Fire

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.

27 thoughts on “Fire

  1. I read about the fires and thought of you. My knowledge of Australian geography isn’t the best I’m afraid.

    I don’t understand why people start these fires either, such senseless destruction. So many lives disrupted. It’s odd. There were three very large fires here in one night. The police quickly concluded that it was arson. (Ottawa isn’t very big.) They found the guy but didn’t say why he done it… I guess it’s the why that matters.

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  2. extraordinary, as if i was transported there, and so moving, i will not hold back, tears for the suffering of innocents, and neverending astonishment disbelief that anyone would do something so devastating, the realness of that is so disturbing and so very very sad.

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  3. “..two strings, jagged like barbed wire.”
    That sentence, and earlier, your observation on how your friend’s skills on her cello(Cello Suites or Water Music) had made you believe in a higher power, remind me of why I adore reading your blog:
    even in the midst of destruction, there are pockets of beauty, appreciation, and in the case of the “Two strings, jagged like barbed wire.”, stinging metaphor.
    Thank you for being YOU, Selma.

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  4. The wrath and resulting damage of fire is truly amazing. I am so sorry to hear of the fires in Australia. I hope that it doesn’t get any closer to where you live Selma. We are also in a fire zone, here in BC, in the hot dry summers and with all the brittle pines on the mountains, it is always a threat. Here’s hoping that a cooling rain and temps. are on the way. Big hugs, G

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  5. It is so tragic to think of fires ravagin such a large area, the fact that they may be deliberately started is just shocking and horrific. Hope things get better soon, hopefully rain and cooler temperatures….

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  6. I saw this in the news yesterday. I’ve experienced this many times before while living in CA. Brush fires are an awful, awful thing. Especially when you find out it was deliberately set. I’m sorry for your loss.

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  7. NAT:
    That’s what I wonder too – why do they do it? I just don’t understand it at all.

    DAVID:
    Real heroes. I am so moved by their bravery and dedication.

    TIPOTA:
    What you have said is so moving. The suffering of the innocents in cases like this is hard to bear. So is the disbelief that a human being could do this.

    HEATHER:
    I know it’s a grim subject, but when you’ve seen the aftereffects you don’t easily forget it. It is very frightening.

    QUERULOUS:
    Not small at all. I am often speechless at moments like these.

    LISA:
    Thanks so much for your very kind words. I am touched by your concern. Living in the inner city as I do there is no bush to speak of, so we are fairly safe here; but it’s hard to think of others suffering.

    GERALDINE:
    I didn’t realise BC was also subject to fires. You do get the cold and the heat, don’t you? I second that wish for cooler temps and rain!!!

    CRAFTY GREEN:
    It is shocking, isn’t it? My son said to me this morning: ‘That’s what evil is, Mum.’ I think he might be right.

    LURAGANO;
    It is brutal. Singed really is the best way to describe it. They have managed to put the bulk of the fires out. I hope the cooler weather we have this morning allows the firefighters to get things under control.

    CHRIS:
    I remember those fires in CA a while back. Absolutely awful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

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  8. >>And I think of the only word that fits for those who knowingly, willingly, cause such fires to start. Murderer.<<

    I can think of several, but they’re not appropriate here.

    Several of my friends and I responded to a call for volunteers to fight a bushfire in the Adelaide Hills in 1961. I’ll never forget the brave lady who stayed with her farm, which was saved, although it was touch and go for a while … she gave me a mug of tea and a sandwich, and simply said ‘Thanks, son!’ … then said ‘There’s beer, if you’d rather … but it’s not very cold!’

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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  9. TRAVELRAT:
    Good on you for doing that. You are such a kind person. That story is so typical of the generosity and good humour of many Australians. I wouldn’t have known whether to laugh or cry, either!

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  10. Hi Selma,

    The very idea these fires were started by people is so disturbing, especially if it was intentionally. I know well the power of destruction as I lost everything I owned in Hurricane Katrina–but that was Mother Nature, not a person.

