Tasmanian Wildfire

On January 3, Prescott and I woke up to a sky that looked like this:

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It was hot as blazes and windy, but we figured that a hike in the woods would be fine. So we drove from Maydena to Mt. Field National Park, the home of what is probably Tasmania’s best-know waterfall: Russell Falls.

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This elegant tiered waterfall cascades elegantly down to a small pool. It’s beautiful and it’s crowded; less than a two-hour drive from Hobart and just a short stroll from the parking area (one of the two trails leading two it is even handicapped accessible), the falls make for a popular day trip. So there are lots of people (ourselves included) taking pictures at the overlook.

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But though the trail may be busy, it’s still well worth the trip. The forest has eucalyptus, myrtle, and sassafras trees mixed in with tree ferns and deep green mosses. There are sights to see from this enormous fallen tree …

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… to these tiny fungal units:

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If you want a  longer hike, you can continue on a loop from Russell Falls to see Horseshoe Falls:

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We were hoping to continue from this point to see Lady Baron Falls, the third waterfall on this circuit. But we had been noticing changes in the sky At the top of Russell Falls, we had seen this:

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Not long after, we looked up to find this overhead…

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… and then this:

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At this point, other hikers began telling us that a ranger was clearing the trail. We soon found the ranger himself, who kindly but firmly said, “you need to leave the park now.” When we pressed him for information, he gave vague information about a wildfire that appeared to be headed in our direction. This was enough to get us to start moving quickly back toward our car, all the while looking up to see the constantly changing colors above:

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By the time we saw this sky overhead, we were starting to feel a bit scared…

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… and it just kept getting worse:

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When we reached the parking lot, things were starting to go red…

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… and then black:

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I made this recording to try to capture the scene…

… but it is perhaps best understood by the sky that stretched out next to us as we drove away:

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A few kilometers down, we pulled over and saw this…

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… but the most ominous section looked like this:

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As I did research while Prescott drove, I learned that the entire (tiny) town in which we had stayed the night before — Maydena — had been evacuated. We felt incredibly lucky that our plans had taken us out of town just in time, but we were worried for everyone in the area.

We stopped for lunch in New Norfolk — but we ended up picnicking outside because the restaurant where we’d been hoping to catch a bite was closed:

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And the sky — here you can see it over the town’s old asylum — had turned the whole place a sort of yellow-grey-orange:

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But an hour later, the sky was a new color: now it was slate grey, and ashes were falling all around us:

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By the time we left town, I was dying for a swim. So we pulled off the road by the Derwent River — and I swam with the clouds of the fire behind me:

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It was a great swim (in somewhat sketchy water) …

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… with these trees overhead …

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… and this view across to the other bank:

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Fortunately, winds came up from the Antarctic an hour later, and the temperature dropped more than twenty degrees (Fahrenheit). In total, the fire destroyed over 12,000 hectares of forest, but no lives or homes were lost. It was an exciting day, but not one I’m sure I’d want to repeat.

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