I moved back to Britain a bit more than a couple of years ago; prior to that I’d spent almost the whole of the previous twenty years in southern Victoria, first in Melbourne, then at a more country location in Drummond, about sixty miles north-west of the city. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been watching the bushfire news very closely indeed – for example, the excellent summary and multimedia presentation from Melbourne’s newspaper The Age.
Most of the attention, correctly, has been on the beautiful forested areas north and east of Melbourne – towns I knew well, like Marysville, St Andrews, Kinglake, where so many have died. Closer to my old home, there have been lethal fires at Bendigo and Redesdale; closer still, several houses destroyed at Drummond, barely a mile or two away, though thankfully without loss of life. But it’s been bizarrely random: other friends at Castlemaine, barely ten miles from Drummond and Redesdale, have said they haven’t even smelt a whiff of smoke. Odd.
And a colleague of a close friend at Australia Post was also one of the probably-lucky ones in the worst-hit zone: she and her family all survived relatively unscathed, but everything else is gone. She sings the praises of her Subaru Forester – the same car I still have back over there – because it somehow kept going till they arrived at the fire station, and safety, before it finally melted…
Fire is a basic fact of life in the Australian bush: the whole ecology is centred round fire, it’s why kangaroos can run so fast, and wombats and koalas can dig a burrow in one heck of a hurry. I’ve seen fires often enough in the hot dry summer, thick smoke on the horizon, or roaring in the trees in the distance – even a gorse-fire, accidentally set off by one of the local fire-crew, which roared up the hill to within a few yards of my fence-line. But it’s clear that this was something much, much worse: flames well over a hundred feet high, temperatures that had no trouble melting alloy car-wheels, fire-fronts that in some places leapt through the landscape faster than a mile a minute, pressure-fronts so severe that they could cause a house to literally explode. Lethal: no wonder people died.
“I love a sunburnt country”, runs a much-loved poem, amended some years back to the somewhat sardonic “I love an unburnt country”. Long may it be so; and for those who died, may you rest in peace, as your friends and neighbours and family start the painful process of rebuilding their lives once more.