The street of ashen dreams
As we face a summer that we anticipate will be a hot one, Charles Hill gives us his first-hand reflections on some of the drama of last summer.
THE NEWSPAPER banner’s purple prose slapped you in the face: ‘The Street of Ashen Dreams.’ Could that be our little street? Sure, the day before had been a torrid few hours, a wall of flames, home after home succumbing to it, little available water for the fire fighters arriving on the scene in the wake of it, a rearguard action against the flames that had got through to the valley behind us. But ‘ashen dreams’? whose dreams—the homeowners’, left with a pile of tangled bricks and metal? the survivors’?
Today, five days later, the journos are still at it: ‘Breathless on the edge of the burning abyss…Warrimoo was prepared for the worst, but the beast in the valley didn’t stir.’ It’s as if, like a runaway fire, the story had got out of control and had a life of its own. One TV show, generated from a van parked in the street for days, had ignited what they call a media frenzy; everybody had to be there in the wake of the flames (‘as shown on TV’)—local member, state governor, finally the premier on return from O/S. It was the place to be—though our neighbor’s home up for sale just lost much of its value with the exposure.
The reality wasn’t quite like that. We all knew the bush was dry, dry, late spring and early summer being what they are. There were fires about before Christmas—and, regrettably, firebugs, too. Frank and his Cross St band of blue-denimed volunteers had been busy, identifying Standard Water Supplies and marking your gate with an SWS emblem like the Passover blood to ward off the avenging angel, and highlighting the street hydrants in brilliant yellow. On Christmas Day, knowing the limits of local water, they had been filling tarp-covered trailers on the nature strip; the day was very warm and dry, too hot for comfort on a day of indulging. Seeing the fire on the ridges above Sun Valley only kilometres away, Frank warned his hard-working team at sunset, ‘Today was only the rehearsal.’ And he was right.
Boxing Day dawned warm and smoky: Sun Valley hadn’t settled down. Like every other morning and evening, Elsie painfully walked her nondescript dog Danny up Cross St, through the nature reserve, then back past our gate; she had not been well, Christmas heat didn’t agree with her, though guests were coming soon and would bring a lot of food, she said, something not to her taste this day. ‘I don’t care what happens to me,’ she said in her broad Scots, ‘it’s Danny I’m concerned about.’ She didn’t linger, as if aware things were waiting to take a turn for the worse. As the morning wore on, another fire reared up, closer, from a more threatening quarter. Marie and I took stock of it, put some things in a bag, moved the car up the drive at the ready, clear of the hydrant at the gate. Another look into that threatening valley close to midday, and there was no time to lose: out of the house, up the drive—and straight into the teeth of fifty feet of flames consuming the reserve in one gulp, scorching our nature strip and hedge, starting spot fires on the inside lawns and out by the car. Then it took off down the street, around the bend and out of sight as we scrambled to recover, unaware that one house after another was falling to the flames, old Elsie’s among them, working its way around the loop, threatening all homes backing onto bush—as we all do in leafy Warrimo.
Water was wanting, but we had our SWS, a large tank of rain water. With friends we carted buckets down the street to nearby properties where wood heaps and leafage fires were carrying the flames down into the valley behind us. Too late and too few of us: it took hold, and began roaring up at our rear. A couple of us discovered, with no help available from the various brigades, that there’s nothing to match a garden rake and a large watering can to keep the flames at bay; we frantically beat off its inroads. Thankfully, with energy spent and old bones failing, the fire passed by and finally ran itself out against the wind, leaving only dangerous embers and smoking trees—but, thank goodness, the angophoras unscathed, like our own homes. Only then, five hours on from the fateful noon, could we count the cost. Frankly, I was pooped.
