A story of fire

Jan 26, 2003, Andre Wins the Open

Flames in the high country, Australia Day

 

            The Parks Victoria boys drive their “slip-on” ute—with firefighting tank on board—down our steep gravel lane at a gravel-crunching crawl, having watched the behemoth hurricane of fire engulf our patch of forest from the relative safety of an already burnt grassy hillside. Hair wild, eyeballs white against sooty faces streaked with sweat, they come to a halt next to Carrie, wearing her plastic water sprayer backpack (upside-down), and me, leaning on my fire rake. Their red water tank is the only color to be seen. Other than that, the entire universe is gray and black. I gotta admit we’re awful glad to see another living being. Typically laconic Aussie that he is, Mick leans an arm out the window, looks away, then down. It takes him a few seconds to compose himself. He says to his lap:

            “We expected smoking corpses, mate.”

            They were fighting the grassfires in the open upstream, doing what they could to save widely scattered hay sheds and cattle. Like every other fire crew in the district, the moment the fires appeared they were told to high-tail it outta there by the higher-ups, drinking tea safely back in towns a hundred kilometers away. Weird to be left on our own—civilization’s escapees, feeble of mind and staggering of step, boys and girls with garden hoses and rakes—by those big burly guys with scads of equipment and keen to do the battle they’d been trained for. But few had the guts to tell those cowards behind the desks to screw off, and they would have been fired if they had. I myself would have had my own ass fired (again). In any case, they got hemmed in. Little choice but to go back-to-back and duke it out with Mother Nature at her wildest.

Gerry and Anthony live in a metal shed in that same pasture, strewn with broken tools and small oily motors in process of being repaired, or not. In the impromptu celebration of life at the local pub, the Blue Duck Inn, that evening, Gerry will describe that same fireball, our fireball, raising a schooner of beer to chapped lips, looking deeply into nowhere in particular.

            “Sounded like a 747 taking off, mate.”

            Even the sky is gray. A blood-orange sun barely visible through thick smoke, and scattered pockets of burning ochre stumps and glowing logs provide the only trembling color. Everyone has the eyes: shot red with worry, stung with smoke, black soot around the goggle line. A bunch of frigging raccoons.

XXX

            We’d been told about the wind, read about it, tried to not think about it for nineteen infernal days of dogged preparation. Driest month in decades, brittle Eucalypt leaf-litter crunching underfoot like broken glass. Cicadas screaming like bagpipes in hell, hordes of bushflies crawling up your nose and tickling your face and eyes and ears, making you want to scream along with ’em. It finally came, in a rush to get it over with already. Being over with it was what we’d been hankering for for weeks.

Be careful what you wish for.

            In the midst of the most intense half-hour, flames everywhere and me bellowing commands to Carrie and Jill over the din, a terrified wallaby hopped past, not two feet away, fast and focused. “Pull that hose, it’s stuck behind that rock!” Puff, puff. “Quick, spray that stump before the door catches!” There we are, wrapped up on dodging the lick of a hundred-yard wide scorching tongue, and this little fella appears out of the unburned landscape behind, skids to a halt to eyeball us, then leaps directly into the flames like a Tibetan monk. Poof! Gone. We went back to the hoses, spines tingling, considering.

            I told Cathy—our tough-as-nails rancher neighbor—about this little affair afterwards at The Duck. She holds the kind of wisdom you only get from generations of hay-baling, putting down beloved but unlucky horses who broke a leg, and walking through snake-grass to get to the dunny at midnight. She takes a swig from her low-alcohol beer and toasts the far wall.

            “Perfect, mate—rush through the front and come out behind it where everything’s already burnt. Nothin’ but a singed arse and she’s laughin.”

            Now, with smoking ruin surrounding us, tormented trees crashing all around, Scotch in hand, we can finally sit and meditate on the passions of Mother Nature, and our reactions to same. I consider our fellows and how they fared. How they, and we, faced our fates, and what we learned about ourselves, or not. Come to think of it, how is this really any different from life? What’s the difference between the whitewater and the flame?

XXX

            Of course, my mother-in-law is visiting. All five feet of her. With a home-bred invincibleness about her that reminds me a lot about my own mom. She really did walk miles in bare feet through snake-infested scrub to school. In her seventies and lame from a recent bad break in her knee, it looks like you could drive a truck between her bowlegs. And my city-girl niece Jill, visiting from America. We warned them both it was coming, but you just can’t get that kind of universal curveball across in just words. Jill takes photos and video and helps Carrie and I battle to save our bacon and our house. My sister is going to kill me.

