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.