THE current fires which have been raging in an around Sydney for the past ten days are being compared to the great Sydney fires of Christmas/New Year 1993/94 in terms of intensity and spread.
Australia’s largest city is once again bracing itself for a catastrophe, as one of the worst bush fire emergencies in New South Wales history spread to Sydney’s outskirts.
Yesterday, there were 69 fires burning across the state, 29 of which are uncontained. There are more than 1,300 fire-fighters out with 367 vehicles.
Reading the headlines in the on-line edition of the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday brought me back to the great Sydney fires of twenty years earlier.
I was three weeks into a month long stay in Sydney on Wednesday, January 5, 1994 when all of a sudden officials were warning residents in fire prone areas to prepare their homes for fire.
Based in Gladesville, staying with Teresa Fitzgerald (nee Kelly from Glencar, Letterkenny), the realisation that the fires were not too far away was quickly brought home to me when news reports starting emerging that flames had reached the doors of houses in the Busaco Road area of Marsfield as fire-fighters asked hundreds of people to leave their homes.
During my year long visit to Australia a year earlier (1989) I stayed at an apartment on Crimea Road in Marsfield which runs parallel to Busaco Road, the affected area.
Teresa, who worked for the CSIRO (Australia’s peak scientific body) as Marketing Executive at that time, was also evacuated from her work in 1994.
Fast forward twenty years and Teresa, who now works for the Australian Industry Group, as Senior Relationship Executive, still lives in Sydney with her sixteen year old daughter Ciara. She spoke to the Donegal News in the early hours of yesterday morning.
“The many visitors we’ve had here from Letterkenny since I first came in July 1989 will know the Blue Mountains well. Nearly a week after the first fire started and 40,000 hectares have been burned out so far.
“There’s still great concern for the fires in this region where they have been most destructive with 100 plus houses burned to the ground.
“Temperatures and winds are expected to intensify tomorrow so all towns in and around the Blue Mountains are on standby for evacuation,” she said.
The Blue Mountains are known so for the beautiful blue haze that sits above the mountains as a result of the eucalyptus trees.
“The kids here now are sitting for their HSC (Higher School Certificate) which is equivalent to the Leaving Certificate. It’s awful to hear the stories of how many kids have had their houses burned to the ground plus all their notes, books and computers lost to the fires.
“All schools in the area are randomly closed depending on which way the wind directs the fires. Hospitals all over Sydney are full of asthmatic patients – another ripple effect of the fires and the heavy smoke,” she said.
Ciara, born and raised in Sydney, thinks of bush fires as another weather condition – sunny one day, bush fires the next whereas her mother is still in awe of them.
“Ciara remarked the other day how beautiful the sky was when it was particular orange as a result of the fires and yet felt guilty admiring something so tragic. So many families here have a box of their personal stuff such as passports and photos ready to make a run at all times,” she said.
The Australian Industry Group is an Industry Body representing some 10,000 companies mostly in manufacturing, employing approximately one million.
“Employers are very accommodating to staff when it comes to doing what has to be done when fires rage from fire fighting, manning property, volunteering, raising funds etc. People can be out of work for weeks at a time and at a time manufacturers are struggling to pay them.
“Some 3,000 fire fighters are fighting the fires in and around Sydney with hundreds more helping feed them plus manage evacuations and logistics,” she said.
While working for the CSIRO Teresa had the pleasure of working with fire technology scientists, a team of 40 or so across the country.
“On the back of the fires 20 years ago, I remember a lot of time was spent on developing a system to keep firemen safe in the fire trucks for three minutes as that’s all it takes for a fire to pass over should they find themselves in bother.
“There’s a lot of science in emergency evacuation and keeping people alive and of course also in building buildings in such a way with the right material to withstand fires in the future. More importantly to know when to back burn prior in the cooler months as this is the best prevention. It’s also so important for scientist to be out in the thick of the fires to understand the conditions there and then,” she said.
“I really miss the green green grass of home. This is one sunburnt city no green grass to be found,” she added.
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