Over the weekend Tasmania was burning, bush fires ravaged whole communities and have caused untold damage and loss of property, there were many comparisons made to the Black Tuesday bush fires in 1967, thankfully this time we seem to have come through without loss of life.
The words Total Fire Ban give me the shudders, because of 1967. I remember Black Tuesday somethings are indelibly etched in your memory. I wrote this back in the late ’80 after we had endured a prolonged period of dry hot weather. My feelings still haven’t changed as I sat in my house on Friday and smelled the smoke and watched the news, heard the sirens and the warnings, I was once again back in 1967 and it wasn’t pleasant.
“TODAY IS A DAY OF TOTAL FIRE BAN”
I hate that announcement, not only because of the sound effects they use with it, but because it brings back so many old old memories. It was February 1967, I was nearly three and it was hot, unseasonably hot, hot enough for many old timers to click their tongues and intone that “they’d never seen weather like it afore” to anyone that would listen. Much like today I imagine, it’s 38 dgs and climbing, there’s a hot northerly blowing and all it would take is one maniac with a match and the entire state goes up in a ball of flame.
But back to 1967, I remember it being hot for days and days, my mother being particularly snappy as my sister and I asked for the wading pool to be filled again, Us not knowing that water was in short supply, living down the end of a long street with dodgy water pressure was worrying her, my father, in the CMF, off god knows where fighting fires in the middle of the state, knowing that he was in some danger, waiting and listening for the radio reports, the photos in the paper, of the flames and the men, looking tiny and insignificant next to the flames, leaping fifty and a hundred feet in the air, even in black and white looking dangerous and evil.
Our house, at the end of the street, backing onto untouched thick bushland, the bush coming close to the back fence, surrounded by bush on three sides of the house, tall trees, gum trees, wattle trees, bush as dry as last months bread, the unnatural silence, no birds, no animals, no insects, silence, broken only by the worried voices of my Mum and the neighbours, all the men off fighting fires, our only protection the water dribbling out the end of the hose.
I remember, and I am sure of this, going to bed the night before, asking my mother when daddy would be home, and Mum crying because as it turned out no one had been able to get in touch with my dads platoon for three days, and mum expected the worse, I remember quite clearly reaching up and hugging mum and telling her not to worry, that she would be able to fill the wading pool up tomorrow, three year old children have their own set of priorities.
The next day it was hot, hotter than before, I’m told it reached 44 dgs, that didn’t mean much to me, not that day, I could smell something sharp and it made me sneeze, I looked at the sun and it was bright orange against a black cloud bank, terrified I asked mum what it was, smoke she said, lots and lots of smoke, there’s a fire, a really big fire, and it could be heading this way, it still didn’t mean much to me.
Later that day, Mum told me to stay inside, she went out with a scarf over her mouth, picked up the hose and spent four hours wetting down the fence and the house with this pitiful trickle of water, my sister and I watched with interest as mum trudged back and forth with buckets of water to throw on the fence, not realising that this was a task equivalent to the little boy with his finger in the dyke, holding back the sea.
She came inside and told us to get some things together, that we would be spending the night with neighbours, she was crying, I didn’t know why, I think my sister did, she stopped me from making a fuss and we went and packed our favourite toys.
I remember standing on the back door step watching, watching and not believing as this wall of flame headed down over the hills on two sides of us.
I remember crying, and being scared.
I remember my mother standing by the back fence and crying, still watering the fence with the hose.
I remember my mother swearing as the water slowly stopped flowing.
I remember the look on her face as she came inside and got her purse and the photo albums (mothers also have strange priorities).
I remember the fire engine, the siren- loud, the fireman yelling at my mother to “get the fuck out of here” to leave and leave now.
I remember the look on my mothers face as she stopped the car at the top of the street, got out and looked one last time at the house, I swear she was saying goodbye to the house.
I remember our neighbours, all crowded into one house away from the fire, my mother refusing to look anymore, all the children crammed into the cubby house up the tree, looking but not wanting to look, the silence, even the cockiest child was awed by the scene they were watching.
Hell, pure hell, hungry flames, ordinary men pitted against that, hell would win, it had to, now I know why my mother refused to watch, her life was in that house.
Hours and hours later, dark, the flames finally out, my mother nearly fainting as she was told that the fireman had saved the house, mainly due to the wetting the fence had gotten from her, tears, tears of laughter and joy, and sadness as we hear of others less fortunate than us.
The next day it rains, strange that, I was carried home that previous night asleep, the morning brings utter destruction to our eyes, trees hundreds of years old, gone, nothing but black as far as the eye could see, the pitiful noises of the animals who got caught in the fire, in pain.
I remember my father coming home, expecting to find the house gone, he’d been told that all the houses in our street were destroyed, my mother crying again, everyone crying.
I remember dad climbing over the fence, with his gun, the crack crack as he shot the animals in pain.
I remember my mother nursing a bandicoot back to health.
“TODAY IS A DAY OF TOTAL FIRE BAN”
I HATE that