10 January 2013

Sky crane delight — fire-watching night

This is the third fire we've been through here, or rather the third fire that's been through us. The past weeks have been busy here in our 'fall' that comes from the dry summer. Not just leaves have to be raked up, but shed limbs picked up from the fire tracks that were slashed yet again, though there was hardly any growing stuff, and the slasher blades were often bit the dirt. That was after the tractor itself needed a tractor-doctor housecall after it choked on stuff that made a smoker's lungs look clean as a baby's.

Still, slashing, raking, filling the water tank from the creek, clearing down to the dirt all around the house, cabin, shed—and the next day's leaf-fall mocked every effort. Watch the forecasts, put up enough water for a sustained loss of electricity, pack, discuss where to go if—discuss the problem of knowing when to do what when

We decided that the paddock would be our refuge. This time of year, grass should be knee-high. Now it doesn't come higher than a gumboot's sole. Jenny, George (the eeyores) William, Boris, and Mr. Gingerbread ('the boys', our gentlemen of leisure steers) are in that paddock. The tractor and our refuge: the car—joined them, car packed for an unknown period (check: lots water, kerchiefs that could be wetted down and worn, our books on a USB, some food, a torch, change of clothes, and that necessity in the modern world: the documents that will be needed to file this year's tax.

It's my responsibility to watch the forecasts on the web. We could be cut off at any time (we have a satellite connection, our landlines being literally the end of a long line, some of which is literally tacked to of all things, trees). Electricity and phone go early in a bushfire, and the local radio is almost useless for knowing what's happening, so in our valley, it's the senses that tell most. Though in the 2001 fire, native cockroaches came out from under logs, the sky's the thing, and the nose.

Watch the skies, smell the smoke but it's elusive (the last fire crept up from behind, from where we didn't smell a thing).

On the 7th, the Rural Fire Service reported a 5 hectare fire some ways away but close enough to be a problem, given the wind direction and forecasts, but that it was 'under control'.

The 8th opened up hot, the reports stayed constant: 5 hectares (in the country, 5 hectares is the size of a handkerchief, and 'under control' is nothing to worry about, but . . . by noon, we could smell but not see smoke. I'm 'refreshing' the Major Fire Updates page every few minutes, and no new news. Nada! Nix! Yet if that's a 5 hectare fire under control, I'm a horse's arse.

1:00 update admits that the fire is out of control, a fact that has been frustratingly obvious to us for hours. The fire service has many people on the ground but isn't as good at updating, and the site can't carry the capacity it needs, so it fails frequently, just when it's most needed.

Wait. Watch.

3:48, and now it's this big, coming our way. How far away, how fast? Who knows? At 36 degrees and wind picking up, it's anybody's guess.

We have made all our preparations by ourselves, including watering our house, hooking up hoses, a portable water pump for fires, and running spike sprinklers around the house. But the air is so dry that we can only wait and do it again at the last moment. But now our dirt road rumbles, and the Rural Fire Service in the form of a truck and team, comes down our road and joins us, uncoiling what seem like long hoses, all ridiculously short compared to the bush itself in full flagration. This team of 'firies'—all volunteers who use this holiday period to fight fires, has been up since 6 am, all cheery as anything. One of them is an engineer who calls himself 'retired'.

The fire is going to hit in about two hours, they say. Or, they say, maybe not. Fire is more unpredictable than weather. Their radios crackle like old radios did. Their communication system sounds antique.

Now we're all waiting, watching, and that fire front looks black. Then from the north, not west, comes another sound, louder and louder. The sky crane. It's beautiful and so looks so purposely functional. As it approaches, it looks so much like an assassin bug that I'm enthralled. Then it bombs us.

9000 litres in one dump, more water than we use in four months, being off 'town water' here

There is no rain that feels as good as this, especially when we all feel like we're scones baking in a convection oven. We were bombed time and again by a bevy of copters of various sizes—one with a yellow bucket, one with an orange bucket. The big dump was so heavy right in front of our balcony that it snapped off at the shoulder, some of the soft crooked limbs of the big “rough-barked apples” (the masquerade as ‘eucalypts’ just to confuse us) that the king parrots use as day perches, the rainbow lorikeets have been hanging out in because of this year’s unusual blossoming, and the honey eaters and noisy friarbirds hunt in. The rainbow lorikeets have been especially entertaining this year, swaggering like tiny dinopirates who never know when to stop bragging. Now that the sky is salmon, visibility naught, and the air, pushing itself into every pore, saturated with essential oils, stings in the nostrils and eyes, irrelevant thoughts crowd in.

