Australia is presently experiencing its worst bushfires in history with over 700 homes lost in the state of Victoria and almost 100 deaths.
As you know I live in Sydney, which is in the state of New South Wales. We were spared the wrath of the fires until today when some started on the Central Coast, about a 90 minute drive from Sydney. Sadly, it appears as if those fires were deliberately lit.
I can never come to terms with people who deliberately light fires. Are they pyromaniacs? Arsonists? Arseholes? If they are pyromaniacs why aren’t they lighting fires all the time? Why do they just wait until the hottest days of summer?
If they are arsonists why don’t they just confine themselves to burning down empty factories for insurance scams? Is there a difference between a pyromaniac and an arsonist? Why do they do it? Why?
I am sitting by the window. A cool breeze sweeps through the room after a 35C day. A full moon blares at me, penetrating the curtains. It is a magnificent specimen, an astronomer’s delight, but it is washed with a pale ochre as a result of the fires.
90 minutes away and I can smell them. The smoke makes your throat ache and your eyes bulge. It is not the pleasant, almost festive smell of wood fires in winter or barbecues by the beach; it is the cloying, lashing disconnection of death.
My friend, Mara, lost everything she had in a bushfire in the 1980s. We were still at school, our final year, when it happened. Mara lived in a house on the edge of a gully, backing on to the Royal National Park in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Oh, you should have seen how beautiful it was. The bird life alone would have made you sing with joy. And the trees – lovely old men who had watched over the land for centuries.
Sometimes if you were really lucky you caught sight of little chubby wombats scurrying through the undergrowth or wallabies nibbling bush nuts.
It happened one Friday night. I was staying overnight at Mara’s place. I was very proud as I had just passed my driving test and was running around in my 1968 Toyota Corolla. The crappiest car that ever there was, but it only cost me five hundred dollars, so really, I couldn’t complain if it had a tendency to overheat.
Mara had just found out that she’d been accepted into the Honours program of the Bachelor of Music at Sydney University. She was an accomplished cellist. When I heard her play one of Bach’s Cello Suites or Handel’s Water Music any heretical leanings I had were stifled. That music made me believe in a higher power.
At 6PM there was an announcement on the news that parts of the local area were being evacuated. We had suspected it was coming because the smell of the fires had been hanging in the air all day. My Mum hadn’t wanted me to stay over but I had insisted I would be fine. When she heard of the evacuation she rang in a panic, telling me to get out of there.
Mara and her family packed things like photographs and keepsakes, everything they could, into their various cars. I obliged by filling my car full of blankets and food. Within 20 minutes we were ready to go.
But my car wouldn’t start. No matter how hard I tried. I remember banging on the dashboard as the smoke began to billow around us. Mara’s brother pulled me out of the car and into his station wagon as the smoke and then the flames rose up from the gully. It moved quicker than striking a match.
Fortunately, we got to safety fairly quickly and managed to find shelter for the night. I couldn’t get home because most of the roads out were closed, but I did manage to call my Mum and tell her everything was alright.
The fires raged for hours. We could hear the trees splitting and exploding, falling with a terrible groan. Even though we were kilometres away, the smoke was overwhelming – we had sore throats and streaming eyes for weeks afterwards.
By morning the fires were out. The ground steamed. The sky had been scribbled on with charcoal crayons. The trees that remained had been painted black.
We went back to Mara’s house to assess the damage. There was nothing left. Rubble, dust and smouldering ash crunched under our feet. My car was untouched in an odd twist of fate, except for one blackened door.
I didn’t care about the car. I had a home to go to. I was so shocked by the devastation that all I could do was walk around, astonished at the way solid objects could be transformed to flat globs of nothing when they met extreme heat.
In a pile of ashes that would have been Mara’s room, we found part of her cello, the curved body of it, splintered, two strings jagged like barbed wire. It crumbled to pieces as she picked it up, completely hollow. She didn’t say a word, just sat down in the mire and stayed there for hours.
The trees I had loved, the birds, were gone. In the gully I saw a little wallaby, contorted and frozen, like those animals and people turned to ash in books about Pompeii. It was one of the worst sights I have ever seen.
When I smell the fires I remember Mara sitting among the cinders, clutching her cello string, not even able to weep. And I pray for all those who are enduring their own sorrow right now. And I think of the only word that fits for those who knowingly, willingly, cause such fires to start. Murderer.