31 March 2009

Aftermath

Since the bushfires in Victoria, my senses have been heightened. I am acutely aware of every siren, every whiff of smoke. I walk around the area and instead of beautiful houses in beautiful streets, I see death traps.

Where I live is indefensible. In a bushfire the fire-fighters can't protect us; the maze of small winding roads are a death trap to all if the fire blocks the one road leading out. During Ash Wednesday, most people evacuated as we did. Some stayed. Many who stayed then, and would have stayed again, are now saying they will flee. We all know we wouldn't have survived Black Saturday.

I remember Ash Wednesday, but I was a child, and we didn't lose our house, so I don't remember the aftermath. There are very few scars on the landscape after so long. Many people moved into the area after the fires. They don't remember them. They don't remember the debate over whether the area should even be rebuilt at all, given the danger here.It is over 25 years since we had fire amongst our houses on such a scale, and people had been lulled into a false sense of security.

All around, you see complacency. The fuel loads on the ground are piling up. You find people accidentally starting fires by using power tools or machinery on total fire ban days. You see piles of firewood stacked up against wooden houses, surrounded by leaf litter and gum leaves.

Death traps, on dead-end roads.

I used to walk into the bush in summer, climb a mountain and sit there at the top, watching as fire after fire erupted in the valley around me and was extinguished. I feel sick thinking of how blasé I was back then - if any of those fires had got out of control, it would have been too late for me to run by the time I realised I was in danger. My trust in the CFS was so great that I never seriously worried that there could be fires they couldn't cope with.

You can hear the fire station's siren from here. It's always given me a sense of comfort, like they're taking care of something somewhere. Now, it sends me into a spiral of fear. I race indoors and check the CFS website to find out what's happened, and where. If I know I will have no transport on high risk days, I head into the city early and stay there until the danger has passed. I sniff the wind, and feel my heart sink - even though usually it's the smoke from our own indoor fire I can smell.

Not long ago, there was a big one, not far away, and close to houses. There were water bombers and choppers buzzing overhead for five hours, and trucks wailing up from all over. It was a big one, and took a big response. As the sun set, I wondered if they could contain it. It was the first time I'd ever really been afraid they wouldn't. But they did.

Four days later, it flared up again.

You are never totally safe, living here. Maybe you are never totally safe living anywhere. Most people do what they can to keep their blocks clear, and are careful about any source of ignition. We are aware, in the backs of our minds, of the danger. But it is in the back, not the front. When you live close to danger, you become almost immune to the fear - you simply cannot live in that state of heightened awareness all the time. Mine flared up this summer in a way it hasn't before. But for us there is always the reprieve of winter, when the rain falls and the danger eases for a few months.

Until next season.