Will the parrots’ trees be burnt? Should I offer the firies fruitcake and fruit again? Should I have bought ‘cold drinks’ in case they turned up, even though we never have this stuff in the house and only have room-temp water ourselves?

6 pm passes, and where the fire is, is anyone’s guess. Then we see a blaze in the forest on the next property. Even though the wind is coming straight at us, no one is worried about it but me because they all expect the fire to go around and up and come down at us from the back, and they expect this one we’re looking at, which is a Guy Fawkes fire from Hell, to piss itself out. Why? I dunno. Anyway, another crew is working on that property. This is the first fire we’ve been in that the sound of copters every few minutes is the prevalent roar. In 2001, the howling duet of fire and wind at 3 am was so loud, we couldn’t hear ourselves yell in the blackness lit only by the blood of fire itself.

The crew banters quietly amongst themselves. These volunteers are so different to the ones in the 1990s who were often rough-as-guts fire voyeurs, itching to set fires. I asked one then, “Would you like to ring your wife?” and he answered, “Nah. I left me rope in the car” to an appreciative audience.

This crew is even worried about how our donkeys are going. Where are they, they ask? I point out the boys and the eeyores in the corner of the property under the trees by the creek, the furthest away that they can get from what really scares them: the copters.

One of the crew, the youngest, is a trainee paramedic, and this crew also attends highway disasters. They’re good people to know in an emergency, calm and serious. One of them looks exactly like the Marlboro man. I’m thinking that when he goes behind the truck and yes, lights up. He’s so good at it that he must be doing it purposely. But no. Maybe he’s just a natural. Whatever, there’s nothing for me to do, so I go inside the house, lay down on the bed, and for the first time in days, it seems, sleep. Like the dead.

9 pm. We’re surrounded by fire, creeping, as everyone but me predicted, down the hills on two sides.

11 pm. Fire still creeping, though taller now. You can tell where the creek is because of a dotted line of fire in the roots of the fringe of trees. Relatively clear sky.

The first crew left and the second pitched up. The fire was behaving itself, slowly creeping down toward the fire roads. They weren't concerned about the road, but the One here who's done so much to create and maintain them gently suggested that these roads be taken seriously. In the end, they were, first, by the crew (sort of), and when they left at about 3:30 am, by the One Who Hadn't Slept in days. While I slept, thinking vaguely of people who burn in their beds because they get all fatalistic, he walked the tracks, clearing, raking, watching. Ever vigilant.

Today is filled with the sounds of copters and birds. The Vigilant One walks the tracks. There are logs still burning, like filter-tipped fags.

Crazy things happen after a fire. A man-length goanna just sauntered up to our balcony. I took some shots for you. But, dammit, my software is on strike, and won't copy it to my computer. If only every day posed that as the biggest worry.


Datlow said...

Anna, I'm sorry you're going through this but your photos are gorgeous. Stay safe.

'nora said...

Eep. And eek. And several other alarmed noises that squeaked out. Somehow I think brush fires must be even more frightening than hurricanes. So glad to hear you're safe.

anna tambour said...

Ellen, thank you for giving me some confidence about my photos. I love your 'gorgeous'. I think so, too. And 'nora, I've never seen in a hurricane, but they look pretty terrifying. Our house might've gone up in smoke, but it didn't go up in a swirly. Lovely to hear from you. Hope you have a most batty 2013!

Lucy said...

Oh god, I'll never complain about all the rain we've been getting again. This sounds unbelievably fraught and exhausting, so glad you're safe, including the beasties. But yes, both pictures and writing are riveting and beautiful, and thanks be for the quiet heroism of the ones, both visiting and resident, who are there looking after things.

Happy New Year.

Jeff said...

Holy crow. I'm glad you're okay, and chilled by the awful beauty of your photos.

anna tambour said...

Thanks, Lucy and Jeff. Yesterday we finally got some rain, a whole 6mm (less than a half inch) but hell, that's the first rain since Christmas day, when we had 4.5mm. The whole month of December we only got 14.5, so walking on the grass sounds like walking on corn flakes. This morning was the first time we've been able to get out and see what the rest of the world looks like, and damme if this wasn't a surprise. One never expects to be in the epicenter of any Act of God, but this was the Place in this region of the NSW south coast. Our own forest up to the road. Two of our neighbours also had fire through their place but it wasn't as severe, but our place has always been treated rather like a fire break, so about half our forest looks like that last photo, and half is still filled with birds, looking verdanter than it is, (if you can allow the -er).