It’s that time of year again. When the northern hemisphere snuggles into winter clothes and lights their fires to keep warm, here in Australia we begin putting them out. It’s bushfire season. As I write, there have been dreadful fires in South Australia and Victoria, and I’ve been watching my sister-in-law’s Facebook feed about a fire near her house in Western Australia.
We live in the Upper Hunter NSW, and at this point in time we have no fire issues at all. It’s hot, though. This week’s forecast goes: 33, 34, 35, 36, 38, 37. (For all of you who haven’t quite made it into metric or celsius, that’s a range from 91 degrees to 100.4 degrees.)
Fire is a fact of life in Australia. I grew up in a semi rural area in the Hills on the outskirts of Perth. Summer was a combination of melting bitumen and smoke on the wind. In Spring, as soon as it was dry enough, we burnt off. Burning off was part of the normal preparation for summer. We’d pick an appropriate day, when the weather was suitable to make sure that the boundaries of our property were well burnt, so that any approaching fire would be stopped at the boundary.
Around the house was tidied up, and we made sure that there was very limited fuel available for any ember attacks. When new people moved in, all the neighbours made sure they knew how to burn off, and usually helped them the first year. The local vollies (volunteer fire fighters) began doing controlled burns in spring as well, preparing the area for summer.
Even with all of that, the hill opposite our house would burn every few years, and my sister and I would watch the glowing hillside for half the night, knowing that our Dad was guiding the firies up the tracks to access the area. When I was slightly older, my brother and I ran huge bins of water through the bush to refill the mobile backpacks. We were very fit in those days.
When I moved north into the Pilbara in my early twenties, one of the first things i did was to join the local volunteer brigade. I became a firefighter. I was fortunate to meet my husband in that fire brigade. (That might be a good subject for another post.) We fought fires for years – house fires, vehicle fires, and scrub and bushfires. We chased firebugs and dodged wind shifts. We learnt how to back burn using a drip torch in two parallel lines, and spent hours with fire rakes.
And over all of it, there was the smell of smoke and ash, the glowering plumes of smoke, and the red glow on the horizon. That red glow is almost indescribable. No matter the hour, when there’s enough smoke, the sky darkens to an ominous tint, and the horizon glows. Spiralling smoke and plumes of ash drift on the wind and the air is laden with the smell of burning eucalyptus or spinifex.
A bushfire smells like itself. For me, it’s one of the smells of the Australian summer, but it’s also the smell of sadness, fear, and urgency.
Years ago, I was part of a group escorting an American film crew into a National Park in the Pilbara. It was spring, and we’d had a lot of early, unseasonal rain. We were the only people in the park. The rangers decided it was an optimal time to do a few controlled burns. (Spinifex burns even when it’s green.)
We were in a campground on one side of a gorge, and the controlled burn was a fair way away on the other side of the gorge. There was a lot of smoke. The producer took me aside and and said, “If it gets closer, we’ll have to run for it!” We were camped at that point in the middle of a red dirt camping area about two hundred metres across. There were a few trees and a lot of dirt and rock. There was no vegetation on the ground. I replied, “Well, no, we’re pretty safe here, but if it got really out of control, and the fire jumped the gorge against the wind, we’d just put the cars in the middle of the dirt and sit inside them until it went over and away.” He said, “Really?” and I replied, “Well it’s a controlled burn, and we’d be perfectly safe with that much dirt around us.” He looked at me like I was mad and said, “You Australians have a very casual attitude towards fire,” and then walked off.
It wasn’t a casual attitude, but it was an Australian attitude, and one borne of much experience. (And trust in the park rangers who were very good at controlled burns.)
Of course a controlled burn is completely different to what’s been going on in South Australia, and in the last few years during the Black Saturday Fires and the Ash Wednesday fires. Those fires have been and are dreadfully dangerous, and no-one should take them casually.
I have an app on my phone that’s called ‘Fires Near Me’ – something no Australian should be without. It tells me where the fires are, how severe they are, and what I should be doing. We’ve taught our kids what to do in a fire, and we know that leaving early when there’s a warning is essential unless you have dedicated fire fighting equipment and systems on your property.
Tonight my thoughts are with our South Australian and Victorian friends. We hope and pray that the fire situation doesn’t worsen in the next few days when the heat increases again.