Allan Newell joins us to discuss the science and history of wildland fires including the Ash Wednesday bushfires, the Peshtigo Fire, The Big Burn, the Great Miramichi Fire, Black Saturday, and the Kursha-2 Fire. Also – fire tornadoes!

Music: “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” by Hank Williams with his Drifting Cowboys



16 Responses

  1. hi guys, I am an avid follower of your podcast, and wanted to jump in to tell you a little about my experiences with the Victorian 2009 Black Saturday fires.

    I was living in densely forested property in the Dandenong Ranges at the time, with my then-wife and 7 month old daughter, and due to the heat-wave at the time, had gone to visit friends just off the mountain, (who had air-conditioning) with my daughter, for the day and as the afternoon wore on, and her feeding-time came up, we were hearing an unusual number of sirens go past. We’d thought little of it, as it was bushfire season, and there were usually spot-fires that the Country Fire Authority have to deal with routinely.

    When it came time for me to head home, I bundled up my daughter, threw the car A/C on full, and turned out of my friends driveway, to face the Ranges, and was confronted by a wall of smoke obscuring the way home. A Police and Metropolitan Fire Brigade cordon blocked the highway and they couldn’t tell me how bad it was. I called home on the landline, and the phone rung out. I called my then-wife’s cellular phone, which also rung out.

    In a panic, I drove the 45 minute way around the the far side of the mountain, listening to the local alerts radio-station to make sure I wasn’t driving into a fire-storm, and eventually made it back home, to find that the phones weren’t offered due to afternoon naps. We did a lot of prep for fire-season, but with a fire so close we spent the next few days and nights doing even more, we could see the red glow over the hills, and had ash falling on the house for days. It was really scary and at the time, I logged a few LiveJournal entries (remember back when that was cool? no, me either …).


    Needless to say, it was a bad time in everyone’s life here. Every day at work I had to wait and see if I would be able to get home, and my family relocated to the in-laws place. We were untouched by the fires, but it was a very scary few weeks until the fires were controlled. I have friends now who at the time lost their houses to the Black Saturday fires, but no loss of life directly.

    It spurred me to start my very own blog, http://www.apocalypseequipped.com and your podcast is always inspiration for especially Caustic moments in life. Keep it up!

    1. I was recently in Australia for a vacation and spent lots of time in the bush around Canberra and between Canberra and Sydney. Unbelievably, it rained almost every day I was there, so I didn’t see any wildfires (my story is not nearly as interesting as Josh’s). I was amazed, however, that almost every single tree I saw that was above a certain height had been badly burned in the past few years but had survived and was doing well! These trees have an amazing ability to burn but not die. Black scorch marks were the norm as far as the eye can see. In a follow up episode it would be interesting to talk about how various trees cope with fire and benefit from it, as it was only briefly touched on in your episode.

  2. ‘Everything on fire’ is just a Tuesday during summer in lower Australia. 😉

    This summer just gone Perth had a whole string of bushfires concentrated in a few areas (including where I live, which is near bushland) which extended over a few weeks – while they were much smaller than the Ash Wednesday/ Black Friday/ Black Saturday fires, the fact that once fire was under control/ out, another one started really wore the emergency services/ volunteer fireys thin and frazzled the people living in these areas. It’s not a good feeling spending the whole day wondering if you need to throw all the pets into the car and get the frak out of dodge (I found out that the area being full of smoke and ash raining down on my house is my limit for hanging around), or driving home from work and seeing the big clouds of smoke from the latest fire in the general direction of home and hoping it’s not the bushland around the corner from one’s house. Most of the fires this past bushfire season were arson – there’s a lot of people around here that would love to get their hands on these shits for all the crap they put us through.

    On a slightly lighter note, I was in LA in mid January 2014, while they were having their winter heatwave and there were wildfires. It was t-shirt weather, there were eucalypt trees everywhere and things were on fire. Made me feel right at home!

