Strong westerly winds on Sunday brought smoke from Australian bush fires across ‘the Ditch’ to New Zealand, creating such eerie skies and a strangely unnerving twilight zone over the North Island that some people called emergency services to report it.
A satellite image provided by NASA to AP shows the smoke heading across the Tasman, (known as ‘The Ditch’ in Australia and New Zealand).
The smoke haze made the skies so dark and gloomy that street lights came on two hours before sunset. The following photos were taken in Whangarei, a two-hour drive north from Auckland.
As I took this last photo I could even smell the smoke in the air, which brought back memories of my own experience living in rural Australia during an out-of-control bush fire. On that occasion, strong north winds had been blowing for days, bringing the intense heat from Australia’s interior to scorch the bush, grass, and crops tinder dry.
Making conditions worse at this time of year is the dry bark shed from the Australian gum trees. Long, curling bark strips usually still hang from the trunks and branches, while the rest is scattered on the ground around each tree. In the heat of the drying northerly winds it acts as kindling to set all the trees ablaze should a grass fire start, creating a frighteningly fierce heat. Strong winds then carry bits of burning bark and other embers to start new fires in the bush, forests, or grazing paddocks for stock.
What is it like to see a fire advancing and you have nowhere to go?
The following is an edited extract from a memoir I am working on that describes my mother-in-law’s reminiscences of a narrow escape from a bush fire that destroyed their Kyneton farm and home twelve years earlier, while smoke from another bush fire swirls across their new farm in 1977.
Shortly after Christmas the sun had baked the earth so hard it crazed into ever-widening cracks, providing homes for thousands of deafening crickets. Spiky dry grass crackled beneath our feet. The receding water in dams exposed huge banks of black, oozing mud that trapped weak or unwary sheep trying to get a drink, where they remained until we rescued them before they expired in the heat. The two horses twitched and stamped restlessly in the shade of cypress trees, standing head to tail to flick bush flies from each other’s eyes. Blowflies swarmed noisily around manure, or anything dead. Maggots thrived in damp or daggy wool, where they ate into their host’s flesh to cause a slow and painful death if we didn’t treat them in time.
Then hot north winds came for days on end, turning the house into a baking oven despite closed windows and drawn curtains to keep it out. It also brought with it a nervous watchfulness. Such wind can easily coax flames from smouldering grass where a carelessly tossed cigarette lay, then fan the flames like giant bellows until they licked and crackled over the spiky yellow grass, or exploded up gum tree trunks, instantly setting alight the shredded strips of outgrown bark dangling from silver branches. Billowing clouds of smoke and ash could mushroom into the air, spitting out glowing cinders and turning the vivid blues and golds of summer into a sepia snapshot.
The day smoke descended upon us in a swirling ash and cinder-laden haze, radio announcers appealed for volunteers to fight the fire. The men tested the water pump, loaded a square tank onto the tray of the truck, and went off to fill it at one of the dams. I watched the truck head down the gravel road before it turned onto the highway. The men would join a group of farmers at the local hall to watch for any slight change in wind direction that could cause the fire to engulf the surrounding farms in flames.
I went to sit with Betty, my mother-in-law, for the afternoon in the hope I could distract her fears that another fire might destroy everything she had. I didn’t know the terror of fire, or the fear that flames and smoke drove into people’s hearts when everything they had worked so hard for had ignited and disappeared as if at the flick of a magician’s wand.
Betty stood at the glass double doors in the dining room, sucking heavily on a cigarette and looking anxiously out at the haze of smoke that had settled over the paddocks below the house. She walked the few steps to her blanket-covered armchair and slumped down into it. “Make yourself a cup of tea…” she said when I entered the kitchen. She peered at me vacantly over the top of her round-rimmed glasses blurred with fingerprints and dust. “There’s a freshly baked date and walnut loaf on the wire rack. Help yourself.”
I offered my thanks and walked behind the kitchen counter where the bench was a permanent clutter of packets, spices, cake pans and wooden spoons. I took a mug from the dish rack and rewashed it, and a plate, and cut and buttered a piece of the loaf while I waited for the kettle to boil. Betty’s knitting needles clicked: three plain, three pearl. The two poodles lay curled up together in a lounge chair, the foxy stretched out on the polished wooden floor nearby. The ceiling fan whirred slowly, clicking out of rhythm with the knitting needles. It was hot and sticky inside with the windows closed to keep out the smoke. Betty put down her knitting and stared vacantly at me. Her short brown hair sat flat on top of her head and she wore no make-up. The cheap, loose-fitting cotton dress she had bought at K-Mart accentuated the dowdy figure she had become in her retirement.
“Now you see why I don’t like to celebrate Christmas,” she said as if lost in time. “The kids had only opened their Christmas presents a few days before the fire.” She let out a sigh. “Lost all me treasures: photographs, books… Nothing was saved. Our beautiful blue stone home Eric worked so hard to fix up… Only memories left…and the clothes we were wearing. Had to flee the house with the kids… Just made it to a dam before the flames swept over us.
“And the hay sheds full of freshly baled hay exploded into flames… Saw them from the dam… Watched everything explode into flames as if made of matchsticks… Still haunts me…the sight of burnt sheep jammed up against fences they couldn’t get through, tangled up with wire and charred wooden posts. Horrible death. Never can I forget the smell of burnt land…and the rotting stench of death.”
