New Year’s Eve

I intended finishing off the writing of the next batch of Irregular Webcomic today, but instead I could barely do anything other than monitor the news all day, keeping up with what was happening with the bushfires burning across south-eastern Australia.

I’m fine here in Sydney, but I have a friend who travelled south down the coast with his wife and three kids, to spend the Christmas holiday period by the beach in a holiday home at Narooma. The south coast of New South Wales is a string of small towns linked by a single main road running north and south along the coast. Inland is mountains, with very few routes through them. During the day, as temperatures soared as high as 46°C, the fires spread and cut the highway both north and south of Narooma. They are stuck there with no way out, as fires close in from the north, west, and south.

As it turns out, they’re right in the middle, still quite far from the fire fronts, and Narooma is actually the evacuation point for people who were further north and south. So they’re safe for the time being.

However, my uncle and aunt, and their two (young adult) children are also holidaying down the coast, in Lake Conjola, which is further north. Around lunch time my aunt sent these photos to our family:

Lake Conjola Bushfire

Lake Conjola Bushfire

Lake Conjola Bushfire

Lake Conjola Bushfire

Shortly after that the power went out in the area. My aunt told us her phone battery was running low and there was no way to recharge it. They were leaving the house for the beach.

And since then nothing. Power is out along much of the south coast, and cell phone and Internet coverage is out too – there’s no way to communicate with anybody there. Even news services are patchy and not quite sure what’s going on in some of these towns.

I’m not especially worried about the safety of my friends or family. They’re in organised evacuations with thousands of other people. They have easy access to the beach and the ocean as a last resort – they should be safe from the fires. Their houses however…

I stayed at my aunt & uncle’s holiday home back in April this year. It’s a lovely place, which they’ve invested years and a good chunk of money in renovating from its previous state. I hope it’s still there tomorrow.

New content today:

And exhale…

Saturday dawned ominously here in Sydney, with catastrophic fire conditions officially declared, temperatures forecast as high as 47°C, and fires approaching population centres on the outskirts of the city. I spent much of the day monitoring news, in between starting work on a new Proof that the Earth is a Globe (not ready to post yet). Fortunately, things didn’t go nearly as badly as feared. Temperatures barely broke 40°C across Sydney (possibly because heavy smoke kept some sun out). A few homes were destroyed in the town of Lithgow, and as I type this one man is missing – hopefully he’ll be found alive. The three highways west and south of Sydney were all closed due to fire today – at one point there were only two viable routes to travel out of or into Sydney – but these have been reopened this evening. Things could easily have been so much worse.

The weather forecast for the next few days is a lot cooler, slowly building up to hot again after Christmas. Hopefully the firefighters can take advantage and limit any further danger to populated areas.

New content today:

Watching and waiting

This afternoon/evening was a family day, so not much to report other than that, and doing some grocery shopping in the morning.

My main preoccupation the last few days has been monitoring the news about the bushfires around Sydney, and the heatwave weather conditions. We had a brief respite today with lower temperatures with a sea breeze cooling things down along the coast. Tomorrow however is going to be the worst day of this heatwave, with temperatures of 47°C expected for parts of Sydney. Several temperature records are likely to fall.

And the fires have approached dangerously close to several towns. More homes and buildings were lost today, as well as two firefighters’ lives. Tomorrow is going to be terrible. Mass evacuations and some destroyed houses at best. I don’t want to think about the worst.

New content today:

Smoky day

When I woke up this morning the smoke had blown in over the city. It was really terrible, even worse than last Thursday. I drove my wife and Scully to work so they didn’t have to walk out in the smoke.

I planned to spend the day writing a new 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe, but I kept interrupting myself by trawling the news for updates on the weather and the smoke. It got worse as the morning wore on, getting so thick that I couldn’t see some of the buildings in the distance that I can normally see out the windows. At one point the Air Quality Index (a measure of gas and particulate pollution levels) reached a score of 2200 in my location, and as high as 2550 in other parts of Sydney. For reference, the scale is as follows:

  • 0-33: Very good
  • 34-66: Good
  • 67-99: Fair
  • 100-149: Poor
  • 150-199: Very Poor
  • 200+: Hazardous

So yes, we were over 12 times the amount needed to qualify as “hazardous” level. I stayed indoors with all the windows closed, but the smell of the smoke permeated the house. Around midday, my wife messaged me, saying that the fire alarm in her office building had been set off by the smoke, and they had to evacuate. I drove up to pick up Scully, because my wife didn’t want her sitting outdoors in that smoke for too long – she’s only a small dog. When I got there, the office buildings of the area were mostly obscured by the smoke in the air:

Bushfire smoke

When I got back home, there was news that the smoke was setting off fire alarms all over the city – it said that over a hundred office buildings had been evacuated because of smoke alarms going off. And according to fire regulations, each building has to be inspected by the fire brigade before they can turn the alarm off and let people back inside. But there were so many going off at once that the fire brigade were stretched beyond capacity, and some buildings ended up abandoned with the alarms going off for hours before they could be attended.

