Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fire weather

Defenceless, illumined, when the house burns to its foundations, what I notice is how small it was.
As a girl in the early 1930s, my mother-in-law lived through wildfires that burned across Tasmania. Her family home on Silver Hill in the southeast near Cygnet, just down the road from where I live now, was among those lost; for days afterwards, she couldn’t see or speak. The huge fires of February 1967 missed Silver Hill but burned on either side. Not long after I moved to Tasmania a builder said to me: This is fire country – here, houses stand until they burn. In November 1981 the old wooden farmhouse we lived in did burn down, though not in a bushfire: a spark from the chimney caught in an eddy of the sea breeze blowing up the valley and landed in hay stacked in a lean-to. It taught me about the speed at which fire can work – the whole building alight in minutes and burning fiercely enough to melt glass and collapse the aluminium kettle over the front of the stove like a Dali clock. If you survive it, wildfire is an unforgettable meeting with the contingency of things – here, then gone – and with the unexpected balloonings and shrinkings of the mental and emotional space occupied by what remains and what is lost.
If you haven’t lived through intense fire weather it’s hard to imagine the strength of the wind; the furnace-heat; the way smoke cuts down visibility so that you can’t tell if the fire is metres or kilometres away; the speed at which flames can travel, leaping ahead of themselves through the detonating canopy. Looking into the green and blue and gold distances in the days that come before it, If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know, as an old friend used to say. Fire has changed the way I see the landscape; we all hold our breath at this time of year, when the eucalypts begin to exhale a blue shimmer of volatile oils that will explode in the spark from a dropped match, the lens of a broken bottle, a car exhaust, a lightning strike. Sclerophyll forests are communities of disturbance – they can’t regenerate without it and fire’s their disturbance of choice, perfect tool to crack the hard seed-case and settle the germ in a fertile ash-bed.

In the first weeks of the new year, forests and farming districts and towns burned to the north and east of here and on the mainland it seemed that all the eastern seaboard was alight. These fires that devastate whole landscapes come in a perfect storm of high temperature, low humidity, strong wind and heavy fuel load, especially after good rains when growing eucalypts shed bark and pile it up around themselves in bonfire heaps. On the mainland, the interval between these storms is decreasing. Here in southeastern Tasmania, climate modelling offers a mixed prognosis. Bad luck – many more days of high temperatures in summer; good luck – more rain; bad luck – this rain will arrive as downpours that will increase erosion … The high-rainfall west will receive much less summer rain and that could be the end of the fire-sensitive wet sclerophyll forest and the rainforest and an extension of range for dry sclerophyll forests. 
From my desk I look out into the canopy of a quince tree. Its leaves have been damaged by pear slugs and the skeletonised patches scorched russet in the heatwave that preceded and accompanied the fires. Through and over and around the quince grow the long branches of a young English oak, distorted by nightly use as a possum runway and food source. The trees are part of a deciduous thicket we began to plant 30 years ago – plum, linden, chestnut, apple, pear, medlar and hazel, with bird-sown hawthorn and elder seedlings coming up here and there – fenced from the cattle and sheltered by a macrocarpa windbreak. Most are food plants, it’s true, but all satisfy a longing for the shade and light of a broadleaf forest. So far, this from-elsewhere idea of a garden, this encampment of heart and mind and body, is surviving quite well. Nothing has died in the heat, though green leaves on the northwesterly side of the linden and red chestnut baked brown in the hot wind and the foliage of the elder has paled and drooped. And in the hazel bushes, all through the glaring days like an emblem of survival a silvereye sat panting on her nest, a marvellous airy hammock of moss and cattle hair and rootlets and strands of orange plastic baling twine suspended below the leaves and twigs of an outer limb.
We’ve been lucky, so far. It’s cool again now and the windbreak is loud in a westerly lifted high and cold over the mountains across the river. The leaves of the quince and oak move a little in the breeze that gets through. Parrots – green rosellas – sidle hand-over-hand along the branches of an apple, stealing unripe fruit for the pips, leaving the ground littered with chunks of bitten and discarded pulp. A long scarf of cloud winds across from a cyclone in the Indian Ocean – the monsoon has begun at last and for the moment, here in the south, its damp air shields us from heat blasting down from the desert. It’s not rainbearing cloud, though, and with weeks to go before the days shorten and the ground begins to cool, it’s a provisional reprieve. A lick of burning air could still flick down from the centre and take us out. It may be that even here on the edge of change, catastrophe will come to make us reimagine how to be in this landscape.

But I guess every life is a series of camps in fire country where all our ideas about the world burn down again and again or we burn ourselves trying to save them. In our need for shelter, we have the habit of rebuilding, till death when the walls can stay down.

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