Betty lifted herself awkwardly out of the chair and walked to the glass doors again, where she stood with her hands on her hips, her barrel-shaped stomach pushed forward. She looked anxiously over the paddocks, belched, and didn’t excuse herself. But it wasn’t offensive. It was more like the sound of a sudden rush of air escaping from between pursed and angry lips.
“Neighbours gave us a house to live in… Eric was humiliated…forced to accept charity…and all because of his own stupidity. The very year he let the insurance policy lapse! We all paid for it so dearly…so bloody dearly!” Bitterness had crept into her voice and she turned to look at me.
“I used my own money to buy furniture at second-hand stores. Got some really nice old pieces. Eric never showed any appreciation… Proud bastard. Couldn’t thank anyone for anything. He was losing it then…now this place. Thinks he can make a go of it again. He’s too old…should have retired… Might be sorry yet that he didn’t…” She walked slowly over to the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of wine from a cask, then lit up another cigarette before returning to her chair.
“I was just getting over losing Carole…so bright…dux of her school… Eric stopped her ballet lessons…said he didn’t want her wasting her life as a dancer. But she danced so gracefully… After she died I hit the gin bottle. It worried my brothers. They tried to scare me with horrible stories about what it would do to my liver. I had just managed to stop drinking before the fire came…” Her eyes became vacant again, glazed over as if she was drunk. She sipped her wine and took a long, thoughtful puff on her cigarette.
I stared at her without saying a word, as if the hurt and pain and anguish she had locked inside and nurtured for over twelve years had cut out my tongue. The pain of losing a beloved daughter, a home, a property, a way of life was beyond my mind’s ability to grasp. No feelings came. It was as if everything Betty shared with me had turned to ice and left me numb inside. Neither could I imagine the anguish of a proud and arrogant man having to surrender his pride to accept charity from neighbours, to feel the humiliation of his own folly, and finally to accept defeat by selling the farm after struggling in vain to find the finances to rebuild it.
Now, at fifty-eight, Betty rarely left the house after retiring from teaching high school classes, free at last from marking endless English essays. She once told me how she loved to paint and draw by the river at their Kyneton property. When I suggested that she could take up painting and sketching again she said, “It’s too late… Wouldn’t know where to start.”
So she took up knitting children’s jumpers in colourful stripes instead, often in the pattern two plain, two pearl; sometimes a cable stitch. They were soft and warm and her three grandchildren loved them. Later she would occasionally knit jumpers for Eric, John and I, but never for herself.
Betty’s bitterness silenced my tongue while I ate cake and sipped tea at the round, laminated table Eric had recently bought, which Betty hated, watching the painful memories flicker across her face like dark shadows. A sense of powerlessness gripped me that there was nothing I could do or say that could ease the hurt and anguish Betty had locked inside and nurtured for over twelve years. As smoke continued to hang over the house with a disquieting air of foreboding, I felt like an observer witnessing a disaster that had no bearing on my own life. Fleeting moments of compassion flowed through me, but without the pain of really knowing, feeling, or understanding.
A voice from the radio intruded to prod Betty’s pain like a poker. “Fifteen homes have been lost in the Streatham area and the town is now threatened. Four people have lost their lives. One man refused to leave his home and was overcome by heat and smoke while he tried to save it. Another man was found dead in a bath filled with water in his gutted home. The fire is still burning out of control…”
We remained silent as classical music began to play again in morbid tones like a funeral march. “I’ll drive around the boundary to check on the fire’s position,” I offered. A faint look of gratitude flickered across Betty’s face as I stood up to leave.
Although ash continued to fall as I slowly drove the car over the rough track that serviced the farm’s boundaries, I didn’t see the flames that swept down mercilessly from the north that day to turn homes, livestock, sheds, fences and hay into charred ruins, plucking lives at random and leaving survivors numb with shock in a thick haze of suffocating smoke. Later I learned that paddocks in some neighbouring farms were burnt out when glowing cinders fell and set the grass alight.
Towards evening the wind suddenly dropped and a cool south-westerly blew the fire back upon itself. Then for days, as the earth lay smouldering and a blue haze hung in the air, farmers banded together to shoot the sheep lying in agony with their feet and bellies burnt on blackened earth that stretched for miles.
End of extract.
After my own bush fire experience in Australia, my heart is with all those who have lost loved ones, homes, farms, livestock, pets, and everything they owned in this tragic new and very frightening scale of around 60 fires currently burning out of control among the hundreds still burning.
There have been so many devastating fires in Australia, some with a greater loss of life than at present, but the hectares burnt this time is much larger than any previous fire season, roughly twice the size of Wales. Eighteen people have so far lost their lives, and over 1,700 homes have been destroyed. Adding to the devastation is the enormous loss of wildlife, unprecedented in scale, with estimates of around 500 million animals lost.
After three years of drought and higher temperatures predicted, this could be Australia’s fire season from hell. Let’s hope that the frightening new phenomenon of a ‘fire tornado’ developing in such conditions, as happened during the bush fires in Canberra in 2003, does not occur again – as described in the following video.