Day 353: The Forest is Burning

Noah and friends bird the Toolangi Forest and get out just ahead of a fire.

December 19, 2015: Hobart, Tasmania — Just past 4 this morning I met Michael Ramsey and Philip Peel, two of Melbourne’s most  respected birders, and the three of us headed northeast out of the city toward Toolangi State Forest.

We needed an early start today because of the heat. The temperature in Melbourne reached 43 Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) this afternoon, almost the hottest December day in the city’s history and, officially, the hottest day I’ve experienced anywhere this year. Local news called it a “stinker” and suggested people go shopping to take advantage of the mall’s air conditioning. Michael, Simon and I went birding instead.

Toolangi is a patch of relatively lush forest in the hills outside of Melbourne. We had a couple of good hours at dawn while the birds were singing, highlighted by a Superb Lyrebird that strolled across the track. The trail wandered through a thick stand of tree ferns, beeches, and towering Eucalyptus, seemingly worlds apart from the nearby sweltering city of four million.

Quickly, though, we realized we’d hit the ceiling on new sightings. I’ve lingered a little too long and have almost run out of birds in this part of Australia. After a brief strategy session, the three of us decided to ditch Toolangi and try our luck with Crested Shrike-tits in the nearby dry forest.

That’s when things heated up: By the time we reached the spot, the temperature had rocketed well over a hundred degrees with a 30-mph north wind, which felt like being blow-dried inside a microwave. The shrike-tits were understandably taking cover somewhere else.

Phil started checking an app on his phone called FireReady which relays warnings from Victoria’s Country Fire Authority. Today’s fire danger was rated “extreme” (above “severe” but below “code red”) and, in these conditions, the risk of getting caught by a bush fire in remote areas is very real. The oil in Eucalyptus leaves vaporizes in heat, surrounding the trees in an explosive haze, and it takes not much more than a sharp glance to ignite a fast-moving blaze. It doesn’t help that Melbourne is in a drought, having received just over half of its average annual rainfall this year.

People in the state of Victoria take bush fires seriously. On one day in early February 2009, a date now known as Black Saturday, a series of catastrophic fires here burned more than 2,000 homes and killed more than 170 people, and there have been other tragic fires in recent history. Michael and Phil kept an eye on possible escape routes while we were in the forest today and by mid-afternoon the FireReady app was lighting up with reports.

Sure enough, a couple of hours after we left Toolangi, a fire broke out nearby and shut down roads behind us. “There is only one road into Toolangi,” said Phil. “If you got trapped there, you’d be in a serious situation.” We saw some distant smoke in another direction, but fortunately stayed ahead of the closures.

By mid-afternoon the conditions were just too much for birding. Nothing moved in the forest except a few hot-looking kangaroos. We gave up the shrike-tit search and called it day.

After four days in Melbourne, I have now maxed out the birds and the thermometer. Late this evening I escaped the heat and flew south to Tasmania, an island named for some Dutch explorer who never set foot on it. Yes, the race is on: Can I reach 6,000 birds by New Year?

New birds today: 4

Year list: 5890

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