Fire danger signs – Who changes them? What do they mean?

Fire Danger Ratting signs, part of the landscape in South East NSW. Photo: Ian Campbell
Fire Danger Rating signs, part of the landscape in South East NSW. Photo: Ian Campbell

The truth behind the workings of the region’s ‘Fire Danger Rating Signs‘ isn’t as colourful as I’d hoped.

However, it is another indicator of the commitment and dedication of the Rural Fire Service in South East NSW and a reminder of the devastating potential that exists in the environment we live in.

Where ever I travel these signs of green, blue, orange, and red catch my eye, a marker of dry times and wet times, and different geography. There is something universal about them, like a pot hole on the main street – every town has one.

And so simple, clear, effective – survivors in a high tech age.

When I started to see their arrows change and move up a notch or two with the changing season I was reminded of a long held mystery. Who changes them? How do they change? Never have I seen one being changed.

Asking that question of locals on Facebook prompted a range of creative answers.

Mixed with obvious affection for this service, it was suggested different mythical creatures, along with squads of ninjas, and ‘invisible people of the dark’ were all responsible for this very public but seldom seen work.

After at first suggesting goblins, trolls, and pixies changed the signs, one of the region’s fire chiefs revealed the secret.

Community Safety Officer, Marty Webster. Photo Ian Campbell
Community Safety Officer, Marty Webster. Photo Ian Campbell

Marty Webster is the Community Safety Officer with Far South Coast Rural Fire Service, he told About Regional that the signs change as a result of information from the Bureau of Meteorology.

“We get the ratings through and then we hit the pagers and one of our dedicated volunteers goes out and makes the change to the sign,” Marty explains.

“It happens when ever there is a change to the rating, typically over the winter months they’ll stay on low – moderate, moving into spring is when they start fluctuating, and over summer they can change daily.”

Marty says each RFS brigade is responsible for the signs in their patch, and often it’s the volunteer that lives closest to the sign who will go out, undo the padlock at the back of the pointer and move the sign accordingly.

Behind the Fire Danger Rating signs. Photo: Ian Campbell
Behind the Fire Danger Rating signs. Photo: Ian Campbell

When it comes to working out which of the six fire danger ratings the arrow will be stuck to, a range of factors are taken into account.

“Humidity, wind speed, temperature, and the state of the fuel – quite a complex algorithm that the Bureau does for us,” Marty says.

Each step along the way points to the predicted intensity of a bushfire if one was to start on that day.

“So at Low – Moderate, fires under those conditions will be fairly easy to contain,” Marty explains.

“At Very High, fires can be really unpredictable and there is a significant risk of house losses.

“Severe is where we hit Total Fire Ban, and then we move up to Extreme and Catastrophic, by the time we get to Catastrophic we are basically saying – no houses are designed or prepared well enough to withstand fire under those conditions,” he says.

What is of some comfort is that those days at the high end don’t come out of the blue and tend to be forecast days ahead.

“Certainly at Very High I’d be really encouraging people to look at their level of preparation,” Marty says.

The Community Safety Officer suggests that people use the fire danger rating signs as part of a Bush Fire Survival Plan.

“They are really valuable trigger points, so for example on a day of High Fire Danger people should start monitoring the RFS website more closely and as the fire danger rating increases or the situation changes other actions and decisions can be initiated,” Marty says.

The official bushfire season started on September 1 through the Bega Valley and Eurobodalla meaning fire permits are now needed. Landholders on the Monaro and in the Snowy Mountains have until October 1 before permits are needed.

Call your Local Fire Control Centre for advice.

 

*Another local story made with the contribution of About Regional members, thanks to Maria Linkenbagh, Tabitha Bilaniwskyi-Zarins, Jeanette Westmore, Fiona Cullen, and Kiah Wilderness Tours.

“The best summer ever” at Tathra Beach – Tony McCabe, lifeguard

Tony McCabe in the patrol room overlooking Tathra Beach
Tony McCabe in the patrol room overlooking Tathra Beach

The final days of the 2016/17 summer on Tathra Beach have been some of the season’s best, perhaps ‘the best ever’ according to longtime lifeguard Tony McCabe.

The water temp through most of January and February sat at around 21-22 degrees.

“We’ve had the best water temperature I can remember in 25 years,” Tony says.

Tony struggles to remember just how many summers he’s seen on the clean sands of Tathra, but thinks it’s about 41.

