10 February 2009
We’ve had a cool southerly change after the scorching heat of the past couple of weeks. A welcome treat for we night drivers, trying to get our sleep in before it gets too hot.
But the winds have brought in just a hint of haze from the devastating bushfires in Victoria. I stopped on Adelaide Avenue to take a picture of the declining sun slanting through the brown smoke coming up from a thousand kilometres away.
Nobody talks of anything but the bushfires. The memories of Canberrans stretch back to 2003, when we lost five hundred houses in the suburbs between lunch and afternoon tea. Five hundred houses but only four lives.
The news from Victoria is far worse. They have a death toll of well over a hundred now. And counting.
It’s quite rare to lose houses in a bushfire. Generally the rural fire brigades do a great job of protecting property. The bush burns, resprouts in the next rains, and two years later there’s nothing to see. The burnt bark falls off the trees and fresh treestuff grows.
It’s even more rare to lose lives. People stay to save their homes, but they have the car packed and ready to go. If things get too hot, they run for safety.
But every now and then we have a period of intense heat, drying out the fresh spring growth, hot winds from the desert interior, lightning storms to spark fires in remote areas, and if the hot windy conditions persist and worsen, the blazes become firestorms, speeding along valleys like a formation of jet fighters on afterburner, unstoppable, melting roads and vehicles, boiling swimming pools dry, racing through the tinder-dry forests to hit houses with a rain of embers before an explosion of flame.
The wind brought down trees onto roads, trapping people escaping the fires. It’s not something I want to think about too much.
But everyone had a thought for Victoria. One passenger said that the Commonwealth Government should divert some of the latest stimulus package toward rebuilding houses and infrastructure. Another, a journalist, read me out a piece he had written about his childhood holidays in one of the destroyed towns, learning to play piano and billiards in a quaint guest house.
And I thought about that town, where I’ve spent a few weekends on computer programmer conferences. The church camp we hired was spartan but comfortable, surrounded by green ridges, where “the tallest trees in the British Empire” had been drawing tourists since the 1800s. It was a delightful, restful retreat, and the small town of Marysville was a few tree-lined streets, old wooden houses and the sort of rural general stores and pubs that you don’t get in the slick cities any more. A community.
Now it’s gone. The black streets remain, but the rubble and ash of the buildings mark out from the air where people lived and worked. One or two lucky homes remain, but the rest, the houses, hotels and guesthouses are gone. Piano and billiard table just a few twisted remnants amongst the fallen walls.
Word is that my birthplace, up in the Ovens Valley, might be under threat. It’s been years since I was there, but I hate to think of that little community looking anxiously to the south as they tidy away their yards, piling garden rubbish away from houses, seeking out photographs and family treasures for the car, listening to the radio for warnings.
But they are also lining up to give blood for the burns victims pouring into the hospitals, taking boxes of canned goods and can-openers to the charity collection points, going through their wardrobes for those with just the clothes they stand up in.
Canberra, where the smell of smoke freshens memories of 2003, is collecting containerloads to send south. We might be an urban society, but in our hearts, we are out in the bush, standing firm to defend the family farm, packing into the shire hall to help out our neighbours, offering a place at the table and a bed in the spare room for those who need it.
Not much that I can do directly. Any bushfire survivors find their way to Canberra, they’ll get a ride for free from me. And for this week, I’m making a donation each night to send south. I don’t make a great deal as a cabbie, but I can certainly help those who have nothing but the ash-blackened shirts on their backs.