Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wildfire Deaths

The tragic deaths of three West Australian long haul truck drivers has caused an outpouring of grief here. I doubt any of us will ever forget the sight of the shells of prime movers and their trailers sunk axle deep into melted tarmac. I know that stretch of road and can well imagine the fire rushing through the dry bush and how little chance there would be to escape it. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones.

It brought back memories of a bush fire near my home when I was a child. We were among the early residents of what is now Scarborough. The beach front already catered for day trippers with a motley collection of milk bars, fish and chip shops, the local amusement park and the vaguely disreputable Snake Pit where bodgies and widgies danced the night away to loud rock 'n roll and jive. Most businesses only opened during the summer to supply the jumble of holiday flats and houses, mostly shacks built by keen fishermen and let out for extra income. Between there and Mt Hawthorn closer to the city, farms and market gardens were still the norm.

We moved into one of the first half dozen War Service homes being built in the area. It was an idyllic place for a child to grow up. Surrounded as we were by bush, Mum would pack our lunches, hand out hats and strict instructions to make lots of noise - to scare the snakes and a necessary warning given the number of dugites and tiger snakes around - and to be back on time for dinner then let us loose. We climbed trees, admired the wild flowers (picking was forbidden) especially the orchids - pink ladies, donkey orchids, three kinds of spider orchids, blue enamel orchids and cowslip orchids to name only a few and all largely vanished now, chewed the coconutty stem bases of grasstree leaves and caught tadpoles in the swamps.

We felt perfectly safe until the afternoon a fire broke out in what is now City Beach some kilometers away to the south and raced north, great columns of smoke shutting out the sunlight and showering us with ash. By evening the area south of us was glowing a dull red with flames - incandescent and red-gold - flaring high into the sky as tree after tree ignited. Dad packed us into the truck cab and we went to investigate. I don't think I will ever forget the sight of the fire and my parents talking calmly as we huddled up together. They must have been worried although they didn't let on to us. Even so we picked up on the tension and I can feel that unnerving hollow in the pit of my stomach to this day.

We were lucky in the end. The fire was stopped before it reached us. I'm not sure what happened. Maybe the nearby swamp where the local dairy farm was located, was wet enough or the fire brigade got there. I was only five at the time. It has left me with an abiding respect for the power and unpredictability of fire though and an awareness that perhaps those who live in Perth's inner suburbs and have never seen a bushfire at first hand don't understand.

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