  3. Great episode guys and thanks again for the shoutout. 🙂 Something I realised I completely forgot to mention was that the fires remain dangerous well after they’ve burned through an area. With the recent Sampson Flat bushfires next to Adelaide, the CFS (Country Fire Service) continued to do checks for days and weeks afterwards to ensure people could re-enter areas – the reason being that although the fire aboveground has been extinguished, the root systems can sometimes literally burn for months (certainly weeks), which means that some burnt trees, although still standing, might have had their root systems destroyed underneath and might collapse at any time. Amazing stuff.

    That content about tree density being much greater in some areas now causing much more of a hazard is really interesting. Sometimes human try to do the right thing and we bugger it up anyway.

    Joe’s Aussie accent was pretty good, nicely understated. 😉 You need to blur the trailing syllables of town/city names though: Canberra is can-bruh, Melbourne is mel-b’n, Brisbane is briz-b’n. 🙂

    BTW, of all the creatures we have on our money, koalas aren’t one of them! Echidnas, lyrebirds, platypuses, mobs of kangaroos, emus, humans, but no koalas (as far as I can remember).

    1. My sad little Australian accent has gotten loads better since binge-watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix. 😉 Oh Jack Robinson, le swoon!!

      1. Miss Fisher FTW! Great show. See if you can the Dr Blake Mysteries too – if you like Miss Fisher you might like that too. 🙂

  4. Ah, Cloquet! (klo-KAY) Fun fact: there’s a gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright up there. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._W._Lindholm_Service_Station My dad happened to be up there taking pics (he loved FLW) when one of the TV stations (I forget which) arrived to do stories of it making the National Register of Historic Places. I got to see mah daddy on the TV giving one of his hilarious interviews, and somewhere we have VHS of it. 😀

  5. Hello, I am a new fan of your podcast, and I just wanted to give you some other info on a wildfire near where I live in Arizona. We had a small one near Prescott that got a lot of attention because 19 firefighters died in 2013. It wasnt a big fire but there was some controversy about whether they were deployed correctly and I thought this might have made it into your news section. Heres some links to the articles on it: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/01/arizona-firefighters-disaster/2478537/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarnell_Hill_Fire . Its not as big as the Australian fires but I hope you find this interesting!

  6. My experience with a wildfire was when I was visiting family in Bella Coola, it was the hottest place in BC that day (41 if I recall correctly) and dry lightning touched down near the highway setting the forest ablaze, Bella Coola only has one road in/out so we couldn’t leave by road and ended up having to catch a ferry out that took 24 hours to get to Port Hardy. No death or anything particularly caustic but eep!

    Day one of the fire: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vancouvergeek/3780257944/
    Day Two of the fire: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vancouvergeek/3783164705/

  7. THANK YOU for saying what needed to be said about Bambi. It’s so boring! …and there’s no plot! I just had a baby and decided to watch it with him. Even my 2 month old baby was bored by it! Anyway, you are right that its one saving grace is the art and color palate.

  8. Just a quick note: Ambulance Victoria, is not a place, its the organisation that runs ambulances in the state of Victoria. I had a little chuckle to myself during this episode when you got it confused. Needed the chuckle because like most Victorians, Bush fires have been devastating to my family and friends!

  9. Indonesia is currently (Oct 2015) suffering from perhaps the worst fires on record, but because they were deliberately lit as part of slash and burn farming techniques, Singapore and Malaysia are considering suing Indonesia!
    Just In: Indonesia fires could become worst on record: NASA

  10. Great slide-over before/after visualisations of recent (2016) bushfires in Australia: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-15/satellite-pictures-reveal-scale-of-summers-bushfire-destruction/7232594
    I’ve driven through the South Australian area myself a number of times this year, while visiting my parents, and it’s gobsmacking. There are fields of what was wheat that are now simply dirt. No ash, no cinders of grass or anything, just dirt, along with the husks of burn-out trees lining the road and scorch marks across the road for about 5km. And where it starts and stops is just so sudden! You’re driving along, looking at fields of dirt and burnt trees, and then it suddenly changes to normal fields of wheat that clearly didn’t get caught by the fire. Just amazing.