One tiny spark from a cigarette butt thrown thoughtlessly from a car into drought-dried mulch, whipped by the winds from the Northerly furnace and in seconds the scrub is alight. The orange fire demon springs from the ground, licks then devours grass, shrubs, trees, fences, houses, cars. It grows, building smoke towers into the sky; brown and grey bulbous silos of smoke move like a Godzilla come to life. People flee or stay, trying to damp down the edges of the inferno. Fire-fighters arrive with all their gear, naively confident with well rehearsed drills. Helicopters circle, with TV crews filming the chaos, while others drop water from above. Frantic efforts follow the fire beast, trying to tame it and bring it to the ground.
I was holed up at home staying inside trying to shelter from the 45°C heat outside. I was concentrating, sorting through some papers, when finally the sounds of the sirens and helicopters registered in my awareness. I thought, “They sound close!” I immediately opened the blinds and looked at the ridge nearby – no sign of smoke. So I went to the front room and was stunned to see the familiar sight of an Aussie bushfire in full flight. Black, grey and brown towers of smoke billowed up into the blue sky. The orange flames leapt from treetops. Trees exploded. Three helicopters circled and hovered. Sirens announced the arrival of fire engines from all directions.
From my previous experience with the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 I knew the first thing I had to do was change my clothes from the long loose cotton summer dress and bare feet to boots and full coverings. If you don’t change your clothes at the beginning there may not be another chance. Fighting fires in a cream office skirt and wedge-heeled sandals is not very practical (as I did in 1983). And we see too often refugees from these bushfires left with only the clothes they stand in.
I then phoned my husband to let him know. I organised buckets, hoses, mops, towels, and put the ladder to the roof. I climbed up to get a better view of the fire and cleaned out the recently fallen dead leaves from the gutters. It was a surreal moment as I relived the identical situation from 1983 when I stood on a different metal roof in another location with smoke billowing overhead, helicopters chopping through the smoke, and tress exploding. Luckily for me and my family on both occasions the fire past us by, but being in the ember fall means that you need to be on guard for spot fires and wind changes.
This recent fire happened one week before the massive and tragic fires that occurred on Saturday 7th February 2009. It was a day that reached over 46°C and the authorities had warned everyone and were on high alert. Unfortunately the fires erupted on many fronts across the states of Victoria and New South Wales. There were none near us on this day, but our son was attending a wedding at a winery in the Yarra Valley. He phoned us as the fire approached. They were surrounded by raging fires. He spent a worrying evening stranded inside the winery while helicopters water-bombed the building and surroundings. They were eventually allowed to travel home after the fires had passed.
Not all were lucky on that evening. The death toll sadly reaches towards 200. Yesterday the count was 173 with many still not found. Never before have so many people lost their lives in Australian bushfires. The speed and ferocity of these fire monsters seem to defy all plans of escape.
I heard a man on the radio today describe how the fire passed over their town: literally travelled over the town above them in the sky and landed further along to wreak its havoc. He said the sound of the fireball roaring overheard was extraordinary. His town was untouched. While meanwhile the townships of Marysville and Kinglake are completely devastated and nothing remains.