A story of fire


Jan 26, 2003, Andre Wins the Open, Australia Day


            The Parks Victoria boys drive down our gravel lane, having watched the hurricane of fire engulf the forest around us. Covered in soot, typically laconic Aussies, they pull up next to Carrie and I. Mick leans an arm out the window. Looks away.

            “We expected smoking corpses, mate.”


            They were fighting the grass fires in the open grasslands upstream, doing what they could to save farms, homes, cattle. Gerry and Anthony live in a metal shed in that same pasture, strewn with broken tools and other items in a perennial process of being repaired. In the impromptu celebration of life at the local pub, the Blue Duck Inn that evening, Gerry described the same fireball, raising a schooner of beer to chapped lips.

            “Sounded like a 747 taking off.”

            The world outside is black and white and gray. Bloodshot eyes, this poor sun, and pockets of burning stump or log provide the only color; reddish orange. Everyone in the valley has the eyes. Shot with red worry, stung with smoke, black soot around the goggle line. A bunch of raccoons.


            That wind, which we’d been expecting for nineteen days, finally came. In a rush to get it over with already. Being over with it was what we’d been dreaming of for weeks.

Be careful what you wish for.

            In the midst of the most intense half-hour, a frightened wallaby hopped past us–not two feet away–directly into the flames. Back to the hoses, spines tingling.

            I told Cathy–our tough-as-nails rancher neighbor–about it afterwards.

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

            Now, with smoking ruin surrounding us, trees crashing all round, we can finally sit and meditate on the passions of mother nature.


            Of course, my mother in law is visiting. In her seventies and lame from a recent bad break in her knee. And my niece, on a visit from America. She takes photos and video and helps my wife Carrie and I battle to save the house. It’s all happening just like it says in the fire booklets. Tin covering the windows. Water in the gutters. Three years of brush control, burning and clearing. (A neighbor told someone we were creating a “moonscape”. This same accuser ended up cowering in a neighbor’s house.) Now, the earth is black and smoking as far as the eye can see. Some trees on our 12 acres remain alive, blackened trunks hoisting sooty, crisped leaves seeking an absent sun. We like to think it was from our efforts. Nevertheless, huge swaths of this two and a half million square acre fire have indeed been burnt through to the crowns. At least our little valley will have a few trees.

            Mum stays inside wetting rags to fill the cracks below the doors. Jill drags hoses around corners, brings drinking water, films. In the lead up to it all, everyone in the valley had come closer together–an impromptu, tribal bonding. All conscious that when the shit really hit the fan it’d be everyone for themselves. We'd be too busy saving our own properties (and asses) to help much elsewhere… still. More like a chain of islands. Nobody anticipated having nearly 3 weeks to prepare. Frustrating as that was, it gave us precious time. I was even able to put my plastic kayaks inside the house so they wouldn’t melt.

            Last night Carrie and I and a straggle of others coalesced at an elderly neighbor’s about fifteen minutes away. The night glowed at every hand, highlighting each ridgeline with pulsing, glowing rust. Our valley still maybe seven kilometers from that particular front (there are so many fronts in this fire it’s impossible to keep track). A throaty, rumbling surf of heat whipped the trees along the backlit ridge, dancing like the damned. An unnerving, basso background roar, like an oncoming train. No wind at our 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 houses. The Park and volunteer firefighters depart, shift over, no replacements due. We do not have that luxury. Taking advantage of this little eye-opener, breaking rules and instructions, someone sets a backburn. It works. We retire at 2 am, 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. 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 into us, 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. A half dozen trucks appear, a dozer, and most of the valley’s residents, leaning on their vehicles, lined up along the crest of a grassy ridge, smoking and watching spot fires across the valley. After complaining about the way the fire crews are being mismanaged, generally letting off some steam, the spontaneous assemblage parts, just as spontaneously, as the wind rises. Four kilometers away, Carrie waits with mum, vigilant. Still meandering, fidgety, nothing really to do yet, I come upon our nearest neighbor, Neil, watching a blaze gallop across a ridge. He has this feeling. Me too.

