, whom she met at the panel hearings into dredging. He strode up to her one day thrusting his mobile at her and demanding that she speak to the person on the other end of it, who wanted to know something about the issue. He recently moved in with her, and they did this interview like a couple, her talking about the beaches and him describing the bright corals, sponges, fishes and caverns in their depths.
Her beloved bay has thrown up a different kind of happiness for her now.
· Boxing Day 1954.
· Completes a Bachelor of Science at La Trobe University.
· Trains as an audiologist at Melbourne University.
· Works in Melbourne as a pediatric audiologist, a manager of hearing centres and a trainer of other audiologists. Moves to Sydney to work with Australian Hearing.
· Retires to Melbourne after a health problem.
· Attends first public meeting of 20 people that would develop into Blue Wedges.

First published in The Age.

When the wilderness bites back

In the Grampians, wild kangaroos handfed by tourists have grabbed and kicked humans. In Corinella, a sick bull seal befriended by locals charged them when it was hungry or cross – no laughing matter, given that it weighed nearly a tonne. And the use of bloody carcasses to lure sharks for tourists in cages has been blamed for conditioning them to associate humans with food.

It is not just on Fraser Island, where dingoes who had lost their fear of humans this week mauled a child to death, where the line separating people and the wild is being blurred. But the tragedy highlights the contradiction between the desire to explore wilderness and the shock of reminders that “wild” can mean “ferocious”.

When the result is disaster, the longing to experience the natural state becomes a cry for help to the nanny state. The fantasy that Australians can deal with the bush is exposed as just that. On Fraser Island, rangers were called in to cull dingoes. Environmental consultant and biologist Tim Low says: “We want nature … on our terms. We want to be able to feed wildlife – but hey, if it hurts us, kill it.”

Low’s forthcoming book, The New Nature, argues that interactions between people and wildlife are already so common that there is no longer such a thing as genuine wilderness. “The whole concept that `True nature is out there in the wilderness, unsullied by human contact’ is now incredibly untrue and becoming less true every year.”
As people flock to the wilderness, and as formerly wild creatures find the trappings of city life make their own more comfortable, the question of how the species negotiate sharing the same space becomes more urgent.

Take fruit bats, says Low. Melburnians might be annoyed by their infestation of the Botanic Gardens, but they had better get used to the idea of urban colonies. Bats are now within walking distance of Jupiter’s Casino because they have found that suburban gardens provide a more reliable food supply than the wild. “These shifts are happening all over,” he says.

Even in some of Australia’s most remote areas, says CSIRO research scientist Dr David Saunders, dingoes have lost their native wariness of humans because they have been fed by tourists. Along the Gunbarrel Highway in the backblocks of Western Australia, dingoes fearlessly walk up to campers’ fires.

The cause of this artificially created fearlessness is the fact that some city-bred, TV-consuming humans have also had their wariness of wild animals blunted. This is because their only contact with them is from documentaries, says Patrick Medway, executive director of the Wildlife Preservation Society.

They take for granted the ability to see close-ups of animals, “including ones that are exceptionally dangerous”. Some expect the same in the wild: “We have lost our sense of danger; many people feed wildlife to bring them closer.”

He agrees that television has made tourists impatient and demanding, reluctant to wait for natural sightings in the wild: “On TV you see the flash of jaguar followed quickly by something else, even though the actual filming might have taken thousands of hours. Now, when you take people into the bush, they want instant gratification.”

But people should not contribute to making wildlife dependent on human hand-outs or unafraid of human contact, says Ron Waters, acting manager of flora and fauna compliance and utilisation with Victoria’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

“You don’t want to make animals so unafraid of people that they think they can just do what they like around them. That principle applies right across the board,” he says.

It is bad for both parties to any encounter, he says. Animals’ diets are distorted and their habits changed when tourists feed them. Chucking chicken bones to try to get a better look at a tree goanna, for example, could result in a nasty bite: “They have septic teeth because they eat carrion.”
Where does all this leave the Crocodile Dundee-type fantasies of rugged bush know-how that have become such a large strand of the national myth? Looking rather empty.

Perhaps they always have been; the pioneer stereotype of the noble bushman was created in the first place to ease anxieties that the convict stain made Australians somehow inferior, according to Professor John Rickard, of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. The idea was that in the encounter with a harsh environment, “the Anglo-Saxon type in Australia had actually been improved”.

The myth continues to shape the national psyche: “Some people with no (bush skills) still see themselves as almost congenitally wonderful in the outback,” says John Bryson, author of the book Evil Angels. “We’re an urban people, but that doesn’t stop us identifying as outback people.”

Bryson says white Australians have not wanted to face the fact that dingoes can be lethal: “Firstly because they’re ours, and we like to like them, and they are very beautiful, graceful creatures.” (Misplaced nationalism).

There has also been a sense that they are mysterious animals: “Part of it is its ability just to appear like the Kadaitcha (an Aboriginal spirit); the number of times in the bush that you will suddenly see a dingo there, regarding you, and he’s appeared without you getting any sense of him travelling there.” (Romanticism).

And finally, he says, white attitudes have been colored by the Anglo-Celtic love of dogs. (Projections of the Old World on to the New).

But wider questions about tourism and the wild remain. How real is a wilderness experience that involves hordes of tourists? Take the dolphins in Port Phillip Bay: how exposed to human swimmers do they have to be before they can no longer be considered wild?

How do we stop loving nature to death?

First published in The Age.