Rainforest Living: The Winds of Change

Herein, we continue our Tales of the Woods. Today’s installment deals with the weather.

Fires and Storms

When you tell people you’re moving to the hills – to the forests – and, more specifically, to the Dandenong Ranges – you generally get the following response (said in a voice of restrained, mild panic):

“Aren’t you worried about bushfires?!”

Some background here: the Ranges don’t catch fire in a major way that often, but when they do, and when it is not managed by the extensive network of CFA stations, they burn like hell. I used to live in the same area when I was a teenager, about ten kilometres from where I sit right now on my couch. I have actually been evacuated for a bushfire. To a fire shelter. From which we were subsequently evacuated, to another fire shelter. Good times. We were fortunate, and the fire only came within about a kilometre of our house. Whenever the siren went off, you dropped everything and waited. Just waited. To see if it stopped. To see if the sky went red. To see if there was smoke.

So, in its own way, it really is a fair question, and I feel I’m answering this with a degree of realism and personal experience.

But here’s some more background: the specific location we were moving to, in our Mountain Fortress, exists in a micro-climate. It’s on the watershed side of the mountains; it’s always green, it’s covered in ferns, and it is, above all else, wet. We have leeches down in the bottom of the yard, and when it rains, the bottom of the yard basically turns into a swamp and I go through many towels and buckets of warm water getting the mud off my dogs (well, Abby, anyway. Amos tiptoes through the mud. He seems to find it icky). The only time we have to worry about fires is if the suburban town at the bottom of the hill catches fire, and it heads uphill; it would then become a crown fire and we would need to haul arse. This doesn’t actually happen, as a rule. It’s not impossible, but it’s very unlikely. Even in summer, it never dries out here. In fact, we light fires on purpose throughout most of the year. I didn’t mention it in my post about yard work, but a big part of maintaining our property is sensible burning-off of debris. I think Husband has assembled and supervised about fifteen of these sessions now, maybe more; he does a few of these every year to clear up bark, fallen branches that are no good as firewood, and leaves.

It’s important not to be stupid. You have your fire plan. You have your bag of essentials. You have your conditions under which you load your pets and valuables into the car and high-tail it off the mountain. And, of course, you schedule your burn-offs very sensibly. But, overall, there is nothing to really panic about where we are when it comes to fires.

Most importantly (to understand my response to the panicky question), prior to our shift to the rainforest, we were living in the semi-rural northern suburbs of Melbourne. Open grasslands and dry scrub. Massive grassfires, every summer, almost without fail (particularly Kangaroo Ground which I understand to be more or less constantly on fire).

So I’d get this question from understandably concerned friends, and I’d look at my dry, grass abode with its open rolling hills, and then picture my wet, swampy, rainforest abode, surrounded by gigantic mountain ash trees.

“No,” I’d say decisively, to an expression of disbelief. “I am not at all worried about bushfires.”

“But-”

“I’m worried about storm damage.”

Yessir, the greatest concern to our safety and wellbeing where we are is the very real risk that one of the numerous fifty metre tall trees in our yard will decide, in a high wind, to go kamikaze on our asses – or, more accurately, our roof.

We have a large skylight in the lounge room (actually, we have about five skylights in total, but more on that in another post). Through this skylight, I can look up and see the trees swaying in the wind – and believe me, they do sway, even on a lightly windy day. Eucalyptus regnans is a bendy sort of tree up on the top end, and I can see why evolution favours that construction. If they were rigid, they’d snap right off.

IMG_1885

Sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to duck sideways.

And crush us.

Our first experience of this occurred about six months after moving in. Husband and I were sitting up in bed, reading. It was about ten pm. Soon it would be time to turn out the light, and get some rest.

What happened next was decidedly un-restful.

There was an almighty crack. I can’t really describe this sound properly, except to say that it was all-encompassing. It was followed by a series of similar cracks, rustling, snapping, breaking, falling, crushing – and this falling took a long time. We were sitting there for a good fifteen seconds, I think, before we heard the deafening WHUMP of a mountain ash diving to the ground. To be fair, given the slope of our yard, it had to fall below parallel, and it took two or three sycamore maples with it (the extra cracks and thuds), and crushed a fern (which simply decided to grow sideways, because ferns are pretty badass up here), so getting to the ground was always going to take a little while.

We just sat there while this colossal noise was going on all around us.

When we tell people this story, we get another question (again, delivered in a slightly horrified voice):

“Why didn’t you run away?!”

Honestly, I would have tried to make sure I was much further from the impact than I was when I started. I would have. Honest. I am perfectly happy to run away! The problem was that there was absolutely no way to tell which direction the noise came from. If we had made the wrong call, we could have ended up running towards the fall. It seemed like the tree took a long time to fall, but it’s not enough time to make that judgement.