            Spot fires multiply across the Bundara river, crawling towards it’s banks, towards the farmhouses, Helen’s horses. The wind whips grass fires like ocean breakers in a storm across the slopes. Graham from the Blue Duck comes barreling up looking for his son Jack, his helper to save the pub. “The fire’s jumped the Mitta river, it’s coming fast….where’s Jack?” … heads upstream. It appears there is a second front barreling in. His. Two minutes later he’s found Jack and they’re off in a cloud of dust. While helping put out a grass fire threatening Marty’s home, the radio in Jim’s cab crackles. He stares right at me, microphone in 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. It takes an elongated moment to move it off the road to let me pass. Three minutes and I’m coming down our drive, park 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 like an oil fire from the gully just upstream…where we did a fuel-reduction burn just a few months back. I take the video camera to the ridge and there it is, racing along the river, cornering our backburn and coming at us at a gallop.

            The wind howls in our ears. Torn off branches fly by our heads, crashing onto the metal roofs and into the siding, adding to the cacophony. A horizontal snowstorm of burning embers rends the air. Red and orange cumuli Nimbi made of superheated smoke billow and tumble over our heads, darkening the noontime scene as if it were night.

            “This is it!” I yell over the din. “Put the last of the tin on the windows, get mum inside. Quick!” We detach the trailer and pull the Cruiser inside the house, fumble our gear on. Game on. Carrie yells “Look! Spot fires across the river!” One, twenty, a hundred cluster bombs, tearing across the slope, a stampede from hell. In less than 60 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 neighbors downwind are too busy to answer the phone, are similarly surrounded.

            Fire everywhere, we run around like maniacs…. “Get that bush!….look out …that tree’s on fire!…Shit, it’s coming fast…watch the wood shed!” Carrie and I try to move fast without rushing. To breathe too hard means the smoke smothers and chokes us faster. “Which way’s it coming from?…damn it…it’s all around us!” The wind’s howling from the west. “…quick…out front!” Then, Carrie yells “The fuel tank!”, and I glance up where 600 liters of petrol are sitting sixty meters away, engulfed in flames. Just  two days ago Carrie had raked up the leaves around it. She reflexively starts up towards it and I yell “Leave it… get ready to duck if it explodes!” We’re yelling. The fire is roaring so loudly it’s hard to focus. That wallaby hops frantically by.

            The 22,000 liter plastic water tank is surrounded by flames. If that goes we’re left with only 1,000 liters of water. Glad I raked up the leaves and sticks yesterday. Trees explode into flame; the smoke chokes us, we persevere. The manual says that when the front comes, we should shelter inside until it’s past. Supposed to be maybe 15 minutes or so. How the hell do I know when the front is passing? It’s everywhere! We fight on, pulling hoses this way and that, choking, eyes smarting, me stupidly calling out for Jill to film this or that, grab a hose and help me pull it. The smoke alarms in the house scream  the obvious out to us, I yell to Jill to yank out the batteries. Huge flames consume the firewood and timber piles. I run the hose to stop them from torching the wooden shed and it hits me. I can’t breathe. I can’t see Carrie or Jill. I’m choking to death. My skin is burning. Drop it and go. I spray around the fire pump, turn it off, sprint into the shed.

            Carrie is not there. Mum hasn’t seen her. Heart pounding, I exit the back door in the lee of the tempest, round the shed, gratefully find my tiny and determined partner with her trusty backpack sprayer, (right-side up this time) attacking a tree. We go back inside, coughing and rubbing our eyes, me unconsciously gripping her hand. “Everyone okay??”

            Sparks are flitting inside around the doors and windows like luminescent moths seeking a candle. Carrie sprays them out. I’m kneeling on the cement floor, spitting thick mucous and guzzling juice, trying to rehydrate. “Anyone need any water??” BOOM. Carrie and I look at each other. “Donald’s gas tanks??”

