All over Victoria in the forest country, anxious residents are scanning the sky each day of the heat wave for signs of the bushfire which they fear may ravage the countryside and destroy their homes and perhaps their lives. In this article Mr C. J. Dennis, himself a forest dweller, describes the present tenseness of forest populations, even though bushfire fighting methods have been improved.
There is always anxiety in forest places when a hot, rainless period in summer-time increases the possibility and makes easier the conditions for the coming of bushfires. And, as the days of the heat wave mount up, so the anxiety grows each day a little more acute.
A wisp of distant smoke behind the surrounding hills, the tang of burning bush carried upon a hot north wind, a press report of some distant fire upon this or some other range - all things such as these tend to make a little greater the apprehension which (during recent years, at least) is founded upon experience that none would seek again.
So the wise men of the bush, during such weather as the State is now enduring, watch for symptoms and calculate conditions with the wisdom of old warriors bearing many scars.
They point out quite logically, for example, that in a district which for many years has known no fire in summer and severe weather in winter the menace of fire and the measure of its intensity grow yearly greater. For fuel increases as, each winter, yearly crops of bracken and underbrush killed by severe frosts, of saplings bent and broken by heavy snowfalls, and of bark and debris scattered by violent winter winds litter the forest floor.
Then, it needs but a wayfarer's carelessly dropped match, a cigarette butt thoughtlessly flung from a passing car, a camp fire left burning, and in an hour this waiting tinder is ablaze.
Should a strong wind blow, the fire is off and away upon its mission of destruction.
Despite the duration of the present heat wave, we in this part of the forest have, so far, been given no sign of imminent danger; though as recently as last week, many were alarmed, on arising one morning, to find the whole circuit of the horizon's rim blotted out by dense smoke. To the inexperienced it certainly did look as if we were surrounded by fire on all sides.
But the wise old ones gauged the direction and strength of the wind, sniffed the air, searched clear patches for scraps of charred foliage, and went on their way with knowing smiles.
Later, a published explanation of the sudden envelopment arrived, but, to an agitated city visitor who had not read it, and anxiously asked if there were danger of fire, one of the veterans remarked sagely, "Well, a man never knows when a fire might come in this weather; but at present I reckon Bass Strait ought to make a middlin' good fire-break."
Yet, despite the flippancy of its application then, the statement holds a significance for all bush dwellers.
A man never does know, in this weather and in this place, how or when a fire may come, as we have had cause to know who suddenly were called upon to fight for days and nights, with scant respite, in just such a summer as this eight years ago. And that was on a week in February, 1926, following that Red Sunday that saw the holocaust at Noojee.
Twenty-five years ago, when I first came to this forest, and for many years after, the menace was not regarded nearly so seriously. We fought many fires during that period, it is true, and the size and fury of some of them were enough to be regarded seriously. But we of that generation had seen nothing to equal the magnitude of the Gippsland fires of our fathers' day.
We had fought and sweated, and sacrificed sleep to make our own homes and the homes of others secure. But it was not until red Sunday and the days that followed that we knew what a real forest fire could do, and knew the amazingly sudden assault and the full fury of the real Terror.
The little homes, that were saved only by the miracle of changing wind that day, still stand in our little settlement; and today, with the temperature still well above 90, as it has been for days, and with a strong wind coming out of the north, I think we are watching with just a little more vigilance than would be the case if the tragedies of 1926 had never occurred.
Yet I honestly believe that forest fires of that extent and ferocious intensity will never happen again - certainly not in our day.
Red Sunday has taught its ghastly lesson and graven it deeply upon the minds of men; for, since that year, Government and people have attacked with much increased earnestness and vigor the problem of bush fires generally. Bush brigades have been organised and made efficient; by iterated and reiterated warnings, the public mind has been awakened to the trivial potential causes that may lead to terrifying results; because of new methods established, and because, too, of the unprecedented number of unemployed available, many new fire-breaks have been cleared and kept cleared throughout the timber lands; aeroplane patrols have been established, and many other excellent measures taken to minimise the fire danger.
Yet, notwithstanding all these good works, careless people still exist and accidents will continue to happen. While the timber lands remain, there must ever remain also the menace of fire.
I think that we of the forest, who have been scared a little in our day, and who once beheld, unmarked and undisguised, the full face of the terror, will not allow even these many wise precautions to lull us into a sense of false security. But we do know that greater and more efficient help is quickly available; and that, at least, is a consolation.
"C. J. Dennis"
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003|