Memoir

The fire this time

THE BUSHFIRE DEBRIS descends from the night sky with a strangely graceful motion, as if swimming. Leaves and twigs settle softly on the grass, on the flowering plants, on the divided planks of the veranda. A strip of bark a metre long describes a slow spiral around the extended limbs of a weeping spruce before drifting down to the lawn. More charred debris arrives, appearing out of a haze the colour of Coke. I stand enchanted in the suffocating heat of the evening.

There's fire in the mountains and it's coming this way. If the fire reaches our town Anni and I may die. We have gambled on a predicted wind change, absurdly determined to remain loyal to the trees that surround our house. We're not sentimental about trees – we don't believe that they're home to dryads or earth spirits, or that they benefit from being embraced – but it seems wrong to run away while the trees remain staked by their roots. The oldest tree, the weeping spruce, is in its nineties and will burn like a torch if an ember touches it. What do we hope to achieve? If the wind stops the fire on the mountain slopes, the trees will survive without us. If the fire keeps coming, nothing we can do will save the trees, and nothing will save us.

The waiting, though, is pure poetry – the swimming debris, the motionless air, the silence, a patch of sky as bright as mango away to the north where the fire rages – but only because of all that we don't know. The town of Marysville, just over the mountains, has been incinerated – we don't know that. Many people up there had the life scorched from them in seconds as they ran from the towering tongues of flame, but we don't know that. The blast-furnace intensity of the heat at the fire front, capable of igniting a timber structure without the agency of raw flame – that's not the sort of thing we would believe, even if we'd been warned. ‘Listen,' says Anni, quietening the hiss of the hose in her hand so that I can hear what she can hear. It's the sound of nothing. The melded play of noises normal at this time of night, when birds sprint for home and dogs try out a few final recreational whines and cars on the Warburton Highway send a muted burr over the river and up the hillsides – gone. We grin at each other as people do when they recognise a moment that other, more easily alarmed folk would consider spooky. Because of all that we don't know, we think of ourselves as not easily alarmed.

 

A HELICOPTER BEATS its way east, and then another. All that we can see are the travelling haloes of 
their lights. When the pulse of the helicopters dies away we revisit our response to that unnatural hush. Perhaps this is genuinely scary? When was the night ever this quiet? And for that matter, where are all our neighbours? Uneasy in a way we weren't five minutes earlier, Anni and I glance at the car in the driveway. If the fire comes we'll have to rely on a harum-scarum dash down the paved road to – to somewhere. To the river? Do people survive in rivers if the bush is burning above them, sitting on the pebble bed with only their heads above the water? Or do they expire like matches, blackened skulls lolling on unburnt bodies?

The cat agitates for a feed. We shrug off the anxiety. Within the house the radio is broadcasting a report from Whittlesea, not so far from Kinglake, where people have died and the charred remains of homes lie smouldering on roadsides. A young woman is interviewing a mother who escaped the inferno with her three children. The mother can barely control her distress, but everything she says is as gripping in its brevity as the verses of an ancient ballad. The fire came. She had two minutes in which to act. Flaming debris fell around her as she ran with her children. She saw horses sprinting in a paddock. A stranger stopped his car and bundled her and the children inside, then made the dash that saved them all. Thank God for that good man. When do we hear voices like this on the radio? When a correspondent is reporting from some hellhole across the seas and a mother is speaking of the massacre in her village. The fire in Kinglake and Marysville is what Kalashnikovs and mortar shells and implacable young men in combat camouflage are to lands more in the news than our own.

Reports come through of probable deaths at Marysville. Although what transpired there in the space of sixty minutes a few hours earlier is still being spoken of cautiously, it's clear enough that the final count of victims will be high. Anni and I return to the garden, damping down vegetation in a way that we are now aware will make not the slightest difference if the fire reaches out for Warburton. But the tranquillity of the night and its lulling influence persists, and I find myself gazing in reverie at the dark humps of the mountains across the river. I can distinguish a faint violet glow beyond the topmost trees. If I were to start walking due north and press on until within that light, I would be in Marysville. I project images of the Marysville I remember, the day-tripper destination where you would stop to admire the tall trees and wander about thinking in a Willy Wordsworth way of nature as the nurse of the soul, and call into a Bide-a-Wee bakery for a pink lamington and a takeaway latte. And then I think of the fire rearing from the kindling of the forest floor, throwing arms of flame into the oil-laden foliage, striding into the town like a living thing, a monster of appetite, limbs ablaze and red mouth roaring.

