We have been watching news of the bushfires in Victoria, Australia with increasing horror. As this is written the death toll stands at 131 people, and is expected to rise.
We both have experience of bushfires: Susan can remember the fires of the 1960s in central Victoria, in particular the Lara fires (which having looked them up, were 1969). She remembers her father blocking the downpipes with tennis balls and filling up the gutters with water, and strategically placing milk pails full of water around the house. She remembers her mother packing a laundry basket full of blankets, ready to evacuate while her father was out with the volunteer bush fire brigade fighting the fire. She remembers seeing the flames along the top of the ridge on the neighbours property.
She remembers seeing her uncle arrive at the garden gate, completely exhausted, covered in ash and soot and with bloodshot eyes he could barely open, after losing the battle to save his home (the house that she lived in as a baby). The family lost two houses in those fires, and two uncles were hospitalised, one with burns, the other with smoke inhalation, a result of being out fighting the fires. Farm animals were lost, both in the fires, and after, because of eating too much rich new grass. Machinery and equipment was lost too. But no one [in the family] died, houses were rebuilt and new cars and farm machinery bought, stock was replaced.
There is a famous family story about Susan. She had a koala stuffed toy (made of kangaroo skin, the sort of thing most Australian kids at the time had). It went everywhere with her when she was a toddler. Apparently, she threw this koala out the car window
in the midst of evacuating during a bushfire on a family outing. Once having arrived at at the place of safety the destination, she proceeded to make such a scene about not having her koala that her father drove back, presumably in the direction of the fire, to find the koala on the side of the road! Susan, the koala, and her father all survived this adventure, and the koala, bald and moth-eaten at the end, lasted into the '70s.
Since then, Canberra has had more fires, including one in 2003 which destroyed over 500 homes, and the Mt. Stromlo Observatory. Like Susan in 1969, various members of my family have stories of sitting around with cars packed, waiting for the order to evacuate. (Remember, this is not the outback - this is Australia's capital city). Like Susan, the items packed may not have made much sense to anyone else: for my father it was a car full of photo albums, and for my daughter (who was allowed one bag and one object) her favorite shoes and her saxophone.
In the 10 years we have been in London my (now sold) house in Queensland narrowly avoided being burnt out by bushfires, not once, but twice.
I think everyone who has been exposed to serious wildfires is scared by the prospect of another one. I know I am. Many tough Australians can be reduced to silence - if not tears - by pictures of out of control fires.
10 February 2009 update: today my birthplace was mentioned on the BBC Radio news. I was born in the most unremarkable small country town in Australia imaginable. One doesn't expect to hear its name on the national news in Australia, much less the international news in London. I checked the Country Fire Authority website to see what the latest was. The first two messages on the Updates and Alerts page were headed 'Urgent Threat Message' and named my place of birth. An 'Urgent Threat Message' means that if you have not already evacuated, you will have to stay and fight the fire because you will not outrun it. There is 'Core Advice' on what to do as the fire passes over you. Some hours earlier when I had checked, the message had been an 'Alert'. Item 3 on the 'Core Advice' for Alert Messages is 'Decide now if you are going to stay or go.'
The death toll from all the fires is now 183, and expected to go over 200. Most people have died in their cars, caught out on the roads by how fast the fire moves, but my father says that even when people have had good equipment and proper fire plans, it has been luck whether they have survived or not.
He reminded me to make it clear that in 1969, people did die, notably at Lara, which is why that year's fires were named after this small town near Geelong. He is not sure how some of the fires that year started, but the one in which my uncle's house was lost was started by a nearby farmer harvesting on a total fire ban day. I get the impression that this was a known cause of fires, and the farmer was breaking the law by using his header on this day.
My father says: 'In the '69 fires I was away for 3 days with our truck loaded with water working in the hilly country around Yarck. It was so stressful on the old truck that I had absolutely no brakes by the time it was over. The fire came to within about 3 km of our place up on the ridge as Susan is saying.'
He also says I am conflating two different stories with the 'koala incident'. The 'out the window treatment' occurred on an ordinary family outing when I was 2½, so he was not risking his life, but I was behaving appallingly! I have no memory of my own of this of course – my earliest memory being from about 6-12 months later, when I am handed up to ride in front of him on the chestnut mare Jenny. Dad reminded me that the koala's name was Dear Dear – curiously I could not remember what it was called, although I can remember the name of my sister's koala, even though her toy never achieved the same sort of status within the family. Dad says I was always doing perfectly horrid things to Dear Dear, like dunking it in the toilet.
I'm glad that the story of him driving into the raging inferno for me is not true – it would have been a remarkably foolhardy thing to have done, no matter how big a tantrum I put on, and he does not have a reputation for foolhardiness.