            It’s all happening just like it says in the fire booklet. Tin covers the windows, there’s water in the blocked gutters. Three years of brush control, burning and clearing. (A persnickety neighbor told Cath we were creating a “moonscape.” She later told us “Goodonya. It’s gonna be hot this summer.” Do I take some satisfaction upon hearing how he had cowered in the corner of a neighbor’s house during the worst of it? Yes I do.)

            Mum stays inside the metal shed, pretending she feels safe, wetting rags and trying to cover the cracks below the doors where the sparks are flying in. Jill drags hoses around corners, brings us drinking water, films, all the while with a rather shell-shocked look in her eyes.

In the lead up to it all, everyone in the valley came closer together, an impromptu, tribal bonding. All conscious that when the shit really hit the fan it’d be everyone for themselves—too busy saving their properties (and their asses) to help much elsewhere. Like a chain of islands connected by a submerged reef.

After all these years of searching for a new tribe to replace the one I left behind in Chicago, the one I was born to but never fit into, its finally hit me: you can’t be the lone wolf one minute, then waltz up to a new pack and expect them to just embrace you. There’s this ritual hazing to go through, pecking order stuff, snapping and barking and sniffing. These things are just as natural as the wind blowing upstream or holding your breath when you go overboard. You come through the other side, or you take off and try again. And again. Survival of the fittest. But fitness has just as much to do with spirit and mind as it does with the size of your biceps. Funny thing is, you don’t find a new tribe that you’ll fit into with a compass and map. It’s all about blindly stumbling into that perfect fit, just as much dumb luck as anything else. As much about finding the balance between that irascibleness that makes you that lovable but difficult bastard, and learning how to get along. It’s not about giving up who you are, it’s about being comfortable with yourself, loving yourself, and treating others like you could hear their heart beating, too. And sometimes tribes disband after their purpose is over, leaving only a spark of memory and a fiber of attachment lying amongst the bones and ash. So here we are.

 

Nobody anticipated having nearly three weeks to prepare for the contest. Frustrating as that was, it gave us precious time. Wooden picnic benches, welcome mats and firewood—all of which turned into spectacular bonfires at what would have been the wrong moment—piled a safe distance away from the shed, leaves raked from around the fuel and water tanks. I even had time to put my plastic kayaks inside so they wouldn’t melt.

            The night before our turn, Carrie and I and a straggle of others coalesced at an elderly neighbor’s about fifteen minutes down the winding mountain road. They’d wisely left days before. The night glowed at every hand, highlighting each ridgeline with pulsing, glowing rust. Our valley was still maybe seven kilometers from that particular front (there are so many “fronts” in this thousand-kilometer long fire-front, it’s impossible to keep track). A throaty, rumbling surf of heat whipped the trees along the backlit ridge, a parade of radiant giants dancing like the damned. No wind at our dark station, it crawled along all night long while we waited (which is a lot of what firefighting turns out to be) in case it came too close to the homes. We watched the Park and volunteer firefighters depart in a rush, shift long over, having fruitlessly debated with their higher-ups for replacements that never came. We did not have that luxury. When we asked them when the next shift was due to arrive, they shrugged. Taking advantage of this little eye-opener, breaking rules and instructions, some outlaws set a backburn, which saved the home of our old friends. We retired at 2 a.m., satisfied.

 

This morning, I called “The Major” up the valley, reporting some spot fires nearby. It had already burned around his place, nice and slow and without wind, a few nights ago. A retired army major, usually seen with riding crop and wearing camo, he was sanguine, saying the wind would blow it around “us.” I said I didn’t think so, that the wind was blowing the bastard right up our bums, and went off to check things out. Impossible to sit still.

            Going up our little valley’s dead-end dirt road, I round the bend in my Land Cruiser, fire pump and water tank in tow. My own personal fire truck. A half-dozen four-bee-fours, a dozer, and most of the valley’s residents appear as silhouettes on the smoky horizon, leaning on their vehicles. They are lined up along the crest of a grassy ridge, smoking and contemplating the spot fires across the valley—four kilometers from home, and coming. After swearing and spitting over the mismanagement of the fire crews, the spontaneous assemblage parts with the rising wind. Still meandering along with the currents, scouting the tongue, fidgety, I come upon our nearest neighbor, Neal, watching a blaze gallop across a nearby ridge. He has this feeling.