 

LIKE THE PEOPLE in Marysville in the years before the fire came, like people everywhere, I have meditated on curtain falls: car crash; cancer; too far out from the strip of sand where my beach towel lies folded; dancing about the dinner table with a lump of gristle wedged in my windpipe; whatever. But not fire. And this is what came into the lives of people in that pretty mountain town: the death you dare not contemplate. Why should it not be my death, and Anni's? Why should I not become the written about rather than the writer – the guy among the big trees in Warburton (and this is tragic) who stood with a hand-held hose while the monster was leaping valleys toward the fodder of his combustible garden?

The cat cries out from a secure distance, uneasy about the bright shaft of water I'm directing one way then another. I soothe him affectionately, but what I'm thinking is: does fearing so dreadfully one particular type of death prevent it coming for you? It didn't work in Kinglake; it didn't work in Marysville. I call out to Anni, ‘Should we go to Carlton?' Anni has a house there, on the fringe of Melbourne's CBD; no bushfire will ever trouble Carlton. Anni replies, ‘Should we?'

I gaze up at the weeping spruce, the lacework of its highest boughs silhouetted against the sky like a mantilla. Anni won't go unless I go. It would seem to her too trite for words if I were to order her into the car, kiss her goodbye, then face the flames alone. Her generation of women is easily irritated by men acting out fantasies of valour. So what I ought to do is jump in the car with her and the cat, because she wants to go, I can tell that; she thinks we're now more stupid than stubborn, and every wrenching voice we hear on the radio endorses her new conviction. All that we don't know notwithstanding, all that we do know should persuade us to run. On this day that's taking so long to pass, Victoria is among the hottest places on earth, forty-seven degrees and higher, with embers fattening with the nourishment of a north wind. And this smallish state sprinkled with place names from a pair of pretty islands that have never known a bushfire has been turned to tinder by a decade of drought. Listen to the people on the radio – listen to them. ‘It came from nowhere, I had ten seconds, I just grabbed the kids and ran, I don't know about the others, I think they're dead.' I can't set a match to the kindling in a fireplace without thinking of autos-da-fe and the horror of administered agony. Do I intend to scream out the last of my life while the house and the trees hiss around me like a sentence pronounced?

 

'SO, DO WE go?' Anni calls from the blurry darkness somewhere near the birch.

‘Let's wait a bit. Do you think?'

‘If you like. Seems rather futile.'

So we stay. We wander dazedly about the place with our plastic hoses. The leaves of liquid amber rattle briefly as a vagrant breeze runs up the trunk. I have no idea of what I'm doing, of my real motivation. Maybe it's snobbery? So many people have run away. I saw a man down in the main street much earlier in the evening. ‘The fire's jumped the lines!' he shouted. ‘It's jumped the lines!' Then he sat down to wait for the 6.20 bus to Lilydale. That man was in a panic of a certain sort, and he was wearing a Big Brother T-shirt. I would never shout anything in the streets. I would never wear a Big Brother T-shirt. The shouting man has come to represent in my imagination the type of person who runs away. My disdain for a Big Brother T-shirt is strong enough to overcome my dread of death by fire. And even if I knew everything that I don't know, I would still refuse to associate myself with the sort of person who shouts in the street and wears a Big Brother T-shirt. This is a curious thing, because when I was researching heretics for a book I'm still writing I was distressed by the refusal of all sorts of people – Spanish Jews of the fifteenth century, English Protestants persecuted by Thomas More, Chinese intellectuals critical of Mao – to throw their beliefs overboard and escape the stake, the noose, the garrotte.

Meanwhile, more of what we don't know is about to enter the state's annals of disaster. The Bunyip State Forest to the south of Warburton is ablaze, and veins of flame are running up Brittania Ridge to the west. The fire storm that destroyed Marysville has raced down the gullies of the O'Shannassy catchment to the north-east, wiping out approximately fifty times the area of forest that Anni and I (in the prissy manner of green folk everywhere) were trying to save from loggers. Another fire, due east, has broken into the Upper Yarra Dam catchment; to the north-west, beyond Mount Riddell, the Kinglake fire has leapt into small towns to the west of Healesville. The body count on the radio is stalled at four, but the actual number of dead is almost fifty times that, and almost all who are to die in this summer's fires are already dead. The complex of blazes known for the time being as the Murrindindi Mill fire is also being carried north through forest and pasture, towards Yea and Alexandra on the Goulburn River. All of these things that we don't know would reveal, if we knew them, that the towns of the Upper Yarra – Warburton, East Warburton, McMahons Creek and Reefton – sit in the hollow of a huge horseshoe of fire. Only freakish good fortune and the wherewithal of some thousands of firefighters will save the whole of the Upper Yarra from destruction.