            The hurricane outside is unbelievable. Thank God the tin covering the skylights is holding. If I go out the back door I can see, just enough. A landscape of fire. Uphill. Downhill, across the slope. The firebreak around the shed holds. We’re okay. For now. Crash, another tree falls, close this time. Two minutes…ten, I check outside… Sure enough, I can breathe. Just enough. The wind tries to rip the door out of my hands as I exit, restart the fire pump, grab the hose, start putting out fires in drip lines, fires in garden plants, fires in trees, grass, bushes too close to the house. This continues for another short while. I realize I can hear myself think again. The wind has mellowed. We just might beat this thing.


            We chainsaw 2 fallen trees off our driveway, another which is aflame and threatening the shed, then the power goes out. I go down to check the hydro power plant. It seems fine, just some melted wires. Some half melted pipes on the greywater system. The fuel hose melted onto the side of the petrol tank, which sports a new dent from a falling, probably burning branch. A melted plastic blob is all that's left of the water tank drainpipe, but like the old match and paper cup trick, the tank itself is miraculously intact. We fire up the generator till I can fix the line to the hydro. Donald, our Scottish neighbor, saunters over, beer in hand, as usual. “Broke a window, lost me fire pump.” Sips his VB, the local brew. “Empty 55 barrel drum exploded from the heat. The lid musta been too tight.” Ah. So that was the Boom. He mentions his 'bloddy smoke alarms'. We share a laugh. I hook up the trailer and water tank, head upstream to see how everyone else is faring.

Jim Brown’s house is a twisted, hissing pile of rubble…as is Tom’s cabin. Just over the ridge, Jimmy Betts’ shed is gone, all is otherwise well. We wave to him and Issy and Lil on their verandah, soaking up life, surveying the ruin about them. Dead kangaroos, birds and possums litter the paddock, but Dinkie the mule is fine. Eighty year-old Lil has sheltered with them. They inform me that her house was consumed.

“You guys okay?” I call out.

“Yep, no worries. You?”

“Yep. No worries. Sorry.”

A shrug from Lil.


Young Jack is laying on the grass at the Duck. He’s been a 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, eyeglasses in shirt pockets melting. Jack said he’d “chucked my guts out” from the smoke. He’d watched as an old bloke saved the cabins, a garden hose in one hand, a cigarette in the other. This man had fought bush fires for 35 years. “Never seen anything like this bugger.” A leak sprang in his hose, emitting a fine mist ten feet away from him. A wallaby appeared, taking welcome and magical shelter there, eyeing him nervously. Refused to leave his side until the fire passed.

            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 P.J. are anxious for their cattle, sheltered in a gully. Damned hot in there. They will have to find them tomorrow. (They will find corpses). It’s getting dark and they’re buggered. As are we.


Neil lost his water tank. Got pretty hot on his ridge. Crawled under the floorboards at one point so they could breathe. He and his son arrive at our place, sooty and red-eyed like the rest of us. We share juice and power bars, offer a shower and the couch. This strong and brave woodsman is shaken. 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. We hope the animals that survived will stick around, that at least a handful will find a blade of grass here and there, though there won’t be much for a long while. Hopefully the few unburnt paddocks upriver will suffice to keep the population from totally collapsing. All the mile markers along Callaghan’s Road crazily droop, melted.


            I dance a victory-dance around my Toyota and trailer. It is evening. I am alone, watching over PJ’s and Caths’ remaining hay bales as the grassfires trickle out. I keep an eye peeled for farmers and fire trucks, not wanting to look TOO stupid. Now that night has fallen, the mountain across from us has countless small fires, reminding me I haven't seen stars in a long while. I think of my lovely Carrie, calmly doing her job. It strikes me that when I hugged her during the crux of the thing, she was shaking. I hadn’t even realized it.

            Later, standing there in the cool evening watching the fire-stars, wrapped in my arms, she smiles that smile. Dark almond shaped eyes gaze up into mine, reflecting the dying glow of the embers.

            “How’d I do?” she asks.


Contact: effe Aronson