    All I know, is amidst all that loss, I changed as a person–it made me love my life and just being alive a million times more. To think all these fires were completely preventable and should never have started really hurts. My heart goes out to all affected. Lets hope it’s over soon:)

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  11. BOBBY:
    I feel so bad for you losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, but at the same time I am struck by your upbeat attitude. You’re right – natural disasters seem so much worse if they’re helped along by us humans. It’s unforgivable. I hope it’s all over soon too.

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  12. I read the news online. The death toll is around 135 by now. This is disturbing and horrific. I don’t understand what part of human nature drives people to this kind of behavior.

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  13. Arson is the equivilent of murder. The explanation, you ask? – evil.

    Oddly, I owned a 1976 Toyota corolla that was the worst car ever for me and that I paid $400 for. That’ll be the subject of a post one day.

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  14. INGRID:
    It is awful. I feel so sad for all the lives lost and the homes destroyed. I can’t understand it either. It’s horrible.

    RICHARD:
    You’re right about the evil.

    I can’t believe you owned a Toyota Corolla and it was the worst car you ever had. Oh, that is priceless. Obviously, I can relate. I am so looking forward to your post about it!

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  15. What’s the latest on the weather there S? In the news it sounds like there has been no let up. I fear for your safety, I really do. Please keep us posted and please keep safe. You are loved dear Selma, take good care.

    Hugs, G

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  16. GERALDINE:
    The fires are still burning in Victoria. The death toll is almost at 200. It is so sad. In NSW where I am, most of the fires are under control. We are close to the CBD so there is no bushland to speak of. I really appreciate your concern. Thanks, G. XXXX

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  17. 😦

    We are so very lucky, but I can’t bear to think about this too deeply. The one that really got to me was a 38-week pregnant woman who died in the fire. Part of me wants to find out more about her, but I don’t dare. I’m 37 weeks.

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  18. It’s a bit like 9/11 on a smaller scale, the similarity being that you just can’t get your head around the fact that this tragedy was caused by fellow human beings….. though I use the term loosely when it comes to these evil so and so’s. I’m rying to be ladylike because this is your blog Selma and calling them bad names isn’t very helpful. There is obviously something very wrong with the way their brains are wired but all sympathy ends when you see the death and devastation. They need to be removed from society and quickly.

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  19. I had read about these on Yahoo and thought of you, wondering if it affected where you are. This is a fabulous post – I feel as if I am there…

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  20. DAOINE:
    That story is heartbreaking. I am devastated to think of it. You need to keep thinking of happy things at this stage, hon. I don’t want you to get stressed. Take care of yourself.

    ROMANY:
    You can call those bastards whatever you want when you’re here. To cause such misery, how can they sleep at night? It’s been such a terrible past few weeks for us all. I feel drained. I cannot imagine how those who lost homes and loved ones must be feeling. A terrible, terrible time.

    TEXASBLU:
    Fire up as close as that is terrifying. When you see it you think :’I could die here.’ It is something you never forget.

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  21. I have almost no words. This is just too close to home – in a very different way. Here it is forest fires. I spend a lot of time in the back country here and have a deep appreciation for what those heroic individuals do. All too often the fires are deliberately set, which like you, I just can’t fathom. If you follow the links on the page below there is info about one of the more tragic of these fires in Washington state in the last decade. Rumors abound that the inception of this fire was deliberate – the truth may never be known.

    fireline

    the link is to an image series I did, but that isn’t the point – the page has links about the fire and the firefighters

    blessings upon blessings for everyone in the fire’s path down by you, and anywhere – and for the souls who risk their lives trying to keep us all safe from fires

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  22. KAYT:
    What incredible images. You really have so much artistic talent. That is a terrible story about the fires in Washington State. Just heartbreaking. By the sounds of it, they’ll never find out what truly happened. Just awful. Thanks for letting me know about it.

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