Smoke on the Horizon

21 June 2009, 8:12 am


kites and fire

We’ve had the man from the Country Fire Service around to look over the property.


“Don’t plant any more trees,” he said. “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to live uphill from a gully?”


No more trees.


A hard ask when it’s so hot in the summer.


We’re doing what we can.




When there’s smoke on the horizon, as there was earlier this week, I get to remembering how frightening fire can be in the bush. All my neighbours know this, of course. And my “fire” experience has to do with a very different bioregion: the Top End of northern Australia.


Everything is different there from this subtropical paradise: dramatic thunderstorms, fierce winds, endless periods of rain and dry in strongly defined seasons. The Aboriginal people say there are six: Yegge, Wurrgeng, Gurrung, Gunumeleng, Gudjewg and Banggerreng.


My first bushfire was in August 1991. In Humpty Doo.


I can still smell the fear of it.


I remember the dramatic differences in the “before” and “after” landscape.


sv fire xanthostemon 06

After the Fire, 1991


And I still sense in my body my own terrified response:








In the middle distance I spotted dark smoke rising above a wall of orange. The horizon, formerly hidden by a rich woodland understorey, trees and shrubs, now expanded for acres, revealing the scarred landform’s idiosyncrasies: stream banks, hillocks and depressions. Scattered across this moonscape were burning and smoking stumps, charred skeletons of acacia, woolly butt, kapok bushes, ironwood, carallia, billy goat plums, some without leaves or branches. Only the tallest retained a thin green canopy crowning their blackened branches.


The black, twisted stumps of leafless cycad ferns like amputated limbs. Large birds I’d never seen before spiralled overhead, wheeling and diving on insects and small animals seeking refuge at the fire’s margins.


And the sound of it: the tearing and thudding of huge trees crashing into the earth.


I feel like my life is about to be burned down. With me inside.


That day a hundred acres of neighbours’ bush burns a quarter-mile from my house. Cause unknown. Spot fires burn everywhere, as far as I can see.


Spot fires burn in my heart, burning all my raw places, burning away my shell, exposing vulnerable new places.


Flames are spreading with every breath, spreading throughout my being.


Our neighbour to the west, Trevor, has just planted twenty new shrubs to give us a bit of privacy from each other.


Neighbour Lis, a horticulturalist, bought the plants and Karl helped Trevor with the mulching. I hope they won’t be a problem because we really need to shade the western wall of our new house.


Like Robert Frost, we believe that “good fences make good neighbours”. In this case, trees, rather than fences.


So we try to be prudent and meet our other needs. It’s always this way for us new ones on the block: a sort of awkward, inexperienced, balance … a searching for some sort of equanimity in this rural place …


I try to be reasonable. But I know I’m not reasonable when I smell gum trees burning.


I was too close to that once and it really frightened me.


You can download the full (true) story of “Watching the Fire” by clicking here: Watching the Fire