If there was one good thing about the day, the smoke shielded the city from the worst of the sun, and the temperatures didn’t quite get up to the forecast maxima of over 40°C. This also kept the fires from spreading too far or too dangerously close to inhabited areas, and there were no reports of property loss today (that I saw).

This afternoon the wind changed and blew in fresh air from the south, and by this evening it was cool and possible to open the windows without making the house smell worse. And I even managed to finish writing my 100 Proofs article.

New content today:

Bracing for Tuesday

I’m currently reading a book about Sydney, and it says that Sydney is a city governed by three winds. The nor-easter, the westerly, and the southerly. And it’s so true.

  • The nor-easter brings in warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean. It brings warm, humid weather.
  • The westerly brings in hot, dry air from the interior of the Australian continent. It drives the very hottest weather, but keeps the air dry.
  • The southerly is the wind of the cold change and storms. It brings cold air up from the south, often moist and laden with rain and violent winds.

On a hot day, especially in summer, the westerly wind will bake the city and dry everything up, parching the grass and blowing dust into the air. And people will wait for the southerly change, known as the “southerly buster”, to bring relief and rains.

The past few weeks the westerly has brought not only hot, dry air into the city, but also the smoke from the bushfires west of the city. But today was a blessed relief, with the nor-easter blowing fresh air in from the sea. The smoke was gone this morning, and I could see actual clouds in the sky, rather than just a uniform grey-orange pall blanketing everything. There’s still some smoke high up in the upper atmosphere, so the sky wasn’t really blue, it was more brownish, but at least today we could go outside and breathe. The only issue was that it raised the humidity a lot. I did a lot of walking today, and although it wasn’t hot, the humidity was a killer.

First thing this morning I had the car booked in for an annual service. I dropped it off at the service centre at 7:30, which fortunately is within walking distance of home. But I didn’t go straight home – I headed to my barber for a haircut. I knew he opened earlyish, but it turned out I got there at 8 and he didn’t open until 8:30. So instead of getting a haircut, I went to the supermarket and did some grocery shopping, which I carried home.

Once I’d unpacked the groceries and put them away at home, I headed out again. this time to the post office to mail a Christmas gift. I’m taking part in the reddit Secret Santa, and had a box of goodies to be sent to my secret giftee. I had good luck with the packaging – I grabbed a likely looking box from the Post Office packaging supplies and my gifts fit perfectly into the box. They were snug without being tight, and required no extra padding to stop them rattling around. This may be the first time this has ever happened!

After sending my gifts, I went back to the barber and got my haircut. I was a dollar short of the price on the wall, and said I’d go get some cash from an ATM, but the barber said he had EFTPOS now! I’ve only ever seen anyone pay cash there before, so that was a bit of a surprise. Saved me a walk to the ATM though.

Then I walked home and, not 10 minutes after I walked in the door I got a phone call from the car service place saying my car was ready to be picked up. So I walked back up there to get it. I tracked my walks on Strava and by the time I picked up my car I’d walked over 8 kilometres (5 miles). As well as servicing the car they’d washed and detailed it. When I got home I decided it was a good time to wax the car, seeing as it was now clean – and water restrictions mean it will be harder to wash again from tomorrow (more about that later).

But first I had lunch while the engine cooled down, and then after eating I waxed the car. I’d intended to start writing a new 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe today, but time really got away from me with all the various chores to be done. Late afternoon my wife and I took Scully out to the dog park for some exercise in the fresh air.

Now about water restrictions. Sydney has been on Level 1 restrictions for some time now, but Level 2 restrictions go into force from midnight tonight. The city’s water supply is at 45% capacity, and that triggered this change. From tomorrow, it will be illegal to use a hose for any purpose other than fighting fires – no garden watering, no washing of cars. Gardens can only be watered by drip irrigation or watering cans, and only before 10am or after 4pm. Cars can only be washed with a bucket (which makes it more difficult and laborious than using a hose – I think this measure is really designed to deter people from washing cars altogether, rather than to make everyone change from hoses to buckets, which I really don’t think saves much, if any, water as the bucket is so much less precise and you have to slop water all over the place with it to rinse the car properly).