Me too.

            Spot fires multiply across the Bundara River, hopscotching like little flaming artillery shells towards the farmhouses, towards Helen’s horses, towards us. Imagine a big bonfire, but without the neat, civilized ring of stones to keep it just so. Then imagine spectral hosts lighting countless raggedy fires just like that, willy-nilly amongst the trees, along the hillside, horizon to horizon, all over the damn place. Countless flaming bushes, like in the Bible, only more biblical. Spot Fires. The wind whips lines of fire through the tall grass along the slopes like ocean breakers in a storm, flame instead of foam.

Graham from the Blue Duck pub comes barreling up in his rusty pickup, hunting for his son. “The fire’s jumped the Mitta River, it’s coming fast! Where’s Jack?” He heads upstream, not quite in a panic, but... So it appears there is a second front barreling in. His. Two minutes later he’s found Jack and they roar by in a cloud of dust, faces serious, briefly waving to their comrade troopers. While helping put out a grassfire surrounding Marty’s wood-sided home, I hear the radio crackle in Jim’s cab. He stares right through me, microphone in frozen hand and a warrior’s steely stare.

“Head back home. Quick.”

            The moment of truth. At long last.

            Cath’s blocking the road with her truck, which just lost its drive shaft bumping over the paddock. It takes an elongated moment to move it off the road to let me pass. Three minutes and I’m barreling down our drive, skidding to a halt next to the shed. Carrie sings out, “You can see fire out back.” Sure enough, to the east the forest is ablaze. “Shit, it’s upstream of us to the west too… look.” Thick red smoke is billowing and belching like an oil rig fire from the gully just upstream…the “moonscape” section. I jog over to the ridge above it with the video camera.

And there it is, sprinting along the river, cornering our moonscape, finding fresh fuel and coming at us at full gallop.

            The wind howls in our blistering ears. Torn-off branches whiz by our heads, crashing onto the metal roofs and into the siding, adding to the cacophony. A snowstorm of burning embers rends the air. Red and orange Cumuli Nimbi made of superheated smoke billow and cartwheel through the sky, darkening the noontime scene like a solar eclipse.

            “This is it!” I yell over the din. “Put the last of the tin on the windows and skylights, get mum inside. Quick!” We detach the trailer and move the Toyota inside the house, fumble our gear on. Nobody’s driving anywhere for the time being. Game on.

            Carrie yells “Look! Spot fires across the river!” One, twenty, a hundred cluster bombs, tearing across the slope in the raging squall, a stampede from hell. In less than sixty seconds several hundred acres of mountain, the entire bloody mountain, is aflame. “Carrie! Call Donald next door and warn him. It’s here!” But it’s too late. The three downwind neighbors are a little too busy to answer the phone.

            A forest is thick trees. Trees are wood. Wood is fuel. Every single tree is ablaze. A forest of fire.

We run around like maniacs. “Get that bush!….look out…that tree’s on fire!…Shit, it’s coming fast…look out…the wood shed!” Carrie and I try to move fast without rushing. To breathe too hard means smothering and choking on smoke. “Which way’s it coming from?…damn it…it’s everywhere!” The wind’s howling from the west. “Quick…out front!” Then, Carrie yells “The fuel tank!”

I look up to where six hundred liters of petrol are sitting sixty meters away, engulfed in ten-meter-high flames. My tiny little wife with her upside-down backpack full of a couple of liters of water reflexively starts uphill towards it. I yell, “Leave it! Get ready to duck if it explodes!” She can barely hear my yelp. The fire is roaring so loudly it’s hard to focus. The wallaby hops frantically by.

            The twenty-two thousand liter plastic water tank is surrounded by flames. That’s all we have except the thousand liters in the small tank on the trailer. Glad I raked up the leaves and sticks yesterday. Hope it holds. Trees explode into flame; the smoke chokes us. We endure. The manual says that when the front comes, we should shelter inside until it’s passed. Supposed to be maybe fifteen minutes or so. How the hell do I know when the front is passing? Damn fire’s everywhere! We struggle on, pulling hoses this way and that, coughing and spitting, eyes smarting, me idiotically calling out for Jill to film this or that, or just to grab a hose and help pull. The smoke alarms in the house scream. “Yank out the goddam batteries!” I yell to Jill. Flames consume the firewood and timber piles, too close. I run the hose over to stop them from torching the wooden shed and then it hits me. I can’t breathe. I can’t see Carrie or Jill. I’m choking to death. My face is blistering. Drop it and go. I soak the ground around the fire pump, turn it off, sprint into the shed.

