Thank you firies
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.
Fires in NSW
These are the fires in NSW today, December 6 2019.
A bush fire is burning in the Mount Marsh, Tullymorgan, Mororo Road, Ashby Heights, Woombah and New Italy areas. The fire is more than 115,000 hectares in size and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning in the Yengo and Dharug National Parks. The fire is more than 11,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
There are multiple bush fires burning in the Yengo National Park area. The fire is more than 43,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
A fire is burning between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla. The fire is more than 73,000 hectares and is not yet under control.
A bush fire is burning in the Wollemi National Park area. The fire is more than 250,000 hectares in size and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning west of Garland Valley and Howes Valley areas. The fire is more than 10,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
A bush fire is burning in the Goulburn River National Park, south-west of Merriwa. The fire has burnt more than 9,500 hectares and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning in Carrai East, north west of Kempsey. The fire is more than 121,900 hectares in size and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning in the Lake Burragorang area. The fire is more than 35,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
The bush fire is burning through the Tallaganda National Park, and the Bombay and Braidwood areas. The fire is more than 31,000 hectares in size and is being controlled.
The Carrai Creek bush fire is burning across a large area including the Oxley Wild Rivers area and Yarrowitch. The fire is more than 226,700 hectares in size and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning to the south of the Katoomba and Leura area. The fire has burnt close to 1,100 hectares is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning in the 50km west of Grafton area. The fire is more than 107,100 hectares in size and is being controlled.
A bush fire is burning at area of Pelaw Main near Cessnock. The fire is more than 300 hectares in size and is being controlled.
The fire is burning in the Corrabare State Forest, east of Wollombi. The fire is more than 2,700 hectares and is out of control.
A bush fire is burning in the area of Martins Creek, east of Paterson. The fire is over 290 hectares and is out of control.
A bush fire is burning in the area of the Cataract National Park near Paddys Flat, north of Drake. The fire is more than 1,000 hectares in size and is out of control.
A bush fire is burning in the Washpool and Billilimbra State Forests. The fire is more than 98,000 hectares in size and is being controlled.
At a minimum that is a total of 1,136,590 hectares, or 11,365.9 square kilometres, of land burning, or burnt, today in NSW.
The radio broadcasts reports every 15 minutes. The message changes. Sometimes it is to tell people in certain areas that it is too late to leave, and that they should seek shelter as the fire approaches. I feel for those people. It feels like they’re being abandoned by the rest of us, listening to the bushfire reports in our cars, blanketed by smoke for the last week, each day feels worse. But not as bad as being told that it’s too late to leave, that you should seek shelter. Wait out the fire burning around and over and through your house, seeking shelter here then there, wondering if this shelter will hold, or whether you’ll need to run to the door as your shelter collapses, out into the heat, the burning, the crashing and the blazing.
The news on the radio also reports that 150 more Australian Federal Police are being posted at airports because of a perceived threat, and I wonder – why isn’t the real threat being addressed?
At dusk – that soft time of day when the fading light brings out the fantastical – a wombat wandered into the yard. I saw it under the wattle tree – yellow flowers reduced to grey, billowing scent and heady hum of bees vanished with the setting sun – tugging at a tuft of grass, scratching the hard earth with its no-nonsense paws. I crept off the balcony and slowly made my way across the yard. The wombat gave no sign of seeing me, yet somehow the distance between us never varied. I would creep, it would waddle nonchalantly, even stopping to attack another clump of grass, but I didn’t seem to get any closer. It went around the end of the shed, past the chairs that it had clearly knocked over on a previous expedition. I thought to cut it off at the pass, but it veered off, again turning its large square rump to me.
It made me realise I know very little about wombats. Could it hear me, or see me, or detect me in some other way? Or was it simply unafraid? All I knew of wombats I had learnt in Tasmania, at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (‘Here, knock on that’, the assistant invited us, and we each took a turn of knocking on the thick square bony bum of the obliging wombat, each of us astounded in turn by its solidity. ‘If it’s in danger it ducks into its burrow head first and blocks the entrance with this rump’, she explained. ‘It can crush a dog’s head against the side of burrow,’ she added cheerfully.)
So I turn to the Australian Museum and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment websites for information on wombats. Ok, so I can’t go further without mentioning that I was intrigued to read the museum’s section on Conversation status – unfortunately not a section on how to converse with wombats, but nevertheless pleasing as it reveals that the Common Wombat (our wombat) is not listed as being under threat, even though its distribution has been greatly diminished in the past 200 years.
From the websites: The wombat is a marsupial with an average length of a metre and an average weight of 26 kg. They are very strong and can run at up to 40km/hr over short distances. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. They are usually seen after sunset, when they leave their burrows to graze. (Yes!) Their main food is fibrous native grasses. They are generally solitary animals, although they can share their burrows. They are very territorial about their feeding grounds, and will defend them aggressively. I like this bit about communication from the Australian Museum:
A warning call is usually a low guttural growl, but when a wombat is alarmed or angered, rasping hiss can also be heard. The animal repeats this high, loud call as it expels air. Sometimes the call can be a more aggressive ‘chikker chikker’ sound and/or a more guttural sound similar to that of an angry brushtail possum. Communication is also apparent between younger animals and their mothers. Young make repeated, softer ‘huh huh’ calls when they lose sight of their mother, and she usually responds in the same manner.
Wombats usually have one joey at a time. It gestates for about 30 days then makes its way to the mother’s pouch, where it grows for up to 10 months. It leaves the pouch after that but remains with its mother for a further 8–10 months before becoming independent. The pouch faces backwards so the joey is protected when the mother is digging (or diving down her burrow). Mating takes place after an exhausting series of chases over a wide area and includes much rump biting.
It’s neither of those websites, but the Wildlife Rescue South Coast website that answers my questions about the wombat’s perception of my stalking presence:
While their eyesight is poor, wombats have a keen sense of smell, excellent hearing and very large brains.
So yes, it knew I was there, it maintained the distance between us, and it was in no danger of me taking a better photograph.