Level 2 is mild compared to some rural towns which are on Level 4 or 5 at the moment. The details vary from town to town, but these include measures such as watering lawns and gardens allowed for a maximum of 30 minutes only by hand watering can on Sundays only before 9am or after 6pm, complete banning of washing cars by any means (you’re only allowed to wipe clean windows and mirrors), and restricting people to one shower of a maximum of 5 minutes per day or a bath with a maximum water depth of 10 centimetres. These are towns of 30 to 40,000 people with these restrictions. The drought in south-eastern Australia is terribly serious.

And the forecast for tomorrow in Sydney is not good. The westerly will be back, and with it smoke from the fires. It will bring temperatures over 40°C to the suburbs (the city is by the coast, so is usually a bit cooler, but it’ll be high 30s), as well as strong, and dry, winds. And there may be some dry lightning storms as well. All of this is a recipe for danger with regard to the ongoing bushfires. Hot dry winds will whip them up and carry embers further east, towards the city. Last Friday we had ash falling on the city as far east as my home, and some of my friends reported burnt leaves falling from the sky.

So everyone in this city of 5 million people holds their breath tonight.

New content today:

Heat and Smoke

Today was an awful day, weather-wise. It was hot, and the wind blew in a lot of smoke from the bushfires west of Sydney. And it just got worse as the day wore on.

It didn’t begin too badly. I was up early and decided to go to the local golf course to play 9 holes.I was there not long after 7am, and finished well before 9 o’clock. Last time I scored 64, and today I managed 59, improving by 5 strokes. I still lost a few balls, hitting wild shots into the bush surrounding the course. Unfortunately one of those shots was on the par-3 6th hole, and since the ball only went about 10 metres before disappearing into thick undergrowth, I decided to tee off again with another ball. That shot landed on the green, and I sank it in two putts. If only I hadn’t skewed the first tee shot into the bush I would have got a par! Oh well, maybe next time.

Most of the day I spent indoors, writing annotations for the latest batch of Irregular Webcomic! I finished all of those off (I started yesterday). And then I started work on preparing for a Standards Australia meeting on photography standards tomorrow, which I’m chairing. This meeting is primarily for me to report to the Australian experts on what transpired at the international meeting I attended in Cologne back in October. So I need to be up to speed on everything that happened there and all of the reports submitted at that meeting.

This afternoon I took Scully out for a play at the dog park and a walk along the harbour shore with the other owners and their dogs. We left at 3:30pm, and as we drove down to the park I could see the smoke smeared across the sky. And once we got there and out of the car… wow, it was really bad. Here’s the park, with a view to the office buildings of North Sydney in the background:

Bushfire smoke

The walk goes down by the Harbour shore, where there’s a view across to the Harbour Bridge and the city central business district:

Bushfire smoke

We walk along this path which leads through an old oil terminal site on the shore, where tankers used to unload petroleum. The site has now been cleaned up and turned into this park. Today the afternoon sun burned down redly through the smoke haze:

Bushfire smoke

Here’s Scully (the black dog at centre) and some of our fellow dog walkers, approaching the far end of the walk along the shore:

Bushfire smoke

Coming back, the view of the city looked like this:

Bushfire smoke

The air was very unpleasant to breathe, and my throat is now scratchy and irritated. Unfortunately, the forecast with the fires and the winds is that this sort of smoke will linger over Sydney for several more days before we get a wind change that blows it away. But alas it will most likely return after that, and it’s possible – even likely – that we’ll be having to deal with this on and off throughout the whole summer.

New content today:

Rhino poaching

Today was the second last Ethics class of the year, and I started a new topic with my class this morning. It was about the dangers of false beliefs, and started with a story about rhinoceroses being endangered by poaching, driven by the trade in horn for traditional medicines. There was a sharp increase in rhino poaching after 2010, when a prominent Chinese politician declared publicly that rhino horn had cured him of cancer. The question put to the children was: Who is to blame for the rhinos being endangered?

There were several possible answers: The politician, practitioners of traditional medicine who push the “cures”, the masses of people who believe that rhino horn will help them, and the poachers. Most of the kids agreed that the poachers deserved most, or even all, of the blame, as the ones who are actively killing the animals.

There were a few other short questions on who is to blame for various things, such as a cricket player hitting a ball out of the field and damaging a car (the kids mostly agreed the player should not be blamed). And then we ended with some questions about various false beliefs, and if it matters whether people believe them or not. It doesn’t matter if a young child believes superheroes are real, but it does if an adult believes it, because they might be regarded as crazy. It matters if people believe smoking is not harmful. It matters if people believe rhino horn can cure cancer.

