So, Those Bushfires

So, Those Bushfires

Bundarra is a tiny little village about an hour from Armidale, which is an hour and a half from Tamworth, or nearly three from Coffs Harbour. By this point if you can’t get an idea of where it is, I usually just give up. Inland New South Wales, I’ll say. Drive to the Sapphire City, you can’t miss it. The town is one strip of ‘main street’, with one pub, two auto shops, a farm and feed supplies shop and a single bowser pump between us all, and a few back streets with ‘antique’ houses.

Regional. We’re very regional.

The small size and isolation of our town means we’re surrounded by bush and grazing land. Lots of trees. Lots of kangaroos. Stunning during the storm season, with lush green rolling across the hills and healthy canopies softening the harsh of the sun. Clean wool on plump sheep. Wallabies snacking in the undergrowth.

“I told you it’s nice,” Mum had said. (I hadn’t wanted to move.)

It’s actually very beautiful, I thought. I kept this to myself. I had a rebellious teen reputation to uphold, and agreeing with her now would be admitting defeat.

The pretty survived another year. After that, the green slowly dried to brown. Creeks became hollow brick roads, dams puddles of murk. The roads kicked up so much dust black cars came to town plastered grey and our lovely breezy house had to be closed up against the wind. Not long afterward a bushfire swept through and burnt out our property.

Two years later and the worst recorded bushfire season in Australia is eyeing whatever undergrowth has managed to regrow since.

In our local Rural Fire Service (R.F.S.), only a handful of community members were active firefighters. Small town means small school, small cafe and small fire service. Surprisingly, we have three separate churches. Our fire brigade, so small in numbers, struggled under the load of a growing threat of fire alerts. (That’s not so super. We should probably do something about that.)

So Mum and Dad decided to join the R.F.S. I imagined a snapshot montage of town hall (do we even have one of those?) meetings, lamington and cupcake bake sales for weekend fundraisers, intense printing of colourful information flyers. Suspiciously, if you think about it, like local Lions Club members.

The process of joining the R.F.S. starts with an application form. Once processed, you’ve become probationary members, which lasts up to six months. When the need is great enough, new members can be fast-tracked, as my parents were.

Mum became the secretary and Dad the deputy captain. In this process, not a single cake was baked (bought, depending on your commitment). Next, they ordered gear. One fire-resistant long-sleeved shirt in yellow. One pair of fire-resistant pants, navy. Boots, goggles, gloves, head and neck protector. A helmet with a visor. Lastly, the fire-resistant jacket, bright yellow.

Dad dropped a duffle bag by the door. Neon yellow reflective material peeked through the zipper.

I snorted.“What’s with the vest?”

“Jacket, actually. It’s my firefighting gear.” Dad reached down and pulled out a helmet.

“It’s your what?”

“My firefighting gear. I’m a firefighter now.”

Once a member, you have the option to respond to fire alerts in your area. The more who respond, the better the chances of managing and controlling the fire. As members, my parents now assist with fires that have broken out across our area.

None of this occurred to me.

To make our community safer, my parents had joined the R.F.S. Not in the fundraising role I had envisioned, but as firefighters. Fire – yes, the bushfires. Fighters – as in, do battle. Or in this case, control and extinguish. (Error message: Comprehension failed. Where were my lamingtons?)

Dad has a pager that relays fire correspondence. SMS fire alerts. Both parents have joined the local brigade messenger group. (Thirldene rapid response 2 fires at Charlie’s 1 under control other contained until bulldozer arrives at 7:30am.)

At our house, the pager will shriek and my family will burst into action.

“Fire, Justine!” Dad darts into his room. “Anyone seen my bag?”

Mum dashes by carrying a set of fire-resistant boots. “Hallway.”

My sister, Brie, weighs a box in her hand; the other is loading water bottles into a cool bag. “I didn’t know we had K-Time Twists.”

Not part of this system, having been out working a few towns over most weeks, my only job is to stand out of the way and offer helpful advice. “Put in the K-Time Twists.”

Mum sweeps past, duffle bag in hand.

“Mum,” Brie holds a packet of leftover marshmallows. “You want to take these?”

If you don’t already know, pulling a fire under control takes a long time. My parents will be out for hours and usually won’t be able to send a quick We’ll-be-home-by-blank message until I’ve already had to cook dinner and tuck the dog into bed.

I’m not so worried. Newer members don’t have the option of fighting more difficult or dangerous fires and instead are confined, reasonably, to fires within their skill level. No Backdraft level action for them.

NSW bushfires: RFS names two firefighters killed south-west of Sydney. The Guardian.

Bundarra is only north-west of Armidale. We’re so out of the way, it’s a surprise the fires knew where to find us. (They’re ordinary, everyday individuals like you and I that go out and simply want to protect and serve.)

Three Americans dead after firefighting water bomber crashes in rural Australia. CNN.

Operating an aircraft during a fire is a seriously high-level skill. Mum and Dad joined, like, late last year and don’t have the experience, training or expertise for that specialist area of firefighting. Uh, no offence. (It demonstrates the dangerous work currently being undertaken. It also demonstrates the conditions that our firefighters are working under.”)

Meeting people from different parts of the world is always interesting.

“Where are you from?”

“Armidale. Two hours from Tamworth.”

“Tamworth?”

“Country Music Festival? Golden Guitar? No? Inland NSW.”

“With the fires?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“What was that like?”

Australia bushfires: Death toll rises as blazes destroy 200 homes. BBC.

Those fires were in Victoria, the state below NSW. That’s quite the distance away. I imagined one single ember will-o’-the-wisping its way up the countryside on a wayward wind, settling on a patch of dry grass and setting fire to the New England. (The deaths bring the total fire-related fatalities across Australia this season to at least 18, with warnings this could rise further.) (It did, with the final death toll reaching 34.)

“Well, my parents are firefighters now. I had to report a fire myself and the recent rainfall kinda feels almost too good to be true and sometimes I squint suspiciously at low hanging clouds, wondering if it’s smoke. On the bright side, now that I have an in, I’m technically one step closer to making it onto an Australia Firefighter’s Calendar shoot.”

Cover by Scancode Productions 

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