Too Many Lives Lost in These Terrible Winds of Change

February 9, 2009 at 2:18 am (Uncategorized)

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Pete said,

    The first I saw of this was this morning when it was splashed across our daily paper. So sorry to see all the loss of life and the utter devastation. We’ve considered ourselves lucky because the fire season here has been pretty mild. Friday was a scorcher of a day and there were 90 fires here in the Cape. But they were all brought under control. But I can sort of relate to what must be happening in Melbourne because a few years ago it felt as if the whole Peninsula was on fire. Just horrible.

  2. doctordi said,

    The revised death toll is so much worse, Pete, it’s just AWFUL. It really sends a shiver down my spine. I thought you’d probably be able to relate – SA and Australia share plenty of things quite apart from the Tri-Nations and the cricket. I’m so glad to hear your Friday fires were brought under control – from what I’ve seen, this current Victorian crisis is a different beast entirely. Let’s just hope the worst is over.

  3. Pete said,

    Yes, let’s hope so. I started going through those pics on the SMH link and they really brought it home to me how devastating this has been. With our fires I wondered if it was global warming that was making us more vulnerable but I suppose it’s a combination of things. Thanks for blogging about this though.

  4. Lilian Nattel said,

    I was thinking about you and others I know in Australia. I’m so sorry about this. What I’d heard about it was grotesque. I didn’t know that there was arson involved. I have no words for that.

  5. doctordi said,

    The images I’ve seen are disturbingly reminiscent of the hellish wasteland in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel that gave me terrible and vivid nightmares. I always thought that world was the result of an environmental apocalypse, so yes, perhaps global warming is playing a hand (although we have always had fires, and bad ones at that). The death toll update Australia woke up to is grim beyond belief: 173 confirmed fatalities, which seems extraordinarily high to me. I guess I imagined that in 2009 our response mechanisms would minimise the loss of life, but this just goes to show these elements, like the shifting tide, remain absolutely beyond our control.

  6. litlove said,

    I heard about this on the news yesterday. It is too awful. I can’t think of any words that would do for it – everything I might say sounds insipid. I can only hope that the fires calm down in the very near future.

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