Australian Road Trip: Interlude - Bush Fire Blues
With the 2012/13 Australian Bushfires in full swing, I am revisiting this Hub, written during the country's most devastating fires in 2009 when over 170 people were killed. We Aussies grow up with the threat of bush fire but nevertheless, when they occur they are always a shock and a trial.
Frightening new levels of danger
The World on Fire
Australian Summer, 2009...
I am compelled to interrupt my around Australia travels and pause for a moment to reflect on the horrendous bushfires that have ravaged Victoria over the past few days, still ravaging in fact, though we all hope the worst is over. As an expatriate Aussie who lives in England I can only offer my sympathy and solidarity to those living in the disaster zone.
The event is breathtaking and unbelievable in its enormity, much like the Asian tsunami was at the time. People going about their business, getting on with their lives in the familiar surroundings of their communities when suddenly, almost out of the blue, comes this wall of flames that devours everything in its path - a fire like no other before it...
Most Aussies know about fires. Even in the centre of the big cities, a serious bushfire in the hinterlands can drop ash and clog the air with smoke. Our cities are feathered at the edges - the bush and the suburbs kind of blending into each other.
Australian Summer, sometime in the mid 1960s...
Bundeena is just such a suburb, surrounded as it is by thousands of hectares of natural bushland. It too has been threatened many times by fierce, wild fires. My earliest memory of a big fire was when I was perhaps about seven or eight. Days of stinking hot weather and no rain, turned the bush into a tinderbox. The sirens of the Bundeena Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade sounded the alert. In those days the fire truck would drive around the streets, siren wailing, to summon the volunteers out of their homes. The men would come running, pulling on their white coveralls over their shorts as they went, hard hats on heads and no doubt, adrenalin pumping. The truck was loaded with shovels, water tanks and sugarbags for beating out flames and with men hanging off it, it would head off into the bush along one of the sandy fire trails to battle the flames.
On this day the fire had moved rapidly along the clifftops to the east of town, incinerating the thick teatree, banksia and acacia bush that grew along that open stretch of the Park. My Mum and Dad and our neighbours set up our defenses at the back of the houses, along the ridge that ran parallel to the clifftops about a mile and a half away. From here we could see the flames moving relentlessly north, our hope was that it would burn out when it reach Jibbon Point. There were a few fisherman's huts out by the cliffs - corruagated iron humpies that were left over from the days of the Great Depression. A couple of old blokes still lived in those shacks, and in the distance we could see the firetruck and the men in white coveralls evacuating them as the flames approached. The shacks went up in a fireball when the flames swept over them and then the blaze changed direction and began to advance up the long hill toward our ridge. I can vividly remember mums and dads, old and young, even children like myself, frantically slashing a fire break along the ridge between the houses and the bush. Sparks, ash and smoke descended on us. Men stood on rooftops hosing the embers as they fell. The fire came closer and closer. We had to move back to the fences, so extreme was the heat. The inferno crackled and exploded and barked. I think we were all scared.
Our fire break worked that time. With an army of residents extinguishing the flash fires caused by sparks, a 50 metre fire break and lots of blokes with shovels and sugarbags, that bushfire met its match.
There were fires others in my time, some were bad, houses were destroyed and lives were lost. I even helped put out bushfires when I was a teenager, but that first fire is the one that I remember most vividly, and I thank God now that it was nothing like we have seen this week, because nothing can compare to what those people in Victoria have experienced, nothing.