Black Saturday – white ashes
For the last three days in inner-city Melbourne we have awoken to the smell of ash in the air. The morning sun burns an intense orange hole in the pale sky. It is chilling.
The bush fires are still burning. Some towns have been on alert for over a week now, and exhausted people have nights of half-sleep as they keep one ear cocked to the radio, listening for warnings.
Two whole townships have been lost. And the photos in the paper yesterday show the destruction and devastation of landscapes that, were they depicting another place, could be covered in snow, so white and thick is the layer of ash that covers everything.
(This link takes you to a photo gallery where you can see this stark and grim image by Craig Abrahams, and other photographers from The Age).
Last Saturday – now referred to as Black Saturday by our media commentators – was the hottest day I can remember in Melbourne. I had to go to work, leading workshops at Artplay. Before I went into the city I cycled to the market to do my weekly shop. It was about 9am but already the temperature was soaring and the vegetables were wilting. I wasn’t inclined to linger.
The workshop venue isn’t air-conditioned – I’m surprised the workshops weren’t cancelled, given the dire weather warnings we had had all week. We didn’t hear any news all day, we didn’t know to ask about it. Our lunchtime conversation focused on my own personal drama.
That evening I drove to a friend’s house for a BBQ and on the way there the 7 o’clock news came on the radio. It was not just stories about the fires, it was up-to-date warnings for the residents of different areas, telling them where to gather, what the current fire movement in their area was. I was shocked – it was the first I’d heard. My dear friend Ms P lives in one of those areas. I tried to call her. I got throught to voicemail. I left a message then sent a text.
About 10.30pm she sent me back a message: “I don’t know anything yet. I’ll know more tomorrow.” Which meant that she was safe, but she wasn’t with her house. I prayed for her and visualised a kid of protective shield around her home, trying to see the fire passing over it without touching it. At that stage I still had little real sense of the enormity of what was taking place. I knew my friend was what they call ‘fire-ready’. There have been bushfires before. Victorians are experienced and knowledgeable with fighting fire and protecting people and property. Everything would be okay.
The next morning we heard that Marysville had been completely burned. It’s hard to imagine a whole town, gone. Just like that.
Then the stories started to come through. How fast the fire had moved. How people who’d stayed to defend their properties in many cases simply had no chance of survival. (The current fire wisdom given to residents in fire-prone areas is “Leave early, or stay and defend”. Probably makes sense if ‘defending’ means attending to spot fires and falling embers as they occur. But there has been much debate and outcry this week that this advice was incorrect for the fires that burned on Saturday).
Late Sunday I got another text from Ms P: ” I’m okay. House is saved. Miracle! Bobby has died.”
Bobby was her aging, loyal horse. Pretty tough. Vale Bobby. Later I learned how Ms P only just escaped, driving away from her house with the flames of the firestorm just behind her. If she’d delayed even another 30 seconds she doesn’t think she’d have made it. We have read about the danger on the roads at that time too. It was impossible to see anything because of the smoke. There were many accidents. Many were incinerated in their cars when they ran off the road and crashed, unable to see.
The smell of fire in the air on a weekend is one that brings back vivid memories for people of my generation (aged in our mid-30s and above). There was the (now-discredited) household chore of the Weekend Burn-off, in the incinerator in the backyard. Everyone I mention this to knows exactly what I’m talking about, especially if they grew up in the suburbs. We would gather up the rubbish from the week, take it to the incinerator, and set it alight. By Sunday evening there would be traces of smoke wafting in the air throughout the neighbourhood.
But we are older now, and when you wake up in the inner city to the small of smoke in the air, it is not nostalgia for the past that you feel, but a heavy aching sadness and empathy for the people and animals that have lost their homes, and the craziness of a world climate that is changing, that our leaders won’t take seriously.
On Sunday last week, the sky was a colour I’d never seen before – a kind of Rothko white-grey, that gave an impression that it were overcast, but with whiter clouds on top of that background. It had an eery, apocalyptic feel, a friend suggested. Ashes upon ashes, reflected in the sky.