When I turn off the highway I notice handmade signs dotted along the road. ‘Thank you firies’ they say. These are heartfelt messages. There are patches of burnt out bush and the ground is covered in leaf-litter from trees shedding their leaves to survive. Everything looks exhausted, drooping. The bush is quiet: few birds, nothing bigger. This is the land that the fire approached, having jumped the Shoalhaven River after days of sitting at its edge, slavering. You can see that the land itself couldn’t have resisted. You can see how the fire would have gobbled up that leaf-litter and bounced into the trees themselves, crawling up the trunks. How it would have leapt through the canopy, looking for more to devour.
The stories I hear from my neighbours are of miracles and lucky breaks. We’re lucky the firies chose this spot to try to draw a line against the mighty Currowan fire, so it didn’t spread down to the more inhabited parts of north Nowra. We’re lucky they contained it where they did, that a neighbour was here to show the firies from Queensland where the overgrown fire trails were. That a firebreak got out of hand but they firebombed it back into control. We’re lucky our houses didn’t explode like one neighbour’s friend. We’re lucky another neighbour has a son who’s a firie, who came up here to check on how it was going, sending back messages of reassurance.
We shake ourselves and say it again. We’re lucky that we didn’t join the hundreds of thousands, millions, of Australians disastrously affected by the bushfires that have been burning across the country since September. That we didn’t, along with so many others, lose our much-loved house. We had some days of worry, one night of complete resignation facing the worst. It is a holiday home, not our only house. And it is a house, not our lives, or our livelihoods. But it is our house. The house we’ve built over the last two years, and only lived in for the past year. Planned and furnished and filled with love. It’s the house Martin was taken from to the Shoalhaven hospital. It’s the house I returned to the same night, after a day of hospital staff stabilising Martin’s breathing, to find the whole community gathered nearby around the pizza oven. They flocked to me, invited me in, loaded me up with food and warmth. It’s the house and community I have planned to live in in years to come.
But even though the house is still standing and even the plants in the planter box have survived, something has gone. Through the missing trees I can see houses I never knew were there. I stand on the ashy ground and see burnt leaves everywhere. No insects bang at the night-time windows. More than that, it’s a sense of trust that has gone. The trust that fires can be controlled. That this little house would be here for me, that I would add to the garden and learn all the plants, all the birds in the bush around me. Having imagined the destruction of such a raging fire, I can’t unimagine it. It’s a version of the world that stays with me. In one moment, it all could have been lost. The fact that it wasn’t means I’m sitting in a ghost house, where ruins might have been. I can’t look at the bush or be in the house without that knowledge. It all looks transient now, shaky, the lines blurring in and out of view, dream-like.