An interesting day at Mount Buffalo National Park

Tuesday 31 December 2019

The news on Tuesday morning included reports of an RFS truck having been flipped by an intense wind event. The crew had been fighting the fire near Jingellic. Tragically, one fire fighter in the truck was killed and two injured. The Jingellic/Walwa fires had increased in size and were forecast to run as winds in the area intensified during the day. During the previous evening I had decided that venturing to the east of Wodonga would be foolhardy.

The weather forecast for Bright looked acceptable. Thunderstorm warnings for the northeast district had been cancelled. The weather forecast looked good for the morning, with the possibility of thunderstorms developing later in the day. I checked the VicEmergency, VicRoads and Parks Victoria websites before deciding to head out to Mount Buffalo. There were no warnings for the area to which I intended to travel. The Fire Danger for the area was “Very High” after a total Fire Ban the day before. I noted that a fire was located at Ovens, listed as small and under control.

When travelling, I usually listen to ABC Local radio and will thus hear reports of any changes in conditions and new or updated warnings.

I assessed as reasonable the conditions and weather forecast for that area. I had noted warnings to avoid venturing into the more remote heavily forested areas. Some might suggest otherwise, but my assessment was that the risks were only low for my planned activities in the area to which I was heading.

I headed off to Myrtleford and then Ovens. The small fire on the southeast side of Ovens was out and a CFA crew was conducting blacking out operations. The fire was between the main road and the Rail Trail. One suspects that it may have been started by someone throwing a live cigarette butt out of a vehicle window, given the location. I continued on to Porepunkah and around to the entrance to the Mount Buffalo National Park. I checked the sign messages at the Park entrance and continued on. The climb was the usual steady winding climb to the Plateau, watching for traffic and passing cyclists only when it was safe to do so.

The Horn VK3/VE-014 1723m 10 points
Mount Buffalo National Park VKFF-0339

I parked in the car park at the end of the road and loaded up the pack for the climb to the top. It was a steady climb up the track and I encountered a young family as we climbed. At the summit, I started setting up the station, strapping a small squid pole to the guard rail at 45 degrees. I then attached the centre of my link dipole to the pole, unwound one half of the dipole and lowered that end over the edge of the granite tor. The two young girls were very interested in what I was doing. I explained what was happening at each stage. I unwound the second half of the dipole enough to extend the squid pole, then strung the dipole out back along the guard rail and tied it off on the guard rail in a corner such that the antenna was just out of reach of other visitors to the summit – there is not a lot of room on top. I then pulled out the battery and radio bag and assembled the rest of the station. The two girls were fascinated, asking “What is that?” pointing at my paddle. The elder sister recognised the microphone…. I chatted with them as I assembled the radio and said that they could hopefully hear someone once I was operating.

I spotted for 7.090 MHz SSB and was soon calling. Several calls yielded no responses. At that point, the wind started to become stronger and a darker cloud was approaching from the NW. I was sitting on the “ground” – the flat top of the tor – with the KX2 sitting on my right leg. I felt a gentle zap, followed by several more. I quickly assessed this as being caused by static electricity. I quickly disconnected the antenna, placing the end of the coax adjacent to the steel pole which supports the viewing compass in the middle of the platform area. The frequency of discharges increased, with the coax connector a very small distance (perhaps a millimetre) from the steel post. I quickly disassembled the radio and battery and started to lift the up the dipole wire hanging over the edge. I then went to wind in the other half of the dipole. As I was packing the gear back into the rucksack, I could the guard rail “singing” with static discharge, with the cloud now above us and the wind speed higher. It was obvious that one should retreat from the summit platform. As I was packing up, Allen VK3ARH called on the mobile, explaining that he was about to head to Mount Warrenheip. I explained the situation at my location and that I would set up again lower down.

I climbed back down the access track to a point near the start of the guard rails on the approach. I assessed this location as still being inside the Activation Zone. The grey cloud had moved away to the east and the wind had dropped. There were no more grey clouds to the west, so I reassembled the station.

I again spotted, this time on 40 m CW, and started calling. After a few calls, I heard Gerard VK2IO call. Gerard did not respond to my two replies and he then came back on air calling Allen VK3ARH on Mount Warrenheip VK3/VC-019. I could not hear Allen, so I decided to move to 20 m CW to try to gain some contacts.

