In early February 2015 we heard from Ray Sousa's wife, Pat, that he was out fighting fires in Western Australia where they had been hit by 2,900 fires already this year (not season) and the year is only 5 weeks old.
As soon as he returned home, after spending 10 consecutive days fighting fires, Ray took the trouble to write to us and his family and friends with the following report. Rayes hopes that it's "slightly quieter in Bermuda!" He also has a request, 'Any spare rain please forward to Perth - we could use a deluge without thunderstorms."
Thanks to those who have expressed concerns about our fires. I found out after Pat had done it, that she had sent a news clip (CLICK HERE for the news clip where Ray can be seen very briefly about 2 minutes into the report). Yes I am the old dude in the hat and tee shirt at the weather white board. I did not know about the news clip until I got home late at night. Leaving the press and cameras to the 'pretty people ' is among the jobs I have been doing. After a mad 10 days, and with the weather cooling to the 30s [ 90s F], the pressure has eased a bit, and I am no longer on 10-12 hours shifts. First to a correction of some reports.
Size of fires.
These are not the biggest fires in WA's history!!! There have been fires that have burned in the north of the State for weeks, possibly months without people being aware of them, because of their isolation. Now-a-days Emergency Services Managers in these areas daily check the latest satellite photos for fires. So far this year we have had over 3000 bush fires in the State. Lighting strikes [we had a few days of lightning, so you can imagine how may fires that started], and 'fire bugs' have been the biggest causes. The Northcliffe and Boddington fires have grabbed the head lines, because of their size and impact on communities. The latest information I have is that the Northcliffe fire has a perimeter of over 300 KM [180 miles] and Boddington a perimeter of 140 KM [85 miles]. Yes, there are countries smaller than this.
This area is known for its forest that has some of the largest and oldest trees in the world, tourism-- bush retreats, fishing, surfing etc, and farming. The fire affected a number of towns in the area, and it is amazing none were lost. Chris [one of my sons] is one of the Officers helping to manage this fire. I have not caught up with him, due to the long hours he has been working; but speaking to people who have been working with him; he has gained more respect than he had before. Northcliffe is about 3 1/2 to 4 hours south of us, with Perth a further half hour to our north
Boddington is just under 1 1/2 hours to our south. It has a gold mine, farming, and large forest areas. This is the fire I have been working at in the Support Group, registering vehicles/ equipment /people; radio, weather monitoring, providing maps, briefing notes, and other such duties. I am happy to leave the hard work to the younger generation. Having said that, there has been times we have been flat out for hours in hot conditions. Among the reasons I believe the work is so important is that we are often the first point of contact for those arriving and last fire contact for those leaving. Sometimes we are on the receiving end of the public and emergency services frustrations, but that goes with the job. If we can act professionally, at the same time have a joke [sometimes X rated] , and laugh, it eases the tension. I was at another fire when I saw the Boddington fire start.
Considering the size of these fire we have lost only a few homes in these areas, some sheds and vehicles, but a lot of fencing. Regretfully, domestic and wild animals have died, but we saved as many as we could. The most important thing is that no lives have been lost. The latest information I have is that there has been no-one badly injured, despite a fire vehicle roll over and a falling tree destroying a fire unit. The biggest health issue we have with such fires is respiratory problems for some people. This includes people living in Perth and further away, due to the smoke in the air. Thick smoke can also affect - even kill animals close to fires.
Management of fire
As you imagine fighting such fires is like a military operation. We have large numbers of fire vehicles, people at fires. We also have both fixed wing and helicopter water bombers. For example the other night when things slowed down a bit, I had 70 fire units, 7 large loaders, 6 ambulances and over 300 people at the incident. In fact the number was a lot more if we include people working at evacuation centres. By the time I left in the early morning we had over 130 fire units on the ground, and aircraft over head. Without seeing the reports I would say 750 people on the ground at the height of these fires was not uncommon.
Among the challenges we have is coordinating these operations,as the people come from different agencies. We are fortunate that in WA we have over 27, 000 volunteer Bush Fire Fighters, backing up paid Fire and Rescue; plus Forestry Brigades.. With fires like these, and so many other fires going at once we worked around the clock, and it was appreciated when help arrived from all parts of the State and the Eastern States. The last count I have is we have 400 fire fighters [mostly unpaid volunteers] from the east helping. We also have additional local and Eastern States paramedics [again mostly unpaid volunteers] at our fires. As you can see these fires have been a big operation. Feeding our Emergency Services workers is also a major operation. At Boddington this was done by Salvation Army, with help from other community groups, such as Rotary.
On the home front
Other than being slowed down by a case of dehdyration at a fire, and an operation to remove a badly infected tooth, I am doing Ok. Following the operation I was ordered by the doctor to take it easy for a week. Despite a painful swollen jaw I was out at fires after 3 days. On the whole I am pretty fit for an old man. Due to the fires there were days when I did not get much sleep, but when you are as good looking as me, who needs sleep? Of course I am in the doghouse with Muffy. One morning after only being in bed for 2 hours, Pat took Muffy away to feed her. She immediately got away jumped on me in the bed, pawing and licking my face, insisting I get up and feed her. In her world, it is my job to feed her. Whatever Pat gives her is extra!