Monday, February 11, 2013

Peripheral.


JFM 2013

Growing up in Tasmania meant two things.

(Well, three...if you include the ever-lasting bitterness at being left off the map
by our own countryfolk at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane)

It meant that you were very familiar with two-headed, incest jokes
and it meant that you were cold for a lot of the year.

Most people associate Tassie with being cold and wet.
It is generally a fair call. 
You can be there in summer and need jumpers and tracky daks
in the middle of your beach holiday.
I always prefer to go there for winter as you only need to pack for one season.

Mr Boozle and I sniggered 5 years ago when we were visiting the rellies and the radio announced that it was going to be "a scorcher" at 30 degrees.

JFM 2013

But things are changing.
Yes, the weather is still unpredictable
and yes, it is still bloody freezing down there in winter
but it is a common misconception that it is a lush, wet state
and that it is always cool.

Early in the new year, I took the kids home to my folks' place
just outside of Coles Bay on the east coast of Tassie.
Driving from the airport to the coast,
you could see how dry it was.
Not yellow. Just brown.
Vibrant greens of the winery vineyards dotted the thirsty landscape.

JFM 2013

After a couple of days,
I headed south to Hobart for a couple of child-free days.
It just so happened that it was the hottest day on record for Hobart
and it was the day that the major fires broke out.
(It also just so happened that I had no air conditioning in the car
and my ipod informed me that it was turning itself off as a survival measure)

In Hobart, it was hot.
And it was windy.
A strong, dry wind that made it hard to stand upright.

The sun was glowing that brilliant, stunning orange
that you know is a masquerade for the smoky atmosphere
which heralds fire somewhere not too far away.

JFM 2013

Then it got surreal.
Turning on the news, I found out that the road leading down the peninsula to Coles Bay
was closed.
The Bicheno fire was sweeping south west and heading towards the northern end of the road.
My children were not in any danger but it was unsettling to know that I couldn't
physically get to them.
The winds would have to change direction and it would take some time to reach my parents' house
and they had good access to wide beaches and shallow water if need be.

JFM 2013

I got messages from mainland friends who knew that we were going to Coles Bay
and had heard that the road was closed
and worried whether everything was OK.
City life carried on but the topics of conversation over coffee and at the markets had altered 
beyond discussing how hot it was to how awful the fires were.
Tourists were redirected towards areas not closed down.
I heard one man on the phone informing his son that their beach shack had gone up in flames.

When I headed back up the coast on Sunday, 
I was driving not knowing how long I would be waiting in a pull-over till the road into Coles Bay opened.

The drive was eerie.

As I drove further out of Hobart, the smoke got thicker
and we were passed by local fire trucks.
 A fire had broken out not far from the road further north
so there was new smoke to add to that drifting up from the huge southern fires.

JFM 2013

Traffic was thin and I can't tell you how unnerving it is to drive into a gully road,
surrounded by a smokey haze,
with one half of your brain telling you that the road is open and that it is all good
while the other half is wondering where other cars are
and knowing that there was no way out until you reached the end of the gully.

Even when I finally hit the coast, the pervading smell was of smoke.
I had to drive a lot further up the coast before I could trade that smoky smell
for the refreshing smell of ocean salt.

JFM 2013

It was short lived.

JFM 2013

The road that I had driven along less than a week before was now a dry yellow landscape
with a dingy brown-grey haze,
broken only by the flashes of brilliant green of occasionally vines.

I didn't see any traffic moving in my direction.
A large convoy of cars passed me at one point
and I honestly wondered whether I should be turning around.

I felt like I was driving into a fire.

JFM 2013

JFM 2013

Views that I took for granted each time I passed them had been swallowed.

When I arrived at the road closure,
the official word was a one to five hour wait.
Luckily it was only a little over an hour before they let us through.
We drove past pine fence posts still burning 
and plastic road markers doubled over from their exposure to the heat.

When I got back to my folks' house,
it was unsettling to see that my mum had packed the kids' suitcases just in case.
There was never any sense of urgency or panic;
just a recognition that if it happened, they would need to go.
My folks were pragmatic enough to know that if they got themselves and the kids
(and hopefully some family photos) to safety, the house didn't matter,
unlike their elderly neighbours who didn't seem to appreciate that any fire that was heading up the hill
towards them would not be stopped.

So I found myself back at our annual beach holiday,
building sandcastles,
following sting rays in the kayak,
admiring the large flocks of birds, temporary visitors
until they could return to see what damage had been done to their homes.

JFM 2013

JFM 2013

JFM 2013

But we were surrounded by ever shifting smoke.
The tourists had gone and the wind had dropped.
It was so quiet and so still.
We wondered when the power would go off again.
While our only road out was closed,
we checked to see if the police were still stationed at the corner to make sure
that no-one would attempt to use it.
We wondered if the town across the bay had lost their power
but really knew that it was due to the thick haze between us and them.
We assumed that the smoke coming over the nearby hills was due to back burning but checked the
website over and over just to be sure.

JFM 2013

JFM 2013

I am a city girl
with a home in a built up area away from the coast and the hills.
I consider myself safe from fire and flood.
(Our house is, however, built on one of Adelaide's two fault lines
but there has been no action there since 1954
so I am choosing to ignore the fact
that the my geologist-father-in-law reckons that it is time for another quake)

But it had never occurred to me to consider the fact that my parents
have retired to a small township on a peninsula of densely wooded national park
and that one day the winds may not be so benevolent
or that fire may not be so far away.


JFM 2013

I was only on the periphery of those fires.
But it gave me an awareness that I didn't have before.

JFM 2013

JFM 2013


While I cried for the livestock and the wildlife that would have perished,
above all else, I found myself be thankful each day that no human lives had been lost.

Let me state the bloody obvious-
because it came to me with perfect clarity last month
somewhere on the drive down that gully...
No matter how much we get caught up in our possessions, our earthly goods,
when it comes to the crunch,
there is nothing that comes close to knowing that your children, your partner,
your friends and your loved ones are safe.

JFM 2013

4 comments:

Adriana said...

That's right... when it comes to the crunch, we know what's important.
Glad that you were all safe.

It sure was a scary few days, and so hot and dry.
We're going through it again now, with fires in Molesworth.
The sky is smokey and hazy all over again.

Tania said...

And what a post that was. And brilliantly written.

P'raps best just sit down and have another relaxing and recuperative cup of tea after all that. The sax can wait another eight years.

MoederKip said...

It's so frightening :(
And incredible how quickly we can forget and become complacent.
I think I need to tag this post and come back and read it every year as a reminder to update our fire plan.

Lola Nova said...

Wow, what a riveting post! So true about what matters most, so glad you all are safe!