            Carrie’s not there.

            I exit the back door in the lee of the tempest, round the shed, scanning and gulping down bile. There is a moving form up the crackling hill, and I sprint towards it, swatting embers off my shirt, to find her with the trusty backpack sprayer, (right-side up this time) coughing and spitting. I grasp her hand and together we blunder and lurch back inside, rubbing our eyes. She says, “Baby, you’re hurting my hand.” I glance at my great big dirty hand clasping her tiny one, stare into her eyes and release my death grip.

“Everyone okay?” Mum says yep, and I glance over to her sitting on the couch-bed in the middle of the cluttered shed. She has a hardhat on, beer in hand, and I give her a puzzled puppy look. She waves the can in the air and smiles and says, “I’m hydrating.”

            Sparks are flitting around the doors and windows like shimmering moths seeking a candle. Carrie walks around the shed, water pack still on, and sprays them out. I’m kneeling on the cement floor, spitting thick mucous and guzzling juice, gathering myself and trying to rehydrate. We’re all here. We’re all OK. What next?

“Anyone need any water?” BOOM. Carrie and I look at each other. “Donald’s gas tanks?”

            The hurricane outside is preposterous. The tin rattles like it’s going to fly apart, airborne branches as thick as your arm smack the side of the shed, a freight train roars along some tremendous track just outside. If I go out the back door, in the lee of the shed, I can see a bit and breathe. But what is within my view is a landscape from Dante’s Inferno. Everything is orange, everything is dancing in flame, everything is kinetic; frenetically waving trees, flames leaping from the earth, smoke and cloud and burning ash and limbs rushing helter-skelter in a boiling sky. But the firebreak around the shed seems to be holding, even seems—dare I say it? —substantial. Secure. Crash! Another tree falls, close this time. Two minutes…ten. I check outside. I think I can breathe. Just enough. The wind tries to rip the door out of my hands as I exit and shoulder it closed behind me. But I manage to restart the fire pump (a little miracle in itself, considering my relationship with small motors), grab the hose, start putting out fires in drip lines, fires in garden plants, fires in trees, bushes—anything too close to the house. The rest of the world can go to hell for now. Actually, it has gone to hell. This continues for some time, and then I realize I can hear myself think again, which then allows me to notice the wind —or lack thereof.

XXX

            We chainsaw two fallen trees off our driveway and another which is aflame and threatening the shed. Then the power goes out. I go down to check the micro-hydro power plant in the river. Surrounded by water, it seems fine, but we hadn’t buried some of the wires to the shed deep enough, thus, low batteries and no power. Some half melted pipes on the grey-water system. The fuel hose is melted, and the petrol tank has been dented from a large falling branch. The branch’s image is outlined in ash on the ground, as if in police chalk. Now that was close. The drainpipe on the plastic water tank has melted, but like the old match under a paper cup of water trick, the tank itself is marvelously intact. We fire up the generator till I can fix the line to the hydro. Donald, our Scottish neighbor, saunters over, beer in hand. “Broke a window, lost me fire pump.” Sips his VB, the local brew. “Empty fifty-five barrel drum exploded from the heat. The lid musta been too tight.” Ah. So that was the Boom. He mentions his “bloody smoke alarms,” and we share a laugh. Now that there’s nothing left to burn, I consider others in another world, far downwind, while I hook up the trailer and water tank and head upstream to see how everyone else in our immediate little province is faring.

Upstream next-door neighbor Jim Brown’s house is a warped, hissing pile of blackened rubble…as is Tom’s cabin just downstream. Two out of three neighbors houses gone, not a quivering soul to save them. Smoke rises through and around all that remains—bent corrugated tin roofing lying in a twisted heap of smoldering ash. Just over the ridge, Jimmy Betts’s shed is gone, but he and his wife Issy wave from their untouched verandah. Eighty-year-old Lil has sheltered with them. Her house—the place the fire boys left after their shift ended the night before—is gone. We wave to them and old Lil, likewise soaking up life, surveying the ruin about them. Dead kangaroos, dead birds, dead possums litter the paddock. But Dinkie the mule can be heard braying his joy to the world, still knee-deep in the little cattle dam.

