P has done real battle now. He has been there on the front among 30 foot flames, writhing fire hoses, heat, choking smoke, his hat struck by water from the water bombers, glad for the cool reprieve, too awash with adrenaline to feel fear or exhaustion. He has looked after a man who forgot to eat or drink in the mayhem and collapsed due to heat.
If the fires come too fast, they are incredibly dangerous and shocking and probably way scarier and more deadly. And yet, from my newest experience, the slow creep is painful too. The long, long weeks of arduous preparation trying to think of every possible way to prepare your property. Constant suspense. The hard labour with rakes and chainsaws and sweat and aching muscles. And then watching the fire sneak and weasle, pop and slither, watching the smoke plumes, watching the choppers, listening for radio calls, phone calls, falling trees. And then, sudden action when there’s a flare-up, sudden extreme exertion. Sudden real contact with the enemy. Just you and the heat and the smoke and whatever flat clearing or piece of grass you choose as your defence point. You and your weapon and whatever clear thoughts you muster. Slow fires are battles of attrition. Days and days of watching the weather, breathing the smoke, doing night watches.
Even I did a brief stint in ember-strewn territory, using a McLeod Tool to bury embers and stop them flaring up again with the next breeze. My face grew hot and I felt like I glowed too. Working, working with this nagging inner confusion about whether what I was doing was useful. Nobody has time to check what others are doing. It’s just knee-jerk reactions as situations arise. I’m not technical so I didn’t man any pumps – the obvious first weapon. So I tried to imagine other ways to make some kind of inroads on the vast, glittering enemy.
I couldn’t stay. I had to get back to our children. But I left my husband in the fray. In the fight for my family’s property.
The list of thank yous is long. I don’t think I realised how long until my brief visit the other day. Of course, there’s the fireys. All these amazing, invisible volunteers putting in hugely long, tiring, uncomfortable days. They even deliver food and cold drinks! And then there’s people in the communities who just help. Just pick a time when their own place isn’t under threat and wander off to find somebody else who could use an extra pair of hands. People come and visit just to make sure you’re ok, trade stories, share their own victories and tragedies, share their own wisdom and tools. I was amazed by the “bush telegraph”. In an area where mobile phones are useless and radios might only work at the top of hills, somehow news gets around. A bobcat turns up on a truck with three siblings to operate it. A water tanker appears and is left with hoses attached, waiting to be useful. A huge bull dozer is walked in to clear fire breaks. Choppers mysteriously drone into sight, buckets hung low, ready to save an area with perhaps 5 homes spread along 10 or 15 kilometres of river. Those pilots! Their precision and skill is as breathtaking as Cirque Du Soleil. And apparently tireless. I looked up and saw a pilot’s head hanging sideways from his doorless-craft, trying to see below him. I imagined his focus. His life suspended beneath that slicing blade, his skill the saviour of lives below.
And of course, there’s the property owners and their friends and family – that tight little core of workers who will fight so hard because they care so hard. They are the hub of the wheel – the spinning centre – the point that holds everything together. They are centrifugal.
Imagine if our parliament operated in this way. They’d get a shit tonne done! Instead they sniffle and whinge and point and lie – as loud and unpleasant as a dog fight.