“For a couple of years I was down at Aslings Beach, I’ve had a season at Main, and I’ve done a few up at Camel Rock, but Tathra is my favourite,” Tony says.

Tex Glover was the man that started Tony’s professional career on the beach.

“He use to actually sleep in the surf club, he’d get up in the morning, sometimes a bit late and as young guys we’d come and put the flags out for Tex,” Tony remembers.

“He was a bit of a legend down here at the time and I sort of hung out with Tex for a fair while and then took over the mantle from him.”

Tony believe’s Tex is still going strong and is fitter than ever living in Canberra.

When Tony did his first patrol at around the age of 18, the belt and reel were still being used to rescue swimmers from the surf.

“You had to be a very strong swimmer because a lot of times you were towing 150 – 200 metres of line behind you.

“Then the guys on the reel would have to pull you back in, the guys on the line had to be strong as well,” Tony explains.

Like old Tex Glover before him, at almost 60 Tony is now inspiring the next generation of lifeguards.

“I enjoy training other guards and keeping the standard up.

“I just like to see the young people coming through, they’re enthusiastic and I just hope I can implant a little bit of my wisdom into them,” Tony says.

Click play, Tony talks about his time on Tathra Beach and what to do with blue bottle stings…

 

While keeping the public safe is the thrust of the job, Tony and his young team this summer have also become tourism ambassadors pointing people towards good coffee and a feed.

“It’s a great beach where you can meet people and tell’em a little bit about the area,” Tony says.

“A lot of families come back here, they just book year after year.

“All the locals embrace the tourists that come down here, it’s a really friendly area,” Tony says.

That relaxed easy approach can also open up discussion around surf safety.

“With rips, if they (swimmers) don’t know, they come down to the beach, they have a look at the big waves, and they see the calmer water, and think we’ll stay away from the big waves and jump in the calmer waters,” Tony says.

Tathra Beach looking north.
Tathra Beach looking north.

Not realising that the calmer water is often the rip.

“We’ve had a fair few overseas people here this year and they have just had no idea, and they have really appreciated that we have pointed out where the rip is,” Tony says.

The laid back look and nature of the paid and volunteer lifeguards at Tathra masks the dramatic twists and turns their day can take at any time.

“Sometimes the days you think are going to be your calmest, you have issues,” Tony says.

Tragically this summer a rock fisherman from Canberra died after being swept off rocks to the south of Tathra beach at Kianinny. Being a Saturday volunteers were on duty and responded.

“We have had to hop in the rescue boat and shoot down to Games Bay down near Wallagoot, where someone walking with their wife and baby trod on a stingray and couldn’t go anywhere so we had to go down and assist them.”

Over the years Tony also recalls drownings at the Bega River mouth, rescues at Nelson’s Beach 8km north of Tathra Surf Lifesaving Club, boats that break down, injuries at the nearby skate bowl, and heart attacks at the bowling club across the road.

“Only on Friday we had a lady bring a baby in from Turingal Head who had been stung by a blue bottle, and someone said get down to Tathra, the lifeguards are on duty during February, and she was ecstatic that we were able to help,” Tony explains.

“It’s not just sitting looking at the water, it’s all those other things that happen while you are down here.”

One of the big talking points of summer 2016/17 was the shape and look of Tathra Beach following June’s East Coast Low.

The wide strip of golden sand in front of the surf club was sucked away, creating an amphitheater overlooking the red and yellow flags and reducing the space people could claim as their own.

“We were really worried when we first started patrol, at high tide there is very little beach in front of the surf club,” Tony says.

“We were worried people would move further up the beach (away from the flags) where there is more room.”

Tathra Beach lifeguards on the job
Tathra Beach lifeguards on the job

To Tony’s relief most people this year did the right thing and swum between the flags even though they were pushed further up the beach.

This bronzed, buff veteran is confident the beach will recover from being chewed up by the storms of June.

“It will come back, but it will be over a long period,” Tony says.

Generally Tony describes Tathra as a pretty safe beach.

“Down in the corner we normally have a reasonably sized sandbar, and even though we do get north-east winds that blows in a bit of a swell, we get a southerly change and the swell only lasts for maybe one of two days and it levels out,” Tony explains.

“As you get further round towards the Country Club or further up the beach it’s a lot more dangerous, down in the corner it’s usually pretty safe.”

With the days of summer starting to shorten, Tony is called south again to Melbourne and his regular job as a carpenter.

Born and bred not too far from the Bega Swimming Pool, Tony is already preparing for his 42nd Tathra summer.

