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Bonzer Words!: Fire Memories

...Outside, I could smell a strong fire smell, and had that same eerie feeling. The sky was hazy, the world seemed to begin and end right there in my back yard. There was no sign of the house next door, nor the one across the road. All was shrouded...

Carmel Fitzgerald recalls a day that is remembered in Australian history.

We woke a little earlier than usual that morning. My sleep had been fitful—the air so close, so unusually warm, and I fancied I smelled smoke. My husband spoke my thoughts: 'Do you smell smoke?' He seemed almost obsessed with smoke and fires; often gazed out over the horizon, scanning the skies, sometimes with the naked eye, other times with binoculars. He was thrilled when the fire brigade captain moved in across the road.

'Well, I did think there was a scent in the air, but thought the neighbours had lit their stoves already.'

'Quick! Come and have a look!'

'What is it?'

'The sky has a peculiar eerie haze over it. There's a fire nearby and it's a big one,' said hubby.
Oh yeah, always had to be dramatic I thought, but said, 'Perhaps it's a grass fire.'

'No. It's bigger than a grass fire.'

Outside, I could smell a strong fire smell, and had that same eerie feeling. The sky was hazy, the world seemed to begin and end right there in my back yard. There was no sign of the house next door, nor the one across the road. All was shrouded. The trees were like ghostly figures on a foggy winter day, but this was not winter; this was not fog. Smoke surrounded us. It stung my eyes.

I walked inside. The radio spoke.

'A large fire is burning out of control in 8 Victoria areas—the closest one to Bendigo is the East Trentham/Mount Macedon region. Eleven towns and regions are threatened and approximately 170,000 hectares are ablaze.

The CFA warns asthma sufferers and people with upper respiratory conditions to stay indoors. It's believed that the clashing of electricity power lines started the fires, and, sadly, there were also some deliberately lit fires. Over 16,000 fire fighters are attending as well as 1,000 police, 500 defence force personnel, 400 vehicles, 11 helicopters and 14 fixed wing aircraft. Those personnel and equipment responded quickly to this disaster. There are over 100 fires raging.'

The weather bureau said the earliest ever-Total Fire Ban was declared in November last year—prior warning that 1983 was shaping up to be a bad year for fires. With over 10 months drought and conditions in the eucalypt forests tinder dry; no appreciable rain, relative humidity along with strong winds that robbed the ground of 200,000 tonnes of soil just a week ago, the stage was set.

16 February 1983 will surely go down in history as Australia's most remembered bushfire; the fire that killed 75 people and destroyed over 3,000 buildings. Seven of the deceased were from the Mt Macedon/East Trentham region—just across the paddocks from us. As we stood in our home and smelled the smoke drifting in uninvited, we thought about our decision to leave the city and move to the bush.

'Should we start sorting out what we need to take if this fire turns on us?' I asked.

Hubby, with a worried look said 'It would be a good idea.'
Now I was really scared. Would we stay or would we go? That question was contemplated many times that Wednesday. However, reliable information via radio and TV assured us that we were in no immediate danger. We paid attention to the radio like obedient children all day. I rang my nearest neighbour.

'Hi Mavis. Are you preparing to evacuate?' I asked.

'No, not at this stage. The fires are quite a long way from here really. It's just the smoke and the haze that makes you feel like they're just behind the nearest tree.'

'I wish we'd stayed in Bendigo. Only here five minutes and we wake up to this.'

'You'll get used to it when you've lived through a few summers, but it never stops being scary. Just take your lead from the locals.'

'OK. I'll try to stop feeling scared, but all I really want to do is run back to Bendigo and forget all about living out here so close to the forest.'

The evening news on TV brought heart-rending, on-the-spot stories and pictures of fire, destruction, heroism, unbelief, shock and grief.

A cruel fire unleashed on humanity who in turn, responded by dogged determination to fight that monster and win. Houses and buildings could be rebuilt; trees, crops and grasses would force their way through the ground again at the persistence of man.

But the incredible loss of human life, despite the best efforts, was what would haunt those gallant men and women who defended our property and us so valiantly.
Country Fire Volunteers, we salute you!

**

Carmel writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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