Back at home, I avoided going out again because of the ongoing smoke in the air around Sydney. There are now stories every day about the adverse health effects of this bushfire smoke hanging over Sydney. The air quality has been awful for days on end now, and it’s forecast to stay until at least Saturday. Today was warm and tomorrow will be hotter, and the fires continue to burn. I saw a story on the news today that said that in parts of Sydney the smoke is so heavy that being outdoors for eight hours is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes.

So I stayed indoors and assembled comics from the photos I took yesterday. I also briefly drove Scully to doggy daycare, so she could get some exercise and play time with other dogs, because it would be bad to take her out in the smoky air outdoors.

For dinner tonight I tried a new combination: mushrooms, broccolini, pine nuts, garlic, and a bit of basil pesto as a sauce for pasta. Normally when we do pesto we just have that, but throwing a couple of vegetables in added some nice body and texture to the dish.

New content today:

Man 0 – Nature 3

Remember last Tuesday, when we had that incredibly intense but short storm? And it blew over my chilli plant, and I spent hours cleaning up the mess and repotting the plant?

This morning I woke up, and the chilli had been blown over again by strong wind during the night, spraying the new soil all over balcony. I quickly collected as much as I could with a dustpan and broom, and returned it to the pot. The plant is now leaning over again, so I’ll have to re-insert the stake and tie it up to hold it vertical again. But I didn’t have time to do that in the morning, because I had to leave to go the school where I talk to the kids about science, and run the Science Club.

Today I had the older classes, from year 3 to year 6, and I did a general Q&A session with them. They had a lot of good questions today, on a variety of topics, covering astronomy, chemistry, biology, physics, and geology. I talked through most of the answers, but a couple I had to admit I didn’t know the answer to and suggested they look it up later. The session with the Year 6 class, one boy asked the very first question: “How big is Uranus?” – setting off a lot of giggling. I quickly said something factual about the planet and then moved on. Only afterwards did I realise I should have answered: “Not big enough to be sat-urn. Next question.”

After the group sessions (and the recess break) I had Science Club with my 13 students who I’ve been working with all year. As this was our final session, I didn’t have time to run another experiment, so we just sat and had a discussion about what we learnt this year, about science in general, about what sort of jobs you can get in science, and then I let them ask any questions they had, and tried to answer those. Here’s the whiteboard we were using, at the end of the session:

Science Club board

I cam home mid-afternoon. I went out on the balcony to assess the leftover mess from the chilli plant blowing over. And then, as I was standing out there, another gust of wind blew over the basil plant I’m growing for use in cooking! Soil went everywhere, and because the balcony door was open, including inside, on the carpet, and even on the dining table!

Today was really windy. I had a late lunch out, after finishing Science Club, sitting by the beach, and the wind was blowing wildly, making trees sway violently, generating huge whitecaps on the ocean. It was really awful conditions. Oh, and as I was driving to and from the school, I passed some of those areas where the power lines were still down today, 6 days after the storm last week. A friend of mine had no power from last Tuesday to Sunday night – 5 full days.

Anyway, with the wind still blowing strongly, I just quickly swept up the largest piles of soil, righted the basil, and placed the plants in sheltered positions against a wall, so hopefully they won’t blow over again.

I also decided not to take Scully out to the dog park where we meet other people and dogs, as it’s down by the water and it gets windy there even on calmer days, so today would be intolerable. Instead I took her downstairs, intending to cross the road to the nearby park which is a lot more sheltered, and let her just chase a ball for a while. As we were coming out of our property, Scully pulled up lame, favouring a rear leg. I thought she must have a burr or something stuck on her paw, as she was trying to get something off. I grabbed her leg and brushed the base of the paw, finding a sticky lump, which I pulled off…

It was a bee.

Next thing I knew, I had a shooting pain in my thumb. It stung me right on the pad of my thumb. I’ve never been stung by a bee before, so my lifetime record is now trashed. The bee fell to the ground, but the sting was stuck in my thumb. I scraped it out with a fingernail. It hurt a lot – but honestly nowhere near the pain I got from a jack jumper ant sting a couple of years ago. Given a choice, I’d take the bee sting any day. Anyway, I aborted the park trip and went back inside with Scully to wash the sting area and apply ice for a while.

Ten minutes later I was fine and resumed taking Scully out for exercise. (The jack jumper ant sting throbbed for months.) We played in the park a while. Then, just as we were turning to head home, a huge gust of wind blew into my face from the south, bringing a strong smell of smoke.

The bushfires around Sydney have been burning for a couple of weeks now, and every few days the winds bring the smoke into the city. Some days it’s been really terrible – horrible choking smoke everywhere. Today had been okay, up until that moment. As we walked home, I could see clouds of smoke, made orange by the late sun, wafting across the sky.