“We’ll be back up at Easter, followed by the yearly lifeguard testing in December.

“You jump in the water, it’s sunny, it’s clear, you have a swim around, and you get out, the salt water, it’s a fantastic feeling,” Tony says.

 

 

Disclaimer: Author is currently contracted to Tathra Chamber of Commerce 

 

 

Yellow buoys off Merimbula and Malua Bay listening for sharks

Shark listening station - Malua Bay, supplied DPI.
Shark listening station – Malua Bay, supplied DPI.

The sapphire waters of the Far South Coast naturally draw your attention – forever changing, forever surprising.

This summer, just below Batemans Bay at Maula Bay and further south at Merimbula, a tall yellow buoy beyond the last line of breakers will catch your eye as your bum finds that sweet spot in the sand.

It’s a Shark Listening Station or VR4G, installed during November before the place filled up with holiday makers.

The one off Main Beach Merimbula brings the number of listening stations along the New South Wales coastline to twenty, all designed to give our feeble bodies the jump on these ‘monsters of the deep.’

Other locations include Kiama, Sussex Inlet, Mollymook, Bondi, Byron Bay, Ballina and Lennox Head.

The Member for Bega, Andrew Constance says these satellite-linked VR4G receivers record the presence of tagged sharks swimming within 500 metres of the listening station.

“Information on the movement of tagged sharks captured on the VR4Gs goes straight to a satellite and is then instantly sent to mobile devices via Twitter and the SharkSmart App.” he explains.

There are 114 White Sharks and 88 Bull Sharks that have been tagged by either the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) or CSIRO. These are the beasties that give themselves away when they swim near one of these hi-tech posts.

“Whilst we can’t tag every shark, the new listening stations will enhance bather safety by alerting beachgoers and authorities when a tagged shark is in the area,” Mr Constance says.

“They provide beachgoers with information and knowledge to help them assess their risk of a shark encounter before they hit the water.”

Shark at Bournda Island December 25,from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart
Shark at Bournda Island December 25, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart

The technology is one component of the NSW Government’s $16m Shark Management Strategy and follows a run of fatal and near-fatal shark attacks in northern NSW during 2016.

Other parts of the strategy being seen locally include regular DPI helicopter patrols running between Kiama and Eden, and soon a new $33,000 viewing platform overlooking Pambula Beach.

Since the aerial patrols and listening stations became active seven local shark sightings have been reported to the Shark Smart App – all south of the Bega River mouth at Tathra.

The first alert on December 17 pointed to four Whaler Sharks near Bar Beach Merimbula, and two unidentified 2 metre sharks off Pambula Beach – both spotted by the DPI aerial team.

The most recent alert was sent out on December 29 with the helicopter reporting up to eight juvenile Bronze Whaler Sharks off Main Beach Merimbula.

In all cases, nearby authorities were notified and it was assessed that there was little threat to swimmers and surfers – sometimes simply because there was no one in the water.

If there is deemed to be a risk to people, lifesavers on the beach or the aerial patrol have the capacity to clear the water of swimmers.

Looking further north to the Shoalhaven, 13 shark alerts have been trigger during the same time frame around Ulladulla and Jervis Bay. On the Central and North Coasts, where there is a more intensive monitoring effort, 60 alerts have been issued taking in beaches between Lake Macquarie and Tweed Heads.

Unidentified sharks spotted 1km north of Tathra Beach on December 19, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart
Unidentified sharks spotted 1km north of Tathra Beach on December 19, from https://twitter.com/NSWSharkSmart

Broulee’s Andrew Edmunds, Director, Far South Coast Surf Life Saving says his organisation welcomes anything that helps lifesavers manage risk and allows people to make informed choices.

“Sharks are not the biggest risk to swimmers though,” Mr Edmunds says.

“Since the start of summer, we have had 18 deaths in New South Wales waters, none have been a result of shark interaction,” Mr Edmunds says.

“Unpatrolled beaches, rips and strong currents, not wearing life-jackets, unsupervised pools, ponds, and dams – these are the biggest risks.”

Mr Edmunds is hoping the listening stations might ease people’s concern about sharks.

“People will start to see sharks in the natural environment as normal,” he says.

“The frequency of the alerts will increase over time as more sharks are tagged, people might start to realise how commonplace sharks are.”

Shark Smart alerts as there appear on Twitter
Shark Smart alerts as they appear on Twitter

The yellow VR4G units sit high in the water and have been somewhat of a curiosity to beachgoers this summer with lifesavers taking regular questions.

