This is Australia. Almost summer. Hot, dry winds roar across the country. There are sounds that come with that season: the crackles of dry leaves as they fly through the air – with wings of red flame; the hiss and sizzle of the fruit tree, fully green, as it melts in the heat surge that comes before the flames – already dead before it burns; the scream in my head when I remember . . .
Ash Wednesday. The warnings came over the airwaves of someone else’s radio. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and froze in the stiffness of fear. Where were the kids? Where was the fire front? Where did I leave my bag? Keys? Where are the keys?
I have to get back, you see. It’s my job to drive the water truck in that region. I should be there. The kids, my fosters, should know the plan. They should, but . . .
That maniac driving the wrong way, too fast, swerving and leaning on the horn to get you out of the way – that’s me, trying to get back home, to get the kids out of the risk zone, to get to the fire truck so I can do what needs to be done.
But there’s no way through – police road blocks – no detours – roads burning, not just trees – they don’t listen to me – go back, nothing you can do now – too late.
Do I listen? No. My kids are up there, somewhere in those flames. I have to get there. If I can’t get through to my station, I’ll head on over to the one in the next valley. I know the back roads, the tracks through the forest.
I make it – ask the radio operator to call my kids – no response by radio and she won’t take a chance on a second call while there’s so much chaos with this huge fire raging too fast, doing things fires don’t do. She asks: we’re short a driver – wanna take it?
I do. If I can’t get through to my own, I’ll do this – we practice together, knowing fires in this region can spread too fast through the dry-land forest, that we’ll have to back up to each other when things go bad.
So busy, can’t think on the kids. Have to trust they followed the plan. I hear the radio words – Plan A out the window; they wouldn’t get through that way, no safety in Plan A. More news as I drive the truck from water collection to feet on the ground: Plan B location out of action, burned to the ground, no survivors.
There are no tears, no thoughts of loss or injury – keep moving, keep going, do this, do that. When it’s finished, deal with it then.
More words, more news. The truck – hey, that’s my number! – burned out, four dead . . . my friends, my truck, my number. That would have been me if . . .
No affect. Blank on the inside, blank on the outside. Sideways looks from the faces that run hither and thither. They don’t have time to say anything, ask, help. Later, when there’s time.
What’s that lump over there? With smoke? Pull over, check it out while the blokes on the ground do their spray to keep the flames away.
The charred remains belong to a human – man or woman? Unknown, too damaged. Mark the spot – right here, where they tried to get inside the storm drain. Was he or she dead before the flames came? Don’t think about it. Not yet. Go! More work to do, the fires still moving, there are still people we can get. Move, move, MOVE!
– – – Two days of no sleep, not enough fluids, not enough food. The flames, not under control, but at least out of the way of human habitation. Time to take stock, consider the cost, find the kids.
Plan A and B locations weren’t viable. There was always a backup plan to the plan, and always a backup plan to the backup plan. Did I do the same for the fire plan? Was there a Plan C? And what would they do if they heard about my truck? Would they think I was dead?
Stop. Find out if the house is still there. I may be worrying about nothing. Beg a lift back to my car, drive home.
I’m sure this is the right road, but there’s nothing familiar. The house should be there, 200m up from the dam – the now black dam, filled with ash and soot and bloaties.
No house. No shed. No bones in the blackness where they should be. No signs of vehicles, not even the 1928 Ford tray truck that was in the shed, being worked on by the boys.
Nothing. The shoulders slump. The body sags. Something happens in the words swirling around in the head: it’s a scream – one word: nnnnnnnoooooooooo . . .
Was it a few minutes or a few hours later? Don’t know. Stand up, dust off, get back in the car. Drive to locations for Plan A and B. Burned out. Nothing. Had to show my ID to the cops guarding the area against thieves. Bloody hell! Looters! Shoot them!
Stop and think about what Plan C would have been. Should have been more vigilant – I was in the volunteers, after all; I knew how important it was.
Something clicks. Plan C? Oh, yes – there.
It took ages with all the sticky-beak traffic coming out to stare at the blackness, the trees that weren’t, the bloaties. Did someone go back for the culvert body? I can’t go back, I can’t get distracted. I wrote it up, someone else would have to go get him or her. I have to get to the kids.
Finally, two and a half days after the first panicked flight from work to the hills, and I see the oldest boy handing out clothes and cups to the others at the roadside truck stop. The final plan. They’re here. I can’t see. My eyes burn and gush. I stop the car, get out, run the rest of the way, screaming and laughing.
A few minutes, shock and relief and something else that is indescribable as we all hug each other in a manic group of sounds that make no sense. We sit in the dirt to tell our tales. I learn how they had their lives planned to make it look as if I was still there, still the leader of our little group of lostlings, so they could stay together as a family.
I am so proud.
Please prepare your bushfire plan and the backup and the backup to the backup, and maybe a backup to that one as well. This post is copyright CS Dunn 2016.