Here’s a photo someone posted to reddit as the smoke drifted in: [photo]

And another photo from nearby shortly afterwards: [photo]

In the endless struggle of Man versus Nature, today Nature won.

New content today:

Science assembly presentation

Today was the presentation by my Science Club kids at their school assembly, in front of the whole school. (I wrote about the preparation for this here.) Since it was at 2 o’clock, I decided to head out and get some lunch somewhere nearby, and then head to the school after that.

I went to a Spanish tapas place at Dee Why, a beach suburb. Here’s the view from my lunch table:

Lunch view

The meal was pretty good! I’ll have to come back some time with my wife and Scully. After eating, I went for a brief walk along the beach:

Dee Why Beach

And then back to the ocean pool at the southern end of the beach:

Dee Why Baths

There were a lot of people out for a Thursday lunchtime, enjoying the warm but not-too-hot late spring day. There’s still a bit of bushfire smoke in the air, which you can see in the photos, but it didn’t smell particularly bad today. Far out to see I saw a giant yacht on the horizon (a racing yacht, not a motor yacht). It must be out there with the crew practising for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, which begins on Boxing Day.

The extra wide lens on my new phone camera is pretty cool:

November day at Dee Why

I drove over to the school and checked in with the science coordinator. She said that the preparation I’d done, writing a script for the kids to read along with the slides, couldn’t be found because the girl I’d written it with had been away for a week and hadn’t told anyone where she saved the file! So the other kids had had to write their own script from scratch!

At the school hall, there were a couple of rows of seats in the back for parents, although there were only a handful there. A woman came up to me and introduced herself as Belle’s mother, Belle being one of the girls in the Science Club. She thanked me for volunteering my time at the school and helping out with the kids’ science education, and said Belle was really keen on science. I said I enjoyed doing it, and especially showing the kids that if they like science then it’s possible to have a career doing it. We chatted for a bit before the kids filed into the hall.

There was some preliminary with kids getting weekly merit awards, and then the Science Club kids gave their presentation using the slides I’d prepared. Their script was a little bit wrong in places, but I don’t think it mattered much. It was great to see the kids on stage talking about all the experiments we’ve done this year.

Afterwards I chatted some more with Belle’s parents, until the bell rang and classes were dismissed, and Belle arrived. Her mother took a photo of me with Belle! Although I didn’t really do much at the school today, it was good seeing the presentation, and meeting Belle’s parents.

Then I had to drive home… On the drive out there, I’d seen just how much devastation there was from the storm on Tuesday. One road I drove along had trees down every hundred metres or so, in some cases with power lines still down and safety tape around the site. Some of these had power company workers busy clearing the trees and restoring the power lines, but others were completely unattended. Clearly they don’t have enough workers to get to all of the downed lines at once. I heard on the radio news while driving that the job is so large that they expect up to 20,000 homes to remain without power over the weekend. It was incredible seeing so many destroyed trees.

At home I’ve been working on a new 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe post, but it won’t be ready today – hopefully tomorrow.

New content today:

Fire and Ice

Today I planned to do another 5k run in the morning, but when I got up more bushfire smoke had blown in overnight, and the air was pretty awful to breathe. It was bad enough going outside for a couple of minutes – I didn’t want to be out running around and inhaling deeply, so I abandoned the exercise plan. This smoke is still being blown across Sydney from the large fires burning in bushland north-west of the city.

By lunchtime the day had warmed up a lot. And then the weather turned. It got very dark, and there was a lot of thunder. And then as I was watching through the glass balcony door, there was a sudden huge gust of wind, and a spray of water smashed into the glass, as if someone had thrown a large bucket of water at it. My chilli plant was blown off the table on the balcony and smashed to the floor, scattering soil everywhere. Hailstones clattered on the bricks and tiles.

And then a minute later it all stopped. 15 minutes later and the sun was out again. It was the most incredible blast of storm, lasting only a short time, but in that time it certainly packed a punch. It was part of a line of storms that left a swathe of destruction across Sydney. The highest recorded wind gusts were 96 km/h. In some suburbs, multiple trees were toppled, destroying several houses and cars, and bringing down power lines, leaving over 50,000 houses without power. Fortunately nobody was killed, although it could easily have happened. Here’s a news story about the storm.

The damage at my place was limited to my poor chilli plant. Once the storm had passed, I went out to the hardware store to buy some potting mix, so I could repot the plant. After doing that, I had to clean up all the spilt soil, from all over our outdoor furniture and the balcony floor. Overall, including the time to go to the hardware store, I spent about 4 hours cleaning up the mess caused by the storm.

New content today: