Fire: an anthology

We live about 30km from Kinglake, one of the places most severely affected by the Black Saturday bushfires. Even without the firestorm that occurred that day, I will always remember it. My small family went for a walk early in the morning for a coffee at the BEST cafe (Were St Cafe Montmorency for those who want to know) in the NE city suburbs and came home at 9.30am already sweltering, sweat pooling in places I didn’t know had sweat glands.

We spent the day inside, dipping in and out of a cool bath, icecream container sized blocks of ice in front of fans. Our air conditioner had packed up a few days before and there was zero chance of getting it fixed anytime soon. Victoria was in the grip a 40 degree heatwave that was melting our pink Southern skins.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

As we withdrew behind heavy curtains, 774 ABC radio became our only link to the outside world. We listened anxiously as the radio announcers voices became more and more concerned, a sense of urgency and suppressed panic in every word. Weekday announcers appeared as ABC switched into emergency broadcast mode.

At about 4pm we heard an urgent ember warning for nearby Hurstbridge. Too close for comfort. My partner and I exchanged worried looks. Surely it wouldn’t reach here, into the outer suburbs? Little did we know that at that moment a horror akin to war was unfolding in nearby Kinglake. People were dying, watching their houses explode into flames, fleeing, all of them desperately underprepared for what they were facing.

In the aftermath we, like so many others, remained glued to the radio, desperate for news of friends and relatives who lived in fire affected areas, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Every morning we turned the radio on to hear that the death toll has risen overnight. It went of for days and we, along with the rest of the nation, reeled in the face of the overwhelming destruction and devastating loss.

About 3 days after we had learned that our beloved Marysville and Kinglake had been razed to the ground, I was listening to Jon Faine who was broadcasting from the Whittlesea recovery centre. He took a call from an older woman who was believed to be missing. She had managed to escape Marysville to find shelter with her sister in Alexandra, leaving behind her home, her pets and her husband, who had refused to leave. It was a memorable conversation for many reasons, not least of which was when she was listing her potential losses her husband came last. Faine’s response was sensitive and appropriate, but I could tell that he was as surprised by the turn of the conversation as I was.

This lady, in her 70’s, couldn’t drive. She made a decision to leave and did so on foot, not knowing if she would survive. It later emerged that her husband of over 50 years, Marysville’s oldest and longest resident, had indeed perished trying to defend his property. I was struck by the power of this story. What does it take to decide to leave your life long partner and home in the hope you will live rather than die?

As the days and weeks passed I heard similar stories over and again. Many couples were torn apart, both at the time of the fire and afterwards, by the decision to stay or leave. I returned to Faine’s conversation with this lady many times (it was loaded on the ABC’s bushfire community website) and my wondering coalesced into a short story, which won the 2011 Southern Cross Literary Award and is now published in this anthology entitled Fire.

Fire is a collection of short stories, essays, poems and images that explore our complex and evolving relationship to fire.

I’m excited about this publication not just because my story is included in it, but because it is timely and necessary. Fire is a poignant reflection on our future as a nation as we face the effects of climate change. These frightening events are now happening with alarming frequency and we must accept that they are to be expected in our future climate landscape. Our weather has changed. Every year, from one end of the country to the other, Australian summers are bringing more frequent, more severe fire (and flood) events . If we are to cope with these dangerous events in the future, we must find a way comprehending them, of coming to terms with how they affect us personally, socially, economically and environmentally.

Fire serves this purpose. And I’m proud as punch to be part of it.

Fire is available from Margaret River Press and through Eltham Bookshop