So we sat there, books set aside and forgotten, both of us staring up at the roof, hearts pounding, waiting for the noise to stop.

We got up, donned dressing gowns and Ugg boots, grabbed torches, and went out to survey the damage, where we found our neighbours, and we all stood there laughing hysterically.

fallentree

While this is a very unflattering mug shot of yours truly, the expression on my face accurately captures my surreal puzzlement at the event. This also doesn’t quite capture the size of the tree either. (taken next day)

That time, we got lucky. The tree fell exactly parallel to our fence line, about two metres from our carport. It crushed three trees, as I said above; it crushed a retaining wall, and our side gate; and the extended branches managed to partially damage the fence between us and our equally bemused neighbours.

It took over a year to get rid of the debris, repair the retaining wall, and the gate, and clean up the fence, and mostly that was achieved with the assistance of my father and his five foot chainsaw (I am not exagerrating. It’s a Husqvana and it is nearly as long as my dad is tall. My dad is sort of short).

Since then, we had the twin to that tree removed (they were growing from the same root, and there was fungus damage). Dad has helped us take down a dead blackwood in the backyard which fell and was supported by another tree. There are two more trees in our yard that I think need to come down, but if we can’t fell them in a straightforward way with Dad’s help, it costs thousands of dollars to take them down (because they are very tall and robust trees in very tight quarters, surrounded by other trees).

It’s not for the faint of heart. Amos has acquired a modest fear of the wind. Being a laid back sort of dog (relatively speaking), his expression of this fear is to hide under Husband’s desk or lean against my leg. He doesn’t throw tantrums, or bark in a panicky way. He just requests safety and reassurance.

I mean, uh, he boldly protects us from under the table. That’s right.

This is fair enough, considering that I came out one morning after a storm to find that, instead of having a sleepy dog on the couch under the skylight, I had a couch covered in rainwater, pieces of plastic and wood, and apparently, no dog. I glanced around to discover him running around on the verandah.

I put the pieces together (not literally. The skylight was freaking toast). A branch (and from that height, it might be very small) had broken off one of the towering trees overhead, plummeted down onto the skylight, and smashed it. Shards of plastic and one of the wooden frame supports fell down, and landed on my dog, along with copious amounts of rainwater, who understandably woke up from what was most likely a comfortable snooze, freaked the fuck out, and managed to get the back door open and run outside into safety – a feat he had never managed before and has not managed since (Abby has. She opens things. If she drank beer, we’d never need to buy another bottle opener again. Although we would have a different problem to solve at that point, i.e. a drunk, yeast-farting 40kg rottweiler).

So. We put up a tarp. We ordered a replacement skylight. We mopped up the couch with towels. And we now have a dog that gets a wee bit nervous in high winds and heavy rain.

There’s not a lot we can do about this. It’s just a fact of life here. Getting trees assessed would help, but that raises further problems (a story for another day).

Apropos timing

This post has been sitting in its unfinished state for about two weeks, and today in Melbourne we had a day so very hot that even our Mountain Fortress (which, given the altitude and the protection of the canopy, can be up to seven or eight degrees cooler than the city) reached 36 celsius. We had escaped to an air conditioned cinema to see Episode VII, having filled a kiddie pool with water for the dogs and dumped a freezer full of ice in their water bucket, and I was admittedly shielding my screen and checking my phone every ten to fifteen minutes to see if the CFA app had updated.

The power went out at the shopping centre, due to the heat, about 60% of the way through the movie. We got evacuated. So I still don’t know how it ends. We get replacement tickets and think we’ll probably try and see it on Thursday.

What really made this appropriate was that, after the day started to cool down, we started getting thunderstorm warnings, and suddenly I was really worried about not being at home with the dogs. When it’s hot, the dogs have plenty of options to stay cool. They can hide in the fallen tree (it’s hollow, and very cool), they can dig out little hollows in the mud at the bottom of the yard near the creek (which Amos absolutely does, and I can tell because his belly is covered in dried mud, which normally he avoids like the plague), they can stand in the kiddie pool and cool off their feet (Abby apparently does this, but Amos is still skeptical).

But they don’t have any way to deal with storm damage. Amos doesn’t panic properly, so I doubt he would lose his shit the way that some unlucky dogs do, but he would be upset, and if a falling tree takes out a fence, he might get out. Or they might get crushed by falling trees (notice I’m not worried about Abby getting upset about storms. She doesn’t give a rat’s backside; other dogs? Strange people who are too big? High visibility vests? Terrifying. Catastrophic storms? Pfeh, whatever). And there is no way to prepare for that.

So it sort of illustrates my point, which is that it is absolutely beautiful up here, but there are drawbacks, and it really isn’t what you’d expect. For the most part, we really aren’t worried about fire, but we spend most of the year being concerned about storms.

As does Amos. This is his concerned face.

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Concerned dog is concerned.

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