Australian Bushfire: Battle and Survival – Personal Perspective

My four day weekend was only meant to be for the U2 Concert at the AAMI Stadium – but today took a turn for the worse.

Arriving home late this afternoon, we spotted white smoke drifting up the valley. Oh no, we thought, somewhere lower down the hill a fire had been deliberately started. Thinking the worst, we dumped the evening meal on the dining table, then quickly walked down the street, both of us hoping it couldn’t be worse than a grass-fire – and that maybe we could help put it out. But as it turned out, we were not the first to notice this threat to our homes.

The home-owner closest to the forest that surrounds our suburb was already on the scene, outside his front door, surveying the smoke. He claims to have seen two young lads earlier in the afternoon playing in the grass down in trees of the valley – and that they’d run off only moments earlier. But this cannot be verified, so speculation on the start of the fire can be left for the local authorities.

SWMBO rushed back for wet towels as the fire swept through the underbrush very fast. Small eucalyptus trees were consumed within seconds, the flames shooting up them like sulphur up a geyser. Where saplings once stood, blackened sticks now slowly suffocated from the soot of burnt bark.

I rushed toward the nearest home, yelling in the front door that I was ‘borrowing’ their garden hose. Getting no response, I grabbed the first hose – shearing it off at the tap. I quickly looked at the result, noticing that hose was old and frail. So much for being ready for a fire! No matter, I found another around the front of the home – but it didn’t connect to the tap nearest the flames. I scrambled to unscrew the plastic parts to reconnect the broken one, but the effort was hopeless.

SWMBO had since returned with one bath towel, thankfully an old one used by the cats, saturated. She told me later she stamped and swatted flames arriving at the top of the cliff!

I decided to take matters into my own hands: Neighbours from houses up each street were arriving, no doubt noticing the white smoke too. I yelled at them to return home, “Get buckets, wet towels, find a strong hose! Don’t stop and stare – help us!” Some had gone deaf, they stopped to watch. I wanted to throttle them, but the fire was far more important.

Rushing home for another wet towel, I grabbed our strong hose and a few buckets. Two lovely young children across the road were listening: They had acquired a bucket and filled it with water! Well done kids!

The flames were now about three metres high, and lapping the top of the hill. An entire eucalyptus tree was on fire, its molten-glow stopping anyone getting too close. Exasperated neighbours threw buckets of water on the encroaching flames.

A hose had been acquired, and buckets were arriving fast. Someone had strong metal buckets! Though heavy when full of water, the weight disappeared under the circumstances.

Parents and their children worked together alongside neighbours who barely spoke met for the first time. Thankfully our street is full of environmental-conscious people who have held Christmas and birthday parties in our street for over twenty years – comrades were born in an instant. No one argued when we asked them to get buckets.

But the local CFS had not yet arrived. The phone call had gone out, but we weren’t sure from which direction they would arrive. We could hear the wail of sirens, but couldn’t see them. Turns out they had better access from the other side of the valley – two trucks could be seen rushing through the bush. The yellow outfits, from foot to face, were seen dragging huge orange hoses through the blackened turf, blasting fire-spots away, heading towards the bigger flames.

Two CFS trucks, the Belair and the Sturt suddenly appeared down our street.

One guy we knew was lieutenant, quickly barking orders through his shoulder-piece, and the men disappeared into the bush, the hoses trailing behind them. Although we all were still bailing water and coughing up phlegm, none of us stopped for them. As one group of passionate fire-fighters, we all adopted roles in the effort to remove the flames rolling up the valley.

Without any smoke, the fire rushed along destroying all dried-grass in its path. An empty paint-can exploded, making everyone cringe. A whoosh and it disappeared into another part of the fire never to be seen again. Three CFS men maneuvered themselves around the back of the fire and blasted its rear. Their efforts were fantastic, their Friday night exercise routines proving effective!

The flames belted up the cliff, destroying nearly every plant that stood before them. The succulent plants did not weather any damage as they thrive in dry conditions.

Two hours dissipated as we battled to put out the flames. One man was heard to say, “At least now we have an effective fire-break!” This brought smiles from everyone. He smiled and also said, “… and its a terrible way to finally say Hello to your neighbors!” Though no-one laughed, we agreed. Introductions had been happening from the beginning to know who are friends were.

Blackened earth was appearing.

All the animal tracks were exposed; the walk-trails meandering through the bush were now seen. No doubt some native flora and fauna were destroyed. A young mum mentioned to her children about snakes, saying yes, they are bad, but they would have died in this fire. Just because they are dangerous doesn’t mean they have to hurt.

Finally the last of the fire-spots were gone, the end of our street barren of dry weeds. A tree or two are leaf-free from top to bottom. The wire-fence still stands, its wires now more visible. The last of the water-filled gutters has flowed down into the valley. The fire-trucks drove off a few hours ago.

My lungs are filled with both permapine and eucalyptus smoke. I have hacked up more phlegm in the last hour than I have all year. Yeah, not pretty, but it is one of the many results of being involved with fire fighting. I fear I may need a shower or two: I smell like a rotten cigar, like the breathe of a nicotine-smokers bad habit!

For those who need proof of the effects of fire on the native Australian flora and fauna, want photographic examples of what fire looks like on the Australian hills of Adelaide, or want to show on their respective government websites why our local CFS need far more money – take a look at my set of photographs from this afternoons fire-fighting in the Adelaide Hills. Please.

I donate to the CFS regularly. What do you do to help?

Let’s hope my Sunday is quiet and uneventful and the local weather is good.

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