“You guys okay?” I call out.

“Yep, no worries. You?”

“Yep. No worries.” I glance at Lil. “Sorry.”

A shrug from Lil.

Young Jack is lying on the grass out front of the Blue Duck pub, arms spread-eagled and eyes shut. He was the gopher, sent to and fro where the old ones couldn’t get to. The historic wooden bridge had started alight; they’d put it out with buckets since the hoses wouldn’t reach. Graham’s eyeglasses melted in his shirt pocket. Jack had “chucked my guts out” after throwing the door open to the generator shed to check for flames. The mattresses they’d used to insulate the attic poured toxic smoke at him. He’d watched from his hands and knees as an old bloke saved the cabins—garden hose in one hand, a cigarette in the other. This man had fought bush fires for thirty-five years. “Never seen anything like this bugger.” A leak had sprung in his hose, which emitted a fine mist, a meter from his leg. A wallaby appeared out of the smoke, eying him nervously. Slowly, slowly it edged into the fine spray and stood there, watching him but refusing to leave his side.

            Trees, burnt black and leafless, sporadically crash to the earth. This will continue for weeks. Gum trees are used to this sort of thing. Cath and PJ are anxious for their cattle, who had sheltered in a gully up the valley. Got pretty hot in there. They will find them tomorrow, or what’s left of them. It’s getting dark and they’re buggered. So am I.

Neal lost his water tank. Full of water and melted into a puddle of plastic like a green lava flow. Lucky he had two tanks, and lucky twice that we loaned him one of our garden hoses, so he and his son each had one. Got pretty hot on their little ridge just a few hundred meters uphill from us, where the two fronts collided. They had to crawl under the floorboards just to breathe. They arrive at our place, raccoon-eyed like the rest of us. Neal is one of those strong, silent bush-types who has spent his whole life working outside­—a “tree lopper.” Good man to have in a pinch. Solid. Carrie glances at me, saying with her eyes what we both grasp; this stout tree is also about to collapse. We share juice and energy bars, and Carrie tells him he needs to go upstairs right this very minute, take  a shower, and have a nap on the couch. Astonishingly, he obeys. Back in Aboriginal times, the Bundara Valley was for “Women’s Business.” That’s like putting up a sign at the canyon mouth; “Sisters Only. If You Have Testicles And Can Read This Sign, You’re In Range!” It’s obvious when Carrie means business.

They’re giving warnings over the radio to people in other towns and valleys still in the beast’s path. We silently wish them well. The reporter also notes that Andre Agassiz is leading the Australian Open finals. We wish him well, while we’re at it. We hope the animals that survived will stick around, and that some will find a blade of grass here and there. There won’t be much for a long while, and many more withered carcasses will soon appear to feed the starving ravens. All the plastic mile markers along Callaghan’s Road are drooping like a Dali painting.

XXX

            I dance a victory-dance around my trusty Toyota and trailer. It is evening, and finally cooling off a bit. I am alone, watching over PJ’s and Cath’s remaining hay bales as grassfires trickle out. Still, the Bloody Yank keeps one eye peeled for farmers and firemen, not wanting to look too stupid.

            Now that night has fallen, the mountain across from us has countless pint-sized lights flickering in the blackness. They’re so high up the slope it feels like they’re burning in the sky. Which makes me think of the stars that I haven't seen in such a very long, long time. Which makes me think of my lovely Carrie, and how calmly she did her job. Then it strikes me. When I hugged her during the crux of the thing, she was shaking.

            And, like a lightning bolt from heaven—like the fourteen lightening bolts that started the inferno that nearly took us—it hits me. This.

            This is what I’ve been seeking. This is the source. This, the essence. Sanctuary. Tribe. This!

            Standing there in the cool evening, watching the fire-stars, wrapped in my arms, she gazes up into my eyes. Dark, almond-shaped, so gentle, her eyes reflecting the glow of the embers. That loving smile. There it is again, just like that time when Pop was grasping at fireflies. It fills my bones. Reflections of my mother’s eyes. Here it is, after all.

            “How’d I do?” she asks, and my tears flow


Contact: Jeffe Aronson