That burning sensation

Two years ago we were coughing our way through the smoke from the fires to the north of us. I travelled to New Zealand in early December and my flight back into Sydney was immediately followed by a 3 hour bus trip to Canberra then a 9 hour car trip home, through Cooma. The roads south of Sydney were all closed. Normally, the trip from Sydney to our place is about 3.5 hours (it’s not tremendously far, but the road is slow).

The following month the fires made their way to us, in particular, the Currowan fire that ripped through the suburbs immediately to our north. A timely wind change saved our bacon, but others were not so lucky. For the first year I couldn’t think about the fires, or talk about them, without feeling sick. It was relatively simple to ‘do the jobs’ required, at the time, but the impact of others’ fear in particular was something I found quite hard to deal with. Seeing people literally lose their shit was chastening.

Yesterday I hopped out of the ocean and met a friend who had a new dog – her friend’s dog, as it turned out. The friend had gone completely mad after the fires and was having another ‘low ebb’, one that precluded looking after an erratic Jack Russell with a startling moustache.

After two years, I think I’ve come to an accomodation with bushfire. I’ve learned about dryness, foliage, leave litter, water supplies and most importantly, radiant heat. If you’ve not experienced bushfire it’s pretty easy to think of it as a localised thing, ‘If I’m not on fire, and my house isn’t burning down, then it’s all good and if the fire comes, move to somewhere where it isn’t’.

That’s not really how it works. And not all bushfires are the same.

The Currowan fire had been burning for many days, igniting the air ahead of itself, traveling across bare and open paddocks leaving great swathes of scored black grass.

On New Year’s Eve a strong westerly wind blew the Currowan fire to the sea. A suburb just to the north of us, about 60 or so small, cedar and fibro houses mostly built in the 1960s and surrounded by trees, was completely evaporated. It’s still empty – there is some rebuilding, but not much. The entire suburb, which sat on its own small peninsula, disappeared.

Being a peninsula, the suburb is surrounded by sea. The residents ran for the beach. Many found themselves gathered on one of the northern beaches, where they stood, up to their knees in the water and watched one explosion after another pop up through the bush as houses disappeared. They cried and coughed and checked on each other, clutching their dogs.

As the fire drew closer, but still hundreds of metres away, the air on the beach got hotter and hotter. People started moving into the water, but there was a strong swell running with huge, dumping waves. Elderly residents were battered and fell, others trying to help them up, coughing. The air was now unbearably hot, and being completely immersed in the water was literally a matter of life or death. People started to cook.

This is radiant heat. Even as we stood on the roof of our house on New Year’s Eve, watching the fire front move towards us, the heat was incredible. To be sure, it didn’t feel dangerous, more like standing a few metres away from a big bonfire, but at this point the fire was still at least six kilometres to our north.

Radiant heat is just one of the many, many things I’ve learned about. I realised, as we mark almost two years since that day, that I actually feel OK about fire now. It is dangerous but in a knowable way. And the best thing to do is to know when to GTFO.

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