Later that evening Marie and I strolled down to take stock of others in Cross St: ‘ashen’ it was (and is); ‘dreams’? One home in ruins not far below ours, sedan still in the collapsed carport. Elsie was just going off, the day’s friends giving her haven; I briefly held her hand (she was ever grateful for a lift home from the shops one day), and it was a strong grip—she’d gained strength from the crisis, a true mulier fortis. Next to hers stood intact, unaccountably, a wooden home; then three in a row levelled, including Glen the electrician’s, who talked with me in his lounge room just weeks before about a problem we needed solving. Then another lost further down; others scorched and severely damaged, in the wake of flames that, deceptively, seemed to have gone well away. The ‘fireys’ knew better: next morning right on 4.00am, crews all the way from the Riverina tramped down our drive to backburn (their leader, incongruously, smoking) and to give us more protection—bless ‘em—before taking their first spell at 7.00am since leaving home the day before.
With New Year about to break in upon us, is that all the next few hours will bring? The wind has got up today, the worst of hazards: my skin (and the squeals of trapped creatures) taught me no one can withstand the wind-blown flames. Sirens and the choppers overhead bode no good for some. The air is full of smoke, embers too, a constant threat to roofs and gutters and canopies; we can’t see the seat of the flames, but doubtless firefighters are retreating before them and people evacuating homes. Why does it again seem unreal for a TV station to invite us this evening to a street party for their current affair program, while others are feeling the heat? Why does the prospect of a fireworks display on the Bridge at midnight to usher in the New Year seem the worst of omens and the most distasteful of displays for bone-weary fireys and bereft householders?
Life goes on: our postie is shown in the papers (a staged photo?) delivering mail to boxes in front of devastated and forlorn houses. Phones keep ringing from concerned friends. Kate and Anthony are moving into No.31 just as they had planned, as on cue Chris and Jennie moved out on the day itself; the man who lost his garbage tin had a replacement from the council as soon as the papers hit the stands; all community services are to the fore—along with the tourists in their white joggers and white tee shirts, agog at the sooty spectacle they had just viewed on TV. Some householders had been singled out for media attention, and even rewarded with another home—but old Elsie wasn’t among them.
Relief, gratitude, anxiety, caution—and a somewhat bitter taste: that’s what I feel in these following days. Relief at the preservation of lives, not to mention a home that would have been hard to replace; gratitude to kith and kin who showed concern for our situation; anxiety for cousin Kath at burning Hilltop evacuated twice already; caution as fires still rage not too far away. The bitter taste arises from feeling the effects of others’ neglect of conditions in their own backyard which blind Freddy could see would lead to trouble, in some cases bringing about their own downfall, in others obliging neighbors to fight their fires while they abandoned ship. It was also shown to be bad policy to leave fallen timber in the nature reserve as ‘habitat for local fauna’—the policy of les responsables—when that reserve robbed residents of their more valuable habitat and put lives at risk.
It’s easy and tempting to moralise about the role of the media in a crisis. Important as it is for the community to be aware of frightening developments and the plight of others, ratings and sensationalism can undermine journalistic balance. Our little street of ninety-nine houses—now fewer than ninety quite sound—has become a media microcosm of bushfire devastation; yet with the fires out since Boxing Day we don’t warrant the attention. But the journos won’t let go—nor the pollies. Nor are they even-handed in their focus: the very deserving go unnoticed. Who is looking to old Elsie?
Our fire, they say, was deliberately lit that morning before racing down the valley and up into our Cross St homes, causing well over a million dollars damage, putting many lives at risk and devastating the beautiful mountains landscape; I for one was at the end of my tether when the flames moved on. Who would do a thing like that? Not a few, it seems—and not all young. Should we fall again to moralising on the mysterium iniquitatis at work among us? cry vengeance, and demand stiffer penalties? turn vigilante, and mete out rough justice? Little good it would do Elsie and Danny; but after these fires we should admit we face graver social problems than a shortage of water. Like many a gift of the gods, fire from Prometheus is being turned against themselves by irresponsible mortals.
How inculcate responsibility in our ranks? Generosity and courage are not lacking: that’s clear from the same disaster; but responsibility? If only we could light upon the right New Year resolution, vote-winning and headline-grabbing or not. In my view, it’s a stiffer challenge than identifying terrorists or the fundamentalists they suck in behind them. We really can’t rest—or dream—till we’ve met it.
Charles Hill lives in the Blue Mountains. He teaches and writes on the Bible, theology and the Fathers.