Our Sunburnt Country
When the 2009 Black Saturday fires hit, I was living in the city about 30km from the nearest fire front. I still recall the red eye of the sun as it pierced through a dense haze of smoke, and the acrid smell of burning eucalyptus as it blew in on the hot, dry breeze. For days, total fire bans had been in place across the state, and the fire danger rating was classified ‘extreme’. Back then, that was the highest rating we had.
Even in the relative safety of the city, we were edgy. The authorities had warned us not to leave, like we were in one of those apocalyptic films and were about to experience a nuclear fallout. The streets were quiet. Conversations muted. The air itself charged and expectant.
That night, faces of the missing appeared on the news. The roll call continued the next day. And the one after. And the one after that. My housemate learned the fate of two friends when she saw their photos on the front page of the newspaper. They’d tried to save their horses and never made it back to the dam, that single pocket of safety amid a burning landscape.
The school camp in Kinglake that we’d booked for our Year 7 students was razed. Many parents donated their children’s camp fees to assist with rebuilding the facilities.
Another fire danger rating was added to the spectrum: ‘catastrophic’. A special task force was established to catch arsonists. Regulations were rewritten to ensure houses have fewer trees surrounding them. Residents installed sprinklers on their roofs. Families wrote comprehensive fire safety and evacuation plans.
The country prepared. Next time, they said, we’d be ready.
* * *
It’s 3:30pm, and Melbourne has just hit 41 degrees. In some parts of the state, temperatures are soaring as high as 44 degrees. Today’s fire danger rating is ‘extreme’, one notch down from ‘catastrophic’. It feels the same as last time, though.
Our sunburnt country is rearing its head. Let’s hope we hear before too long the drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain.
For emergency updates, tune in to your local ABC radio station, or visit your state or territory’s fire service website.
Acknowledgements: Dorothea Mackeller, My Country.