Bush fire in Tasmania
Fire started, first day - through the window of the sunroom at "Kibbenjelok"
In the meantime I had closed all our windows, filled the bath with water, dampened all the linen I could find and dressed Michele and myself in clothes that covered all our limbs. It was nearly night darkness outside and the only noises that could be heard were the sharp cracks as majestic gum trees fell and the roar of flames. Kees arrived home and said, “Get into the car and take Michele down to the beach. I will follow in the other car.” As I left our home, I took a last glimpse around me and on a bookcase near the front door, I saw the little Eskimo carving that our Canadian best friends had given us for a wedding present. I grabbed it as we ran out of the door. I looked around at the garden we had so lovingly built on that difficult, steep bush block. From the light of the flames that were now racing through the gum trees all around us, my eyes lightened upon Matthew’s birthday present, [the 29th January], his first two-wheeler bike. I picked it up and hurled it from our very steep terrace onto the street below. It was then I realised, I had lost my cool!
It was so dark driving down our street, there was so much smoke that even the car lights could not penetrate that blackness. Slowly I moved forward with Kees in the other car following. I concentrated on avoiding the telegraph poles that were falling and still carried live wires. Suddenly, I felt a bump that came from the front fender. I got out and found that I had run into a middle-aged lady. Helping her up, I was glad to find that she was not badly hurt but horrified to hear her say, “I just saw two little boys walking through the bush. They were dressed in grey school uniforms.” I raced back to Kees and he said that he would go back and get them and join us on the beach. Michele, aged eight, who had quietly helped me do the right things in the house only asked me one question, “Will the fire come down to the beach?” “No” I replied, as we passed the preschool the children had all attended and which was now on fire, “ It will not get across the main road. Your father said there are firemen there to stop it” My reassurance proved wrong, for, as we reached the beach, the quarantine station that was just beyond the rocks and sand, caught alight. Michele only looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes. It seemed like the end of the world
Eskimo carving, rescued from fire and water
There were lots of people sheltering on the beach, including many of the children from the High School. They came from the Southern country villages and would return home to perhaps find that most of the homes in their town no longer existed. Some of them would find that family members had died or been badly hurt, all would find that childhood possessions and mementos and toys, were gone forever. I could write of amusing things, like the man who rushed down to the beach and out into the water, raised his arms to the sky and shouted with a foreign accent “A sheep [ship]! A sheep! My kingdom for a sheep!” I could tell of the kind folk who bought blankets, tea and biscuits down to us. Or when an aquaintance of mine said to me as she gave me the eskimo sculpture that I had left on a rock and the incoming tide had washed over, “Is this what you rescued from the house, Gay?” and I thought “How silly can you be? If all else is burnt this hard stone would come out intact!”
By 4pm, we knew that the fire was over and we could return to - what? You see, Kees and the boys had not arrived at the beach. Slowly we returned to our cars. Before I had turned on the engine, Kees appeared. He had searched through the burning trees as he went back to the house. There was no sign of the boys but the main fire had jumped our house. The eaves had caught fire where the massive gum tree that stood at the back of the house, had dropped gum leaves. The tree was just burning, all others were burnt. So Kees put out the fire in the gum tree and the eaves and some similar small fires that were burning around our neighbours’ home. He let out the chickens and the guinea pigs and these terrified animals followed him around and tripped him up as he doused the fires. My mother’s home, a very large brick home, a wonderful house, was still standing. But the heat had been so intense that the off-white painted bricks had turned it into a sunset apricot hue. The ornamental gardens were completely burnt.
We had no electricity and all around us the odd flame shot up, revealing the devastation of the gardens and bush. Matthew’s bike was retrieved from the street quite unharmed by the fire, only buckled and chipped from my crazy rescue gesture. Above all, the smell of burnt Eucalyptus seeped through everywhere and black cinders began to fall inside and did for many weeks after. I cannot smell a bushfire now without feeling sick. We still did not know what had happened to the boys. It was impossible for us to get through to their school. All traffic was stopped, there were no telephones and the only communication was via our transister radio. Sitting inside our home, I had never felt so useless in all my life.
At 8.30 pm I heard a car drive up our street. I rushed to the window just in time to see Anthony and Matthew climb out of a car filled with little grey uniformed boys. Later, as we sat eating cold baked beans and bread and butter, Anthony said with all the disgust a 6-year old can muster, “Do you know what Matthew did? He was sick all over that kind man’s car! He was the only kid to do that”
Later, as I tucked Matthew into bed, I said to him “It was certainly a very odd first day at school, Matthew”
Matthew, five years old, replied, “It was all right! They took us down to the beach. But, do I always have to stay all night at proper school?” He thought that the darkness he had experienced from noontime was because night had fallen.
Next morning we had a hot breakfast. I took the bacon and eggs outside and cooked them on a still burning tree stump
The America “Time” journal reported the devastating bush fires that took place in Tasmania but slightly exaggerated when they stated that the entire population of Tasmania [around half a million] had been evacuated in two Scottish submarines. Why Scottish?
By next morning and as I am writing this article, the fire has worsened
We were lucky, our losses were few. We had to take Kees to hospital next morning. His eyes were burnt from gazing into the flames but they cleared up in a few days.
The big gumtree at our back door was the only green gum left within sight and for days I was fascinated to see possums climbing up the tree and picking the gum leaves which they placed in their curled up tails to take back to feed their babies.
The guinea pigs vanished. One morning many months later , I heard the children talking excitedly outside. They came in carrying a guinea pig who, over the winter, had grown extremely long hair and nails on his paws that were a inch long. Presumably the nails grew to become tools to dig for food
The lady I ran into lived near us and was very nervy even before the fire. She must have seen the boys leave for school in the morning and got herself muddled
Much of the gardens, ours and my mother’s, surprisingly came back. We pruned very hard and poured water into the blackened stumps for many weeks and natural rain came to help. Plants, that were surface growers and had the roots burnt, were lost. My mother had Japanes cherries lining part of the driveway and even a few of these returned to the living world and, all her roses and many perennials, were fine. Many homes were saved by their “garden fire break”. Indeed, I think that is what helped save our home. We were just lucky too, I guess
I hope you will go back to my article and have a look at more pleasant pictures - the garden in flower, late summer at "Kibbenjelok" This is the link to my Welcome Page if you are unable to use your back button