Burning Up

Black Saturday Fires, Victoria 2009. Photo: Jake Valance.

Summer on the Sunshine Coast. It’s hot, it’s windy and the first serious fire of the season saw flames leaping over three stories high through bushland in Mountain Creek. 

All of us who’ve been close to fire never forget it. I remember the heat and darkness of the bushfires that burnt Tasmania to the ground when I was a young child. A huge red sun low in the sky made our home feel like an alien planet. Our house was the last safe refuge at the bottom of Mt. Nelson. The lounge room was full of kids. Their dads were in the smoke battling to save each others’ homes armed with nothing more than wet gunny sacks and garden hoses. The women gathered in our kitchen talking in hushed and worried voices, not knowing whether they’d have a husband or a home to go to that night.

During the 1994 bush fires that circled Sydney, the band I played in was booked to perform at a festival in Byron Bay. We set off up the highway not knowing whether we’d get through or not. Flames were burning along the side of the road, licking at the bitumen. We could feel the heat through the metal and glass of our hired tour van and were acutely aware that we could be trapped by fire at any moment. The highway closed just after we passed through. 

The festival went ahead, with other acts having to be flown in and much borrowing of amplifiers and equipment. It was a relief to be away from the smoke and the big red bushfire sun that cast Sydney is a strange sepia-toned glow.

The highway was open again by the time we headed back to Sydney, five musos on the road, after a successful performance at the festival. Our career was going well and the future looked good. Not for much longer.

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you know a relationship is over. It may not end right there and then but eventually it’s the reason the whole balancing act comes tumbling down in ruins. As we drove back towards a fire-devastated Sydney our bass player flicked her cigarette butt out the window. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I turned to another member of the band just to check what I’d seen. She looked as shocked as I did. It was a single thoughtless act that highlighted a hundred other thoughtless acts. Families had lost their homes, children had lost their pets, others had lost their livelihoods and that cigarette butt, smouldering on the side of the road, could start the horror all over again.

Three months later the band had a new name and a new bass player.

If only a home or a life were that easy to replace.

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2 thoughts on “Burning Up

  1. I was reading this today at the cricket and passed my phone around to the others to share your story, Mary-Lou. Each of us commented on a different piece that reached out but we all agreed that we didn’t see that end coming. Loved reading this, was a joy.

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