One hot and windy Saturday in spring my daughter and I drive to her friend’s town to bring the lass back for a sleepover. Stopping at a supermarket for watermelon and corn chips, as soon as we open the car doors the smell of smoke hits. It’s blowing in from the wine and coal town of Cessnock.
Afterwards, as we roll homewards to the north the sky behind is a great dirty smear. Local radio is running constant updates and warnings, now telling residents of Cessnock’s main street that it is too late to evacuate, that roads are overrun, and the fire is upon them.
Or, switching to the authorities’ management-speak, the inferno is about to “impact” Cessnock.
As the girls and I put down some distance between us and that drama, another, separate fire looms, this one spewing not a spreading, general haze but instead towering in a dark, tight, roiling plume.
Chaos is magnetic and it is only the presence of kids in the car that keeps me from swinging onto roads that would lead closer and closer to the action – this second blaze having started, it is rumoured, when someone torched a car in the bush.
The bushfires we skirt are just two of almost 60 burning in NSW this November weekend, with temperatures in the mid-30s and winds blowing at about 60 kmh. Scores more bushfires blaze away in other states.
Australia is lighting up.
Flame can behave like a beast, a man, snarling and spitting as it perks up for a fight. But in its birth fire is unlike us for it boasts not two but three parents: oxygen, heat, and fuel. To the menace of so much wildlife, so many bush and fringe dwellers and even our towns and cities with forest in or abutting them, the great Australian summer delivers this unholy trinity in spades.
It’s worth mentioning that I am a firefighter. Not a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), whose task it is to combat bushfires and whose vehicles zip about as we flank the mighty plume, but rather an on-call professional with Fire & Rescue NSW (FRNSW). I get paid hourly rates for tackling urban fires and for rescuing people trapped in car wrecks or ravines, and even sometimes extracting bulls stuck in rivers or horses floundering in swimming pools.
The RFS does at times ask for help from FRNSW crews, usually because we have the tanked air, protective clothing, and training to enter burning buildings. So if a house out of town is going up then we might be sent inside on search and rescue missions or to get close enough to knock down internal fires.
We also go on standby when wildfires approach our towns or when that trinity of oxygen (strong winds), heat (stinking hot days) and fuel (dry vegetation) slot together like the components of a bomb.
Fire is the Devil’s element, the searing agony into which Milton’s God casts the rebel archangel to lie chained upon a burning lake to be subjected, like all those thereafter who would ape Satan’s pride, to “torture without end”.
Fire and smoke are as Australian as poisonous spiders but worse: when they turn on us they are an agonising, choking, annihilating force that shreds our autonomy, driving us to do anything to get out of their way.
Do you remember the two young women who in 2012 found themselves in the choking, melting window of a burning fifth floor apartment in Bankstown and jumped, one killed in the fall and the other severely injured? And best not to think too much about the experiences of the 173 people who died in Victoria during the firestorms of February 2009 – apocalyptic firestorms of a kind that will undoubtedly roar over this hot – and heating – continent time and again in the years ahead.
The panic and agony of flame is what makes so mind-boggling the stillness of the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, as he self-immolated in 1963 Saigon. The monk’s sublimely horrific protest was a protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the then South Vietnamese government. It was inspired by the Medicine Buddha, Bhaiṣajyaguru, who, as legend has it, set himself aflame for 1200 years (and as a result, Chapter 23 of the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra tells us, ‘the light shone everywhere throughout worlds’).
Yet while such blazing self-mastery is exceedingly rare, the Inferno and what Milton calls its “darkness visible” are not without their allure; the Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that of the more than 50,000 bushfires that scorch Australia every year, about half are deliberately lit. And while arsonists in the ranks of volunteer firefighters is thought to be proportionally very rare, a quick Google search presents a drumbeat of arrests and charges over the years.
Just a few months ago 21-year-old RFS volunteer Alex Forth pleaded guilty to lighting a series of fires in the Hunter region, a spike in bushfires having been noticed shortly after he joined the service. Police put Forth under surveillance, and earlier this year watched him start a fire at Lochinvar. The intrepid firie then dashed to his RFS station all ready to go fight the blaze, but instead found himself arrested.
Thankfully such double-dipping crackpots are the exceptions. Yet, to be honest, the emergency services are full of people who thrive on chaos, whose pupils dilate at mayhem – despite all the solemn blather in press conferences and parliamentary speeches about selfless heroes on the “front lines” of civic duty. If it’s not your people or possessions threatened, then plenty of uniformed folk love a good crisis.
As in war, the usual restrictions, routines and boredoms of everyday life are suspended. But unlike war, you’re unequivocally there to help people (and not braving murderous violence). So every time the pagers and bells go off and you gear-up and jump in the big red truck with all other traffic obliged to get out of your path – your life, your spirit, quickens into something that matters.
These scorching runs of summer: these superheated days that melt by at 40 degrees plus with nights that won’t drop below 30 – it’s all wrong. Personally, I just wasn’t built for Australia, not with my narrow, air-warming nostrils and blue eyes and pale freckly skin. The heat turns me into a pre-cancerous lizard, stretched out and still, tongue flicking sporadically, thought zeroed to survival. Lying here beside my wife, sweat-slick at 3.30am, adrift between sleep and suffering, I don’t take all this personally, or fight it – it’s just time to stretch out and be still.
Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! The pager’s going and I’m up, pulling on a set of firefighter blues and stumbling into the dark.
I stand in a burning house, looking around at the ceiling, floors and walls aflame. Tonight I’m the spearhead, advancing into the structure with an air cylinder on my back and gripping the gun-like nozzle of a fire hose. Behind me my partner – a strong and steady young fella named Bryson – wrangles the trailing length of hose, hauling it this way and that to keep it from kinking or snagging. He yells or taps me on the shoulder when he spots hazards and flare-ups, and we keep a close eye on the ceiling lest it lose its moorings and come crashing down.
But the instant I blast the flames eating up the wall to our right all we see is a world of white in the reflected light of torches clipped to our fireproof tunics and shining from our helmet sidelamps. “Ya steamed us,” shouts Bryson, and after I wipe a glove across my face mask and the air clears I see he’s grinning. But now smoke floods the room. Aiming through the haze for flashes and glimmerings, for the red, I turn in an arc, opening the flow only when there’s a target, knocking down a semi-circle of fires around us.
To clear the hose from where it’s snagged on some ruined shard of house, Bryson steps back into the room we first came through while I press a hand to the transmitter hanging from my chest and radio in an update of the conditions, our actions, and the remaining pressure in our cylinders.
“Copy that,” comes the reply from the command centre outside. “You have about 20 minutes of air remaining.”
Amidst the charred, often absent floor, I square my boots on reasonably solid sections, wrestle the hose into position and spray through to the blaze in the next room. Before it’s subdued, though, the heat intensifies on my neck and shoulders. A ceiling joist over the doorway behind has reignited, with flames rolling and curling all over it.
“Bryson!” I point at the problem and gesture for him to stay in the entry room – but to move to the side. He gives a thumbs-up and steps out of line, and with the joist duly drenched we once again have a clear route out. And on we press.
Bryson shakes his head. He’s already got a bottle. After a preliminary decontamination – plenty of asbestos in the house – we’ve stripped down to our sweat-drenched blues in the rehab area behind the fire truck and enjoy the hint of a breeze as we kick back on folding chairs. Coolest I’ve felt all week.
But we’re in the last hour before the dawn of another brutal day, so it’s also the freshest I’m likely to feel for a while, except maybe in the late arvo when I shop as idly as possible in the cool-room of the local bottlo.
Remind me not to leave the empties on the veranda, though; one recent call-out was to a house where the sun apparently angled itself just right to concentrate its gaze through glass bottles on the porch and set a lounge on fire. And then one thing led to another. As so many things do.
One favour that firefighters sometimes do for each other is toss out a few reminders that being too comfortable with the chaos can be dangerous.
“There’s something to be said for the old gear,” says a veteran FRNW firefighter watching me encase myself one hot morning in a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of the latest high-tech protective clothing. She is about to train me in the use of kitchen fire simulator (almost half of all house fires start in the kitchen, with the bulk of them being the result of oil or fat catching fire on the stove).
“Yeah?” I ask. Just last week a new crewmate at my fire station duckwalked into his first burning house, the flames rippling so close above that if he’d stood his head might have cooked. The temperature would have been north of 600 Celsius yet wearing his gear and breathing tanked air he didn’t feel a thing; he said the clothing was great. “So what’s wrong with this stuff?” I tuck the ends of my flash-hood under red firefighter braces and then zip up a tunic which, like my trousers, has dual layers of Kevlar and Nomex, a flame, steam and tear-resistant combination that the DuPont corporation named Titan after the giant spawn of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky).
“Can’t feel the fire in that modern gear,” the veteran tells me. “Can’t feel the heat. That’s dangerous,” she says. “When it’s getting too high you need to feel it, otherwise the flashover can catch you.”
A flashover is the killing moment in a room that’s been heating up. If a candle sets curtains alight, for example, or gets a lounge burning, that initially small fire can rapidly grow and heat everything in the room, setting the furniture and clothes and toys and whatever else along a path of transformation known as pyrolysis: decomposition brought about by high temperatures.
Basically, when sufficiently heated, objects start breaking down into gases and smoke. In an enclosed space the gas and smoke gather and thicken and fill the room from the ceiling down. Many people don’t know that smoke itself is a fuel, and it will catch alight in beautiful, overhead rippling red waves.
Until a critical instant arrives at which everything – even the choking air itself – explodes into flame.
Flashovers, the fire brigade drums into us, can hit within minutes of a fire starting, and are generally not survivable. God knows why anyone would prefer the days of even less armour against flames.
“You’d feel it here,” says the veteran, smiling and running a finger up the edge of her ear. “And if you felt your ears blistering you knew it was time to get out.”
Her point about being too comfortable as things pyrolyse is true for society at large, I guess. So many of us exist in bubbles of air conditioned, gadget-filled, entertainment-rich comfort that scientists’ warnings about the climate, the world, shifting into longer, stronger heatwaves doesn’t have the edge it might. We tune out and play merrily with the material gains that flow from humanity’s industrial prowess, our Promethean genius, with which we are cooking ourselves.
Either that or, as suggested by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s arson stats, an alarming number of us simply love setting the Earth ablaze.