Pinery Bushfire, 25th November 2015

What can one really say about a day like this.

A strong cold front approaching from the south-west set up a day of catastrophic fire conditions, with strong north westerly winds gusting to 80km across the lower north of SA bringing minus dewpoints and temperatures above 34 degrees. Combined with a large amount of crop still in the ground, there was enormous areas of tinder dry grass in the Mid North.

The fire started near Pinery, and almost immediately fanned by near gale winds took off uncontrollably to the south-east. The fire grew in intensity but at this stage only had a narrow fire front but was already causing significant damage and expanding on its flanks quite quickly. The significance of the fire was beginning to be realised and within an hour, multiple air bombers and 40 fire fighting units were desperately trying to douse the flames before the expected wind change was to hit. I was west of Hamley Bridge, about 12-15km to the east of the fire at this time watching it grow in intensity and spreading gradually east, and rapidly south and south-east. The town of Mallala was under serious threat at this stage and was being evacuated and houses had already been lost. I knew the very serious threat this fire posed as the classic ‘big fire’ setup was going to occur within an hour and there were no emergency vehicles in sight to warn of the grave danger that this area was soon about to face. The big fire setup refers to the classic summer synoptics involved with cold fronts where hot interior air is dragged down ahead of a cold front, strengthened by the temperature gradient (which in this case was quite large, it would go on to produce snow to low levels in Tasmania). This causes fires to rapidly form long, relatively thin lines which when intersected by the wind change, often at 90 degrees turn the thin line into an enormous wall of flames within minutes and this can happen very suddenly. It was in fact this very same process that caused the Ash Wednesday fires to be so destructive and deadly and today was no exception.

I could see the fire spotting out just ahead of the flanks as the winds gradually turned more westerly and with the front not far away, I back tracked 5km to near Hamley Bridge to give myself a buffer for when the change hit. I could see flames amongst the Mallee trees to the west right as the westerly change hit it and the speed at which this fire increased in intensity was terrifying. The fire was entering its most destructive phase as up to 90km gusts slammed into it forming what was to become a 41km firefront moving at high speeds to the east-north-east. Along with the front came forced uplift, and because there was no smoke out ahead to obscure this sudden release of energy, enormous plumes of smoke billowed rapidly outwards and upwards towards me in a volcanic eruption/pyroclastic flow style. The sudden uplift was sufficient to break the cap under the mid level cloud where the smoke had been limited to, and launched it up way up into the upper troposphere with a pyro cu head and a huge wall of black boiling ash, back lit by the flames. Reports from people in the area suggest flame heights in excess of 20m (from a grassfire like holy shit) with it moving at up to 80km/h. The fire gained momentum so incredibly fast it was in essence likely a firestorm for a short period through the areas of Pinkerton Plains into Hamley Bridge, and southwards towards Wasleys before the fire fragmented into smaller lines due to the gale winds and some towns acting as blocks. Humidity increased and temperature dropped rapidly behind the change and conditions in terms of wind, temps and humidity all gradually moderated in the hours afterward, weakening the fire on approach to Kapunda, southwards into the Barossa Valley. It was still a significant fire at this stage however with widespread ember attacks burning many homes.

The fire in it’s earlier stages. Overlooking Hamley Bridge which you can see the proximity of the crops to the town. 2.24pm

Smoke trying to punch though mid level cloud. The long trail in the distance is off over Gawler. 2.29pm

Spotting fires on the north eastern flank of the fire.These were soon to erupt. 2.32pm

Many properties under threat in this image. Flames were as closee as the distant Mallee tree line. Still north-west winds at this stage. Looking north westish from 5km west of Hamley Bridge. 2.37pm

You can see the strong winds blowing down the grass here. Smoke was going sideways. 2.38pm

Shortly after the cold front hit the fires I believe. You can see the bottom bowing out in my direction while just above the nw winds shear it off to the south. As you can see by the smoke chimneys at this stage it was a chain of fires linking up to create the fire front. 2.47

An image showing a better representation of what the scene looked like to the eye. 2.49pm

Ultra wide angle shot out the window as I was leaving. This filled the whole western sky. Notice the grass flying through the air, 70km gust from the north at the time. 2.50pm

Huge wall of smoke and flames dwarfs a shed. 2.52pm

Only half a minute until the next image. The fire was growing and expanding so fast it looked different in every picture. 2.53pm

Car after car flees from the fire, people seemed to be converging from everywhere onto the road to take refuge in Hamley Bridge. An incredible moment. 2.53pm

A quick shot as I am about to leave the Hamley Bridge area. That plume of smoke ‘hanging’ from the cloud on the right was billowing towards me at an extraordinary speed, the cloud itself was almost overhead at this stage. The red glow in the core of that is astonishing. 2.56pm

The last picture I would take for the day before fleeing to safety. At this point this huge unleashing of energy had formed a wall from north to south over 5km high, with the main fire smoke burning into the upper troposphere. The scale of this is unbelievable, all those dots on the horizon are trees that are about to be swallowed. Amazing moment. 3.03pm

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8 Responses to Pinery Bushfire, 25th November 2015

  1. Jackie Rogers says:

    Hi Mark, the photos you took at 2.53 on Wednesday were looking at the pine trees on the corner of Hartnett Rd and Owen Rd and opposite Forrest Rd. We live on Forrest Rd about a kilometre beyond the right hand edge of your photo. What a magnificent shot! I can say that because we are fortunate enough to still have a house. Outbuildings and garden destroyed. Your photo captures the enormity of the blaze and the moment after I saw our house disappear underneath that smoke. My car must have, seconds before, driven past you.
    If you have any more shots of that area, particularly any showing a house with a red roof, I would be very interested in seeing them.
    Yours Jackie Rogers

    • MarkDawsonPhoto says:

      Hello Jackie,
      Sorry to hear about your losses but glad your house made it through, it certainly was a powerful blaze! I had a look through my photos and can’t find any with a house with a red roof unfortunately. Thanks for your comments about my photos, hope the cleanup isn’t too bad for you.

  2. David says:

    Mark, thanks for sharing. Horrible to see nature like this, but important that we document and learn for the inevitable future events.

    • MarkDawsonPhoto says:

      Yep, I completely agree David. It is too easy to forget about past events and the danger, this is why photos are such an important thing! Thanks for your comment

  3. Jen Light says:

    These are amazing photos Mark, I am in awe. The scale of this fire is incredible, defined for me by the shot with the single red car. Congratulations

  4. Carmine Lake says:

    Hi Mark, I just saw one of your Fire Storm photographs on Facebook. The most impressive I have seen. I had to Google you to find out more about you and your work as there were no links on the post. Your description is also the best I have read. I would like to link this page to Facebook if that is OK with you. I know plenty of other people would like to see more of your work too. Thank you for sharing your creative and insightful spirit. Carmine. Kapunda
    I cannot send this without expressing my my heartfelt sorrow for all who have suffered as a result of the Pinery Fires.

    • MarkDawsonPhoto says:

      Thankyou for your comments Carmine 🙂 yes I really do need to add a web address to the watermark, transitioning to a new site hopefully soon which is why ive put it off. Feel free to share it to your Facebook and yes very tragic event, it wont be the same in that region for a while to say the least.

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