Written by Anders Ross
The smell of baked fish and roasted potatoes from the kitchen seems to blend itself with the scent of pine from the staling Christmas tree. The holy sound of choristers from Dad’s hi-fi system is broken by the news of a fire burning through Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
‘Residents of Mill Park and Bundoora have reported fast-moving flames and plumes of smoke blowing across several postcodes from the Plenty Gorge Parklands,’ the newsreader working through Christmas says. ‘Residents are advised to seek shelter at emergency stations in neighbouring Watsonia or with friends or relatives.’
Despite there being no reports of death or injury and having lived through 1983’s Ash Wednesday, there is a look of concern peeling across your parents’ faces as Christmas Day, a Carol resumes on the radio. The fish has gone cold.
Later, on Facebook, pictures of melted play equipment in Linacre Drive, Bundoora, are posted by local MP, Colin Brooks, who also offers those fleeing the bushfire a place of refuge at his constituency office. The number of replies is staggering, including an additional offer by the owner of the Thornbury Theatre, who pledges to open it up to all who need it. Meanwhile, outside in the garden, the cries of fledgling magpies and native miner birds contented by the presence of fresh water in the birdbath are dulled. A sheer yellow haze blankets the grove of eucalypts peeking up from behind the back fence. The smell of smoke—of smouldering wood—teases recollections of 2009 and Black Saturday from your recent memory. Ten years does not seem that long a time. It was underneath the spectral burning of first copper, then a fatal red sun, that you wandered to school, sat through German lessons, and ate cheese and onion sandwiches, as you regarded the burnishing light over the landscapes of silos and dry farmland that Arthur Streeton once painted.
Back then, bushfires and desiccated wilderness were very much commonplace, given the collective experience of a childhood maturing through the 2003 drought. Indeed, it was in primary school that many of us standing there witnessing the reddened skies had first learnt of the Cubbie Station—Australia’s largest irrigation property—and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, their decisions on water management and rights, and, despite this, no discussion of the ramifications for the future.
Yet, as any student in Year 11 would do, your friends remarked at the hot weather and discoloured clouds and then returned to what song was going to be sung on that week’s episode of Glee. Bushfires do not reach the suburbs. It was only a couple of you, however, who understood the consequences of the shepherd’s rhyme about red sky at morning. Moreover, it was you and James, the two who had grown up on farms, who awaited devastation by fire. A prediction realised that weekend when, as the smoke engulfed most of the state and was spied by NASA, your two properties were ignited in part by embers travelling on truculent, golden wings from Kinglake and Marysville. Wilsons Promontory appeared more like the end of the Earth than merely mainland Australia. By next Monday, two other students in your year report losing their homes as the death toll exceeds 100. It is the haunting accounts by callers, many now deceased you soon realise, to Jon Faine on ABC Radio that stick in your mind for the next week.
A decade later, during his farewell broadcast your parents attend, he weeps at the memory of these women and men.
And in the news of no deaths owed to the 2019 Plenty Gorge Parklands bushfire, there is a special joy. A fullness of relief that encircles you, even if you know the climate is becoming hotter, the grass drier, and Australian politics more reluctant.