There’s been a change in the weather today. The temperature has dropped, and it looks like it may even rain. I live on the coast, and on a hot day like yesterday, it’s up to ten degrees cooler here than it is inland. The ocean breeze from the Pacific feels merciful, bringing as it does instant relief, and yet wind is one of the most devastating features of the bushfires that have swept Victoria in the past couple of days. Always so capricious, always so unheeding. It rushes where it will, and cannot be headed off at the pass like a wild Brumby colt. It cannot be stopped, it cannot be second guessed. And if, in this crackling Australian heat, a fire breaks out or is deliberately lit, and if that fire meets that impartial wind, then all hell breaks loose across this baked and tortured land. And that’s what’s happened down south. It is hell on earth down there, and so far 107 people have died. There may be more.
One of the Darklings lives on a property outside Melbourne and for a while, the winds were against her. The fire was nipping at the skirts of her land; had the wind not changed its mind at the last, she would certainly have been forced to flee, and may have faced the very real prospect of losing her home, and her beloved animals, as so many other Victorians have done. She may have had to run for her life and the lives of her children. It’s an unthinkable scenario, and the suspicion that at least one of these fires was deliberately lit does something curious to my brain. I just can’t quite wrap my mind around what would make someone start a bushfire. What kind of thinking might lead to that kind of deed. 107 people, gone. Homes, gone. Livestock, gone. Gardens, crops, native flora and fauna, gone. And someone meant to light this fire and set it on its destructive path? It’s inconceivable.
As I emailed the Darklings this morning, when I hoped for a hot summer, I honestly forgot that this is one of the things a hot summer brings. Fire. And to your average Australian, even a city dweller, there is something in the atmosphere that identifies a bushfire day. Even Llew and I occasionally sniff the air and exchange the worried glances that would look more at home on a farm. “Feels like a bushfire day,” we say. Sometimes you can smell it. Sometimes ash will travel from the national parks and bush reserves to finally extinguish itself along these eastern shores. Whole sooty flakes have landed in our courtyard from fires many miles away. Sometimes it’s in the way the wind and the heat clash like feuding children, two cymbals crashing together to create a deafening flash, the violent finale that no one saw coming. “Uh oh,” we say, “it feels like fire today.”
This is such a cruel country. When this sort of fury strikes, its ferocity is otherworldly. The images are surreal; the colours are too intense, and the scale is too bewildering to believe. The destruction is total. In itself that totality is hard to comprehend, but add to that the loss of life, and it just renders you dumb. That’s how I feel, anyway. Dumbstruck. I think it’s a type of shock. It’s so huge and too awful. How angry these elements seem to me now. The breeze that yesterday caressed my cheek and settled my temperature and eased the sweat off my brow was elsewhere in a fit of blind fury, bearing up someone’s path, bringing an inferno to their door.