Monday, February 16, 2009

Dresden, with Eucalypts

by Lucy Sussex

In the 1980s I drove with my parents to visit an old family friend living in Australian farmland. Her name was Connie Cox, and she had been secretary to my grandfather. Connie was a lively nonagenarian, but paring down her possessions in the way some old people do, as they prepare for death. One thing she retained was a child’s china tea set, crusted with square crystals of glass. When she was a child, bushfires had threatened her parents’ country property. They had fled, Connie riding on her father’s shoulders, returning to find their house burnt out. Her tea set had survived.

I sat there and quietly coveted it. I hope it is now in a museum somewhere.

What we did later that day did not seem at the time suicidal, though it was, given the lesson of the tea set. We drove home, to a log cabin, on Skyline Road, Yarra Glen, a high ridge surrounded on all sides by two of the most combustible species of trees—the pinus radiata and the eucalypt.

It wasn’t as if we didn’t know the place was dangerous. Skyline had been burnt out in the 1960s, something that provided the earliest memory for the writer Beth Spencer, then one, and living in the valley below. It gave her a lifelong aversion to the colour orange. The fire was also written in the singed bark of the oldest trees around our house, and the tendency for the native animals, the wallabies and the wombats, to be the same dark ashy-brown colour.

Fire has been a factor in the Australian bush for millenia. Some species of plants only germinate after a fire; and the indigenous people used fire for land management, to create rolling parkland productive of nice, fat, numerous wallabies and other food animals. It is only the Europeans who have spectacularly failed to adapt to this arid environment.

Why were we living there? Because of the beauty, although my mother later observed that Skyline was a very intense place. She did a lot of art there, and I wrote stories and my first book. That way we dispelled some intensity, but not all. Disputes over land management got very quickly emotional, with tensions between the Green, and those who wanted to live in haut suburban style in the middle of bush. To conserve, or consume? And every year the CFA (Country Fire Authority) trucks trundled out, to backburn or warn against the threat to the treechangers, the hobby farmers, the horsy and the vignerons.

Black days dot the Australian calendar, commemorating bush conflagrations. Ash Wednesday, Black Tuesday, and after last week, Black Saturday, perhaps the worst, with projections of 300 dead, thousands of hectares burnt to ash. It either portended climate change, or merely was a freak event, with nothing similar recorded in 200 years of white settlement.

Here were the conditions, ticking towards conflagration. 12 years of drought, not unusual in the cyclic Australian climate. A month without a drop of rain. Then, a spell of 40C [104F] degree days, lasting nearly a week, and unprecedented. Even the leaves at the top of gum trees shrivelled and fell, forming highly combustible litter on the forest floor. Koalas, usually strictly arboreal, were forced down onto the ground, invading human habitation in search of water. A flurry of cute photos, koalas drinking from bottles, spoons, watering cans, hit the Net. Behind the cuteness was the stark fact that they must have been dehydrated to desperation.

Then came an appalling day, Melbourne’s hottest: 46 degrees Celsius[114.8F], 100 k winds. All it would have taken was a powerline sparking, a dropped cigarette. What resulted was a firestorm, a word not to be used lightly. People had often only seconds to escape, such was the force of the wind propelling the fire. It roared like jet engines, blew trees, powerpoles and even people bodily over. The sky turned black from smoke, the only light from storey-high flames, and the burning embers which landed on sere grass, blew into cracks and under doors. Those defending their houses with sprinkler systems had the hoses melt, the water turn into steam. In a severe bushfire the power lines go, taking the electricity, and the power for pumps. The only option then is to hide from the killer radiant heat of the front, emerging after it has passed to fight the spot fires. But by then it may be too late, with window glass exploding, the roof aflame...

I am told only two houses survived on Skyline Road, defended by those who had no choice but stay and fight, with the fire coming from three fronts at once, cutting off their exits. I have not been up there since—who wants to gawk at the traumatised?—but I know a little log cabin would have been reduced to ashes.

My parents moved out twenty years ago, and did not live to see it burn. I am currently preparing for my mother’s retrospective exhibition, and as I look at her images of Skyline, I see the intensity, an ominous quality. Skyline as was, and will be again, for the bush is endlessly regenerative, the blackened trees sprout again.

[Gethsemane by Marian Sussex, with the distinctive silhouette of gum trees]

But houses do not, nor do people.

1 comment:

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Lucy, this is a stunningly beautiful report on a horrific occurrence. You've made me think about it in new ways, and given me a perspective that the facts -- horrible as they are -- do not quite convey.