The fifth anniversary of Black Saturday is upon us. Clichéd as it sounds; I do find it hard to believe that five years have passed since a fire storm engulfed the state of Victoria, killing 173 people. We are currently labouring through a particularly hot summer but, with all the rain we had throughout the year and after half a decade spent clearing burnt timber, it is hard to envisage another day being as bad as that one. Still, when the temperature soars past 400C, the wind comes howling down from the north and smoke is visible in the distance the logical part of my brain goes on vacation and my amygdala takes over, sending my heart rate and blood pressure up, and fixating my attention either out the window, on the fire scanner or on the fire brigade website looking for signs of trouble in my area. And so it will probably always be, until we retire to that cottage by the sea.
Having never experienced a bushfire firsthand I really did not know what to expect. I had been told about the roaring noise the fire makes, like a train or jet engine, but stupidly did not expect all that smoke. I thought that smoke rises, creating an image of flames flickering under a thick cloud. Instead the smoke was everywhere right down to ground level, reducing visibility to almost zero. My eyes watered, my throat burned and I was gifted with a cough that stayed with me for a month. Still, it was probably better not to see what was going on around me. When, for a brief moment, the smoke did clear and I saw the fifty foot flames off to my left I edged just a little closer to panic. After the smoke closed back in I pulled myself together and continued putting out the surrounding grass and bush fires and hosing down the house.
We had always planned for this day, hoping it would never happen. I would stay and defend the house with my trusty fire hose, while my wife would take the kids to her mother’s place in the city. When we saw the smoke and flames in the distance she bundled them in the car and took off, leaving me to do my bit. I tried unsuccessfully to call 000, in case the emergency services were unaware of the situation, and continued about my business thinking, as the fire front passed, that my wife and kids, sitting safely in the city, would not believe what had happened here.
Instead it was I who listened with disbelief, as my wife told me over the mobile about their narrow escape. As they left, embers must have ignited the grass around the dirt road leading from our house. While I thought they had safely escaped they were in fact stuck on the road surrounded by flames and smoke. My wife initially pulled off the road to a clear area and covered everyone with blankets. As the situation got worse she decided to make a break for it (which was very fortunate as I saw the next day that the road was blocked by several large, burnt fallen trees), driving slowly through the smoke until she reached the bitumen road. Trying to put the crashed car they saw burning by the roadside out of their minds, they covered the ten kilometres into town, but could get no further as it was now almost surrounded by fire. Everyone was herded into the local supermarket, which had only just opened, as it was the coolest and safest place in town. It was from here that I talked with her, not the expected refuge of her mother’s house.
There they all sat for four hours while the fire brigade mopped up the fires around town until it was safe enough to leave. Once they knew I was alright, I don’t think the kids were too fussed as the supermarket allowed them free reign through the lolly aisle.
I wandered around our place for nine days putting out spot fires before we decided it was safe for everyone to come home again. I am so incredibly proud of my wife for her clear thinking and cool headedness that saved both her and our kids from certain death. I also feel grateful to the supermarket that sheltered my family from the fire storm and, even though they are more expensive, have a smaller range of goods and terrible bananas, I shop there still.
Dr. F. Bunny