I soon had John ZL1BYZ, Gerard VK2IO, John VK4TJ and Andrei ZL1TM in the log. I moved to 40 m SSB and started calling, but noticed that I was not producing any RF according to the metering on the radio. I did not know the cause. I tried altering the Microphone Gain setting without any effect. Was the fault with the microphone or with the radio? A conundrum to be further investigated when I get home. I then saw a spot for Allen on 80 m CW. I sent an SMS to explain that I did not have much room to string out the 80 m extensions on the antenna and then changed the radio to Allen’s frequency. I could hear Allen, so sent another SMS saying that I would try to make contact using the 40 m antenna. I hit the Tune button after moving off Allen’s frequency, retuned to Allen and called when he finished a CQ call. Allen was soon in the log. Over the several previous minutes low thunder off to the south west had started and was getting a little louder. I had five contacts, so the summit was qualified. I decided that the only option was to pack up and return to the car. With the thunderstorm activity having developed earlier than the forecast predicted, I decided against activating The Horn – the risk profile had changed significantly.

Once back at the car, I stowed the pack and moved the car about 100 m further down the car park to park again, but with the car and the whip antenna clear of the vegetation. My plan was to operate using the mobile station, hoping to make at least five more contacts and thus give me at least 10 contacts for the Park activation and thus qualify the Park for VKFF. Just after I posted a Spot, I heard someone yell out about a fire. I jumped out of the car and started walking towards the person. I also started looking in the App folder on my phone for the Emergency+ app to contact 000. The app activates the GPS in the phone, displays your location and will call 000. I had only recently purchased a new phone, all the apps were grouped together and I had not yet rearranged the apps onto separate screens. Of course, I could not see the app as I was walking the 50 m to where the man was standing. At about 10 m away, I simply said to the man to dial 000. I stood next to him as he made contact, helping with his descriptions of the fire location: my guess was around 500 m to the west, whilst he initially told the operator 200 m away. Once the call was complete, I returned to the car and started heading down the road. I had decided to try calling again from further north within the Park on my way out to Porepunkah.

BuffaloSFire

Smoke from the new fire on the southern flank of Mt Buffalo Plateau

I travelled out along Mount Buffalo Tourist Road, stopping at a couple of places to advise people of the new fire to the south. As I approached the entrance to the Dingo Dell Day Visitor Area, a Forest Fire Management (FFM) vehicle came out from the entrance road. I stopped and waved him out. I continued on to the Park Office, but no one was around. I saw another FFM vehicle near the Buffalo Chalet Road entrance and shortly after three CFA vehicles heading south.

I travelled out to the car park at Mackeys Lookout and stopped. I again spotted myself and was soon working stations. I worked six stations on 40 m SSB, followed by Geoff VK3SQ and John VK2YW on 80 m SSB. They had both called me on 40 m, but could not hear me. Just as I spotted on 80 m, a spot came through indicating I was not being heard in VK4. After calling a few more times on 80 m, I returned to 40 m SSB and worked Scott VK4CZ. Each band changed required me to jump out of the car and to change the tap on the multiband mobile whip, so took a couple of minutes. Several more CQ calls were made without any responses. I stopped calling and announced that I was closing before finally sitting back to eat a late lunch.

As I was having lunch, I heard the phone sound the kookaburra sound. I checked ParksnPeaks to see that Ron VK3AFW was activating Big Hill VK3/VE-087 on 80 m CW. I quickly jumped out to reconfigure the antenna for 80 m and a few minutes later had Ron in the log. I finally finished lunch and rearranged things in the cabin before resuming my trip down the mountain. I saw another CFA truck ascending the mountain road.

The trip down was uneventful, with only a small number of cyclists to negotiate. Almost at the gate, I saw a lone car driving up and shortly after could see the entrance gate, with Road Closed signs across the entrance. I believe that the single car I had seen had driven around the signs, ignoring them.

The trip from Porepunkah back to Wodonga was uneventful. CFA vehicles were still on site at the Ovens fire, perhaps undertaking investigations as to the cause of the fire. I stopped off in Beechworth for a chat and a drink with Geoff VK3SQ as a break in the journey back to base.

It was a very interesting day to say the least. Whilst some may have considered undertaking an activation when there were fires raging elsewhere as unwise, my assessment of the risks was validated by a relatively uneventful day. Yes, the weather changed and I responded accordingly. Apart from the brief period when the cold front passed, the wind was mild for most of the day. Thunderstorms developed earlier than predicted. Even the very small fire started about a kilometre away due to lightning did not change the risks significantly, it simply reinforced the decision that I had already made to abandon a possible activation of The Hump.

I arrived back in Wodonga a little before 1800 local time.

During the afternoon, several other small fires were started by dry lightning in the Victorian Alps. By the time I had arrived back in Wodonga, emergency Alerts were advising people to avoid the Victoria Alps and the upper reaches of the valleys of the King, Ovens and Kiewa Rivers. Fires had started near the Bluff and Howitt Plains. By mid-evening, the warnings were to avoid the entire Apline National Park and nearby areas.

My apologies go to all chasers/hunters for the uncertainties created by circumstances on the day which caused me to not be on air shortly after I had spotted on a few occasions.

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