This is a short story I wrote for the local Newcastle Herald Summer competition 2013
No-one heard that first whip-like crack, or noticed the pungent smell of ozone, as the thick aluminium power lines touched for the first time. The forty knot wind gusts had been gradually building in a crescendo since early morning. Only the nearby family of butcherbirds noticed the brief cascade of sparks as the high voltages clashed and showered the nearby gums and melaleucas with a kaleidoscope of potential energy. The newspaper-like bark smouldered and fizzled as the wind fanned the embers, in a genesis of what was to come.
The day had dawned normally enough on the peninsula, a light zephyr from the nor-east as the sun peeked over the horizon, casting a radiant glow over the bay and heralding another lazy Sunday morning. The residents of Brown’s Road took little notice of the power surge that knocked out their modems and reset their digital clocks. Power surges were a common enough occurrence out here. Some people were outside mowing their lawns; others were sleeping off the hangover of losing their hard-earned cash on the pokies the night before. The lucky ones had a raffle tray of T-bone steaks or king prawns ready to throw on the barbie.
A shift worker on the final leg of his sleepy drive home was the first to notice the flames. The tinder-dry kindling blanketing the ground was a legacy of the warmer than average winter, and the never-ending debate between the old-timers and the greenies over burning off. Had the indigenous owners of the land, the Worimi people, really burnt the bush regularly to prevent bushfires, or had they simply been using fire as another hunting tool, to drive the roos and goannas out of the undergrowth?
Triple O calls were frantically made and social media was soon ablaze with rumours, as SMS messages were automatically despatched to mobile phones advising of alert level; Watch and Act. Acrid black smoke billowed menacingly as the inferno quickly took hold. The thunderous roar from the approaching flames sounded like a locomotive as RFS volunteers in their bright orange overalls desperately searched for available hydrants, their “Dennis” fire trucks gleaming bright red in the sunlight, canvas hoses lying neatly on the ground waiting for that engorging rush of water to bring them to life. They trained for this all year but nothing could prepare them for the enormity of the task ahead.
Some residents defiantly remained to defend their possessions, while others were whisked off to a hastily arranged evacuation centre. Bucket brigades of fire-fighters passed pails of water to colleagues on a roof to wet the gutters and snuff out any flying embers. There was no spear point water to fight the fires, the power was cut off. Perry the local fruito bought a utility loaded with cold watermelons to quench the parched throats of the exhausted volunteers. Heroes they were being called on Facebook.
A Channel Seven news chopper arrived, and some vans with huge satellite dishes. This was going to be a national news story. Homes were being lost and livelihoods destroyed. A makeup artist attended to a young reporter, dressed for the occasion in a high visibility vest. “Possibly a dozen homes have been lost so far”, she solemnly reported to the camera. The last time they had come here was to beat up a story on the legendary Salt Ash ghost that sometimes haunted drivers on this long lonely stretch of road at night, claimed by some to be a young motorcyclist who came to grief here many years ago.
Jenny, only recently released back into the wild after months of rehabilitation, clambered higher into the crown of the eucalyptus tree and dug her sharp claws in, her joey clinging on for dear life, as the cruel winds created by the fire buffeted all around her. Two red-bellied black snakes slithered across the hot bitumen as the cars continued to bank up in all directions. No sign of any black cockatoos flying overhead that usually foretell of quenching rains to come. Sirens wailed in the distance, drowning out the whimpering cry of Jenny, whose coat was singed from the hellish flames and throat parched from the acrid smoke, as the sun slowly receded over the horizon, leaving an eerie orange glow in the sky.
Monday’s dawn broke to the anguished cries of those residents who had returned with so much dread in their hearts and so little hope. Charcoal skeletons of once proud homes stood amongst the blackened grass trees, the unmistakable stench of an Aussie bushfire lingering in the now still air, blue police tape cordoning off those areas still too hazardous to approach. Workers heading to Newcastle crawled past guiltily, trying to absorb the magnitude of what Mother Nature had unleashed on their friends and neighbours. Was this just a small taste of the dreaded bushfire season yet to come?
Jenny reluctantly climbed down from the precarious safety of the gum tree and placed a hesitant paw on the still hot ground. With the pads of her paws blistered and peeling she retreated with her joey clinging tightly to her back, not knowing which direction to go, all the familiar landmarks now looked so alien to her. Exhausted and bewildered she sat down at the base of an unburnt tree, unable to summon the strength to climb up to safety. Here she would sit for days, alone and afraid and hungry, until the wildlife carers, who had nursed her back to life once before, would eventually find her. To Jenny the koala, and her precious joey, they were the real heroes.