Australian Wildfire Update

by Tammy Plotner on February 9, 2009

Australian Fires - Bert Candusio

Australian Fires - Bert Candusio

As Nancy reported on February 8th, the wild fires in Australia were not only serious, but out-of-control. While we had a look at satellite imagery, there’s nothing scarier than having it hit close to home and friends… Our friends at Southern Galactic.

As our Universe Today readers well know, our friends “down under” at Southern Galactic imaging are always on top the astronomy game, offering us up exclusive views of astronomy events not found any where else. Like the fire situation which raged in California last year, I watched remotely – curious as to how close it was getting to the observatories, but not knowing from a distance. I sat here in subzero weather watching the snow come down, while half a world away things were far, far different…

I had wondered why things were quiet. Skype was down and I wasn’t seeing a image on the remote scopes. My usual welcome “chat” with Bert was curiously absent, but the reality of what was going on didn’t sink in until now. I was complaining about plowing snow – but I should have been praying for my friends safety. When communications were re-established with Southerngalactic Site 1 telescope hosting facility this morning, Bert Candusio, the Observatory Director, told me about the wicked events which occurred on Saturday, February 7th… the day Victoria suffered under 47 degree Celsius heat with fires that tore through the state.

“We were awoken with radio warnings that a series of fires had taken hold and were running out of control. One fire in particular had caused us concern around 2:00 PM when the areas of Cobaw, Baynton and Pastoria were placed on alert that the fire had travelled 25 kilometers from the Northwest and was now headed towards the southeast in our direction.

Fires Approach Observatory - Bert Candusio

Fires Approach Observatory - Bert Candusio

Within 2 hours, pillars of thick black smoke were seen to rise high in the air and began billowing to our northern horizon. We implemented our fire plan whereby all power and equipment were closed off after alerting our resident astronomers of the potential danger. With power supplies closed to the main observatory building, pumps were readied along with hoses, buckets of water as we had decided that the open grassed aspect of the property placed it with a good chance of surviving as long as we were able to mop up after the fire front had passed.

Australian Wildfire - Bert Candusio

Australian Wildfire - Bert Candusio

By 5:00 pm, the smoke has thickened to the point where it was actually creating its own weather systems at a local level, with thunder able to be heard high overhead such was the extent of the rising pillars above.

As we were gearing up for what could have been the worst, a sudden southerly wind change from the south began to drive the fire front to the north east and away from the site we were ready to defend. We were fortunate. Others were not.”

With the terrible conflagration passing within 8 kilometers of the Southern Galactic Telescope Hosting Facility, eating ash and breathing smoke clings to Candusio like the remnants of a horrible nightmare. Not only was his life’s work and investment sitting in the line of fire – but his home and loved ones as well. Only hours later, the fire which threatened the facility moved to the Hopetown area further north and is still out of control and the entire northeast and south section of Victoria still remains in danger. At the time of this writing, twelve separate fires continue to threaten lives, homes and property.

To Candusio, February 7 will live forever in his memory, but not as a good one. “To the surviving victims of that day’s terrible events, we extend our hearts and our deepest sympathies to them, their families and for their loved ones that have been lost.”


Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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