“Stand-up paddle boarders have also been going out and back to investigate,” Mr Edmunds says.

The odds of being attacked or killed by a shark are said to be 1 in 3,748,067, despite the regularity of their presence in our environment that Mr Edumnds points to.

Those long odds however, are easily challenged by our active imaginations, fed by frequent news reports from the North Coast pointing to surfers bitten or killed and White Sharks snared in drum lines.

The tall yellow buoys that now sit out the front of Merimbula and Malua Bay not only highlight the physical presence of sharks but also our fragile minds when it comes to these creatures.

Summer hijacked by bindiis. Advice to slow their advance!

 

Bindiis! Quick gettem now before they flower. Supplied by Eurobodalla Shire Council
Bindiis! Quick get them now before they flower. Pic supplied by Eurobodalla Shire Council

Bindiis are the curse of summer 2016/17 in South East New South Wales.

Barefoot cricket is not an option and running under the sprinkler ends in tears. My dog Duke has even worked out a path around the bindiis when fetching a ball – smart fella!

Spread easily by foot traffic and in the fur of animals, bindiis AKA Soliva sessilis are a native of South America, but are now well established around the globe. Backyards in New Zealand, France, Hawaii, and California have also become no-go zones.

In 2016 it seems these little ‘pricks’ have made the most of a good growing season.

A spokesperson from the parks and gardens team at Eurobodalla Shire Council says bindiis generally flourish in spring, but especially so after a wet winter.

And a wet winter we have had.

Checking the rainfall stats, South East NSW received an average of 364mm of rain over the three months of winter. Bega was the top with 808mm, then came Batemans Bay with at least 400mm, Eden 236mm, Bombala 235mm, Jindabyne 258mm.

As a bonus, most backyards also had a good dump in early spring.

Boots - an unwilling accomplice to the spread of Bindii's
Boots – an unwilling accomplice to the spread of Bindii’s

Friends of About Regional are despairing.

Jan Southcott writes, ‘This is the first year they have invaded our lawn – grandkids won’t be happy.”

“I think they are worse this year,” Robyn Calhoun says on Facebook.

Ahoy Jenni writes, “I was ambushed by a whole cluster of bindiis.”

From Meagan O’Halloran, “They are much worse at my place too this year.”

Robyn Broughton was forced to take action, “Just finished digging mine out of the backyard.”

There is more at play here though then just our wet winter.

About Regional garden Jedi, Kathleen McCann says, “When weeds appear there is a story to look for, often a story of repair and rejuvenation.”

“What the bindii is telling you is – Stop treading here, I am repairing your lawn!”

Kathleen McCann
Kathleen McCann

The Bega Valley based permaculturist says bindiis are a sign that your lawn has become compacted, stressed and worn.

“Bindiis often appear as the first part of a healing process – a successional process of plants that move in to repair the soil,” she says.

“Next to appear will be long tap rooted weeds like flat-weed, thistle, dock, and plantain.

“After that, the native grasses have a chance to appear and repair,” Kathleen says.

For a land manager like Eurobodalla Shire Council, controlling bindiis is a key part of their annual maintenance program for local parks, sporting fields and reserves.

High profile grassy areas like Moruya’s Riverside Park, the Batemans Bay Foreshore Reserve, and the turfed areas around public pools come in for particular attention.

To stay ahead of the spiky invaders Council sprays a herbicide during the winter months called ‘Spearhead’.

“If the bindiis have flowered it’s too late to spray for summer,” a Council spokesperson says.

“The maintenance must be done annually and we are finding each year there is less infestation than the previous year.”

Bike tyres too! Helping the Bindii spread
Bike tyres too! Helping the Bindii spread

No sprays for Kathleen McCann, her approach is to work with the natural healing process and restore the health of your lawn – reducing those bare, compacted spots where bindiis can take hold.

“Next time it rains, or after a good watering, fork holes into the lawn, feed up with fertiliser, worm juice, dolomite, potash and give it another good watering,” Kathleen advises.

“You will still have some bindiis popping up but they will soon disappear as the repair starts to happen.”

On Facebook, Russell Jennings adds, “Learn to recognise the distinctive leaves and just keep ripping them out before they seed.

“It takes a while, with regular pulling out sessions, eventually you can win,” Russell writes.

Good luck comrades in the battle against bindiis, may luscious lawns be yours in the summer of 2017/18.