The Guardian January 29, 2003


Bushfires: life behind the wall of fire

by Sarah Lyons

Fire balls. Twenty metre flame walls roaring into suburbs. A city in 
tatters. Over 530 homes burned to the ground, many more damaged. The 
sewerage processing plant, Mt Stromlo Observatory, a power station, 
churches, schools and recreational areas, all destroyed. This is the big 
picture.

It didn't happen the way it sounded. It was not a fire for the movies. 
There was no clear beginning, middle or end. No hero triumphant.

Each household saw the fire differently, and handled it differently. It was 
only when we had time to stop and live again that we started comparing 
stories. And we exchanged the stories in an entirely different coming 
together, one that is still happening. Our city is turning into a village.

There have been fires in the mountain ranges for a while. Southern Canberra 
was used to a veil of smoke and news about fragile ecosystems being 
destroyed. So when the air was smokier on Saturday our first reaction was 
unhappy, but not overly concerned. The sky was, during the morning, a dirty 
white cover tinged with stale smoke. Then it grew darker and the clouds 
changed to a grimy orange, then almost an ochre colour.

In the early afternoon, it became a deep red, and people in my suburb went 
outside to investigate. We got out hoses and buckets. An alert was run 
across the bottom of the television screen just before 5 pm warning that 
certain suburbs were on fire alert. All of these suburbs were just the 
other side of the mountain, so we kept an eye on things, but did not panic.

Then embers started to rain down. Bigger embers in some areas. The closer 
you were to Mt Taylor and Oakey Ridge, the more debris in the air. The 
yellow and black air  patterned by the fire's refuse. And that wind! It 
gusted and swirled, changing direction every other minute. We brought out 
more hoses, and tubs of water. A new garden recreation became hitting spot 
fires with buckets of water before they could spread.

We talked to each other. For some, this is when we discovered the extent of 
the fires for the first time, since not everyone affected has a direct view 
of Mt Taylor.

The red sky was the reflection of the flames in the clouds. The whole 
mountain was alive with fire. Tolkein's Mt Doom. All we needed was Frodo 
and the One Ring.

Some people evacuated, quietly, without fanfare. Those who didn't were 
often short on concrete knowledge of what was happening. All we knew was 
the strange air and the embers. The world had shrunk without us knowing. 
Tiny clusters of worried people swapped gossip.

A night without stars

It was a night without stars, and almost without breathable air. And it was 
only mid-afternoon.

When the sky lightened to deep red again, people moved. Some people in our 
area moved straight to the fire front. Groups of teenage boys grabbed their 
family shovels and helped bury embers to prevent the fire spreading.

Other people moved to the properties where horses were kept and shifted the 
horse to safety, one by one.

Still more people collected blankets and clothes and delivered them to the 
evacuation centres. Except to the Phillip one, which was evacuated itself. 
Only the frail, the elderly, children and asthmatics were confined indoors, 
vulnerable and disempowered. For these people, the world was still tiny.

Another message appeared across the bottom of the TV screen, announcing an 
emergency bulletin at 5.45 pm. The TV station didn't interrupt the 
important repeat of a program on Princes Diana. So TV watchers waited to 
see what we should do. Radio-listeners were already out and about, helping 
fight the fires, or evacuated.

Our area may never know what that emergency bulletin said. We lost power 
shortly after 5 pm, when the power station was destroyed. Three homes in 
another suburb burned when a transponder exploded. The explosion could only 
be heard locally, because of the winds. But gas tanks exploded, so our 
sound horizon was punctuated by short sharp bursts of sound.

When these fell silent, we had light again. Murky, but still light. The 
world was suddenly new, and peaceful. The sky was the clearest it had been 
all day. Then the sun set.

The sun set

Many suburbs were evacuated by then  at least 5000 people were homeless, 
we are told. These people are mostly not telling their stories yet. These 
are the people who would not know for at least 24 hours if they had a home 
to return to.

But for the rest of us, in the suburbs that were threatened rather than 
destroyed, it was a strange evening. Some houses were empty. Cars were 
fewer than they had been. There were no traffic lights and no bird noises.

The lights in the car yards in Phillip came on for a time, and the people 
living closest joked about sitting in the murky air and watching outdoors 
TV. When these faded, there was no light. Except, faintly visible, a dark 
pink moon.

With many telephones out, no power, and a surprising shortage of radios, 
many of us fumbled in the dark for candles and torches. Some neighbours 
knocked on doors, offering candles for those who didn't have them. Some 
neighbours even knocked on doors offering chocolates.

During the early part of the evening quite a few people paid visits. So 
many of us have been surprised this week into the comment, "I spent the 
evening with neighbours I hadn't ever spoken with till now."

The later part of the evening was dark and alone. We drew together for 
comfort where we could. Families grew from two to five or from four to 
eight to accommodate friends from Duffy or Chapman. People played cards, 
chatted, read by torchlight. Almost no-one slept. The smell of smoke was 
far too close. The grittiness of it had crept through our closed windows 
and into our pores.

And that was Saturday on the slopes of Mt Taylor.

On Sunday there was another rash of doorknocks. Those who had operational 
telephones handled non-stop calls as the rest of the universe rang in. We 
have all swapped stories about calls from Japan, New Zealand, the USA, the 
UK.

The phone calls were expected but nice. They brought us back from our tiny 
worlds into a bigger world.

The doorknocks

But it was the doorknocks that were extraordinary. We updated each other on 
what things had looked like on Saturday  whether the family had stood on 
the roof of their house to watch the pattern of the fire, or watched from 
the street. Or been unable to watch at all.

We discovered and explored the size of what we had been through. We were in 
shock. We were crying. We were angry. Each of us handled Sunday 
differently.

Except that all of us shared. Households without radios suddenly had one 
from a friend or neighbour. People with too much milk gave to people with 
big families and no milk. People with cars found neighbours without and 
took them to buy imperishables and water and batteries.

Some lucky souls who had power 24 hours after the blackout, started a new 
trend. Instead of pot luck dinners with friends, we had refrigerator luck 
dinners. We shared items that were still edible but needed finishing. There 
were some very odd menus.

These doorknocks have set the pattern for the week. The frail and the 
isolated have found that they are watched out for and helped. Those who 
can' t drive are given lifts to the shops or stay with friends. We all 
chronicle who we know and help find out if people are safe, and if they 
still have houses. And if the houses are insured.

A new Canberra preoccupation is thinking how many clothes we actually need, 
how many household goods we actually use, and how many should be given away 
to those with no house insurance. It is not charity. It is friendship.

More than that, it is a remarkable solidarity  Canberra is a village 
right now. An unusual village. The golf course and at least one recreation 
centre are harbouring horses. The Dinosaur Museum has a healthy crop of 
children being minded for free. Some offices have cats hiding under desks, 
waiting to be allowed home.

Some hotels have free accommodation for the stranded, and many more private 
houses have retained their new extended families. And the Canberra public 
service has been a tower of strength, moving us from catastrophe to 
normalcy at an extraordinary pace.

There are big struggles to come. Many of our industries are in severe 
trouble. Canberra now knows exactly how a pine tree explodes when subject 
to extreme heat. We have yet to find out how to deal with the job loss from 
the loss of four fifths of our plantation pines. Canberrans, however, are 
becoming very skilled at working and living as a close community. Maybe we 
can stay a village, to help us with the challenges of reconstruction.

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