 

AT THREE IN the morning, Anni and I take what we know and what we don't know and go to bed. We'll sleep in shifts. Anni opens Revolutionary Road at chapter one and when I next open my eyes, she's at page fifty. The normal morning show on the radio has given way to a service dedicated to the fires. The presenter accepts calls from people amplifying the message of an earlier caller: ‘Get out while the getting's good.' A man from Strathewen struggles to describe the speed of the fire that tore his town apart twelve hours ago – its ferocity, the intensity of the heat. A woman from Kinglake has made it to the evacuation centre at Whittlesea but is grieving for her husband, who she fears may have perished.

I stand on the veranda with the voices of fire victims and fire­fighters playing behind me. The sky is the muted blue seen in paintings of ­seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish townscapes. The birds have gone, all of them. Helicopters beat their way east. Alerts for residents of forty or more towns are being broadcast, including ours. A presenter announces that he can now confirm that Marysville has suffered the devastating impact of a firestorm. The death toll of a number of fires still raging appears likely to grow, he says, qualifying the message with professional caution: ‘Nothing is confirmed at this stage.'

One of the worst things happening anywhere on earth at this time is happening in broad patches of Victoria, and the voices that confirm this make it less likely than ever that I will head for safety. When the radio is playing in the morning I'm usually listening to stylised hyperbole, the patter of gossip, the laments of footballers caught pissing or rooting in public, torrents of complaint, clever lies. But now I'm listening to the terrible beauty of tales in which there is no exaggeration, no sentimentality. When a caller who has escaped the flames says ‘horror', it is horror; dread is dread; sorrow is sorrow. I'm absorbed by the way in which disaster restores the vigour of language, and by remaining within this horseshoe of fire I'm earning the right to be absorbed. This is the vernacular of Australian catastrophe, the remorseless bushfire, and its stories reveal much more about the wherewithal of the broad community than those of ill-advised young men clambering up cliffs on a Turkish peninsula.

So if Anni and I escape being withered to char by the closing fires, this is what I'll settle for: I stayed because the people in the fires spoke with such spare beauty of what they'd endured, and because a nong in a Big Brother T-shirt was shouting in the street, and because our trees would have been compelled to remain where they stood and become flame while I was drinking gin in fire-free Carlton.

 

SIX WEEKS AFTER that night of enchantment, dread and irrational conviction, Anni and I are driving over the black spur north of Healesville where the highway climbs to Dom Dom Saddle. Mountain ash flourishes here, conscientiously nurtured after the fires of 1939, the slender trunks as straight as pillars. Before the fires of February the forest was a collage of greens, intense at ground level where the ferns thrive, fading to a shimmery borage-coloured shade at the crowns of the ash. The ferns are gone now, leaving the bare earth exposed. The tree trunks are charred but the fawn husks of leaves, emptied of oil, still cling to twigs and boughs. And this is now a forest from which shadows have been banished in all their variety: the dappling of the forest floor; the deep caves of darkness in places where the light can't reach; the criss-crossing of shapes printed on the ground cover below. At first it seems as if the forest has been stripped of all nuance, but before long the austerity of the scene comes to seem less a diminishment of vigour and variety than the creation of a new beauty altogether. It's a cleaner and more disciplined expression that makes the lavish use of green in the remaining unburnt patches of forest seem superficial. It complements perfectly the pared-down narratives of the bushfire survivors, as if the chastened forest had experienced its own conversion to austerity from excess.

Over the weeks following the fires we watched and listened to a number of memorial services for the victims of the fires. All of them struggled to fit response to event. A concatenation of clichés is no less lowering to the spirits just because it purports to honour dead people. The language of tributes and memorials is a language of capitals, and probably cannot be other; heft and emphasis reliably complement gloom, at least. But to my mind, a finer memorial to the suffering of the bushfire victims would be the unrehearsed narratives of those who escaped the holocaust of February: I ran with the kids. I saw horses sprinting in the paddock. A man stopped his car and helped us in. Thank God for that good man.

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