The Sixth of February 2011
The day that brought change to our lives in a radical way came without warning as days like that do.
It was a little past noon on a lazy Sunday.
Jenine and I were having out morning coffee late and looking at the paper musing over the economics of our situation and the prices of real estate. A conversation not unfamiliar to us. We've oft considered change but the effort was always something that would wait for us to get around to. Erin was playing in the lounge room, Danyon had stayed over at a friend's house.
It was a typical Perth hills summer morning but with the mornings easterly wind insisting on making it's presence felt like a drunk 45 year old at a teens party. Staying well past it's welcome. It was seeking a suitor as summer winds are wont to do.
Our conversation was halted in mutual rhythm as folks that have been together as long as we have would understand. We noticed the scent of burning eucalyptus which was followed by the usual visual survey in the direction the wind was blowing.
There was no mighty white pillow of grandpa smoke on the horizon that usually accompanies the familiar summer Australian atmospheric perfume but rather a more agitated, blue, thin adolescent, unpredictable looking plume. The source of the blue smoke could not immediately been seen due the steeply undulating contours of the landscape. It was coming from the valley immediately to the east of our property on Brookton Highway.
As a precautionary measure I took the 3/4 inch hose attached to the tap on the east side of the house and ventured as far as it would reach to commence wetting the dry grass between the fence line and the house. Within two minutes the smoke became white and thicker and to the north east I saw the first of the flames racing up the hill like a stampede of great engaged red steers into our neighbours property.
At this stage those destined to gorge on our own moistened grass had not arrived but it wasn't long before they breached the fence and were surrounding the place with a pace and intensity that I had never experienced. I'd always possessed the same masculine imagination of confidence in one's ability at managing all possible scenarios including anything from termite infestation to nuclear attack. Fortunately I also have the ability to know when my strategy or tools at hand is inadequate.
The battle with the hose as my weapon soon became hand to hand with flames reaching tree top, sorties of embers being launched from lofty posts far beyond the reach of any garden hose no matter how mighty it may seem in a war on the meat ants that become annoying around the pool. The smoke was stinging eyes and lungs and it became clear that armour was required. I lay down my hose and went to find and d'on a pair of goggles Erin had been swimming with the day before. With the goggles, and a tee shirt acting as a breathing filter I returned to the front which be this time had intensified, now the pine trees on the northen boundary were well inflammed. Jenine and Erin had been inside quickly gathering some possessions that were immediately accessible. Lap-tops, four of my guitars, some of Danyon's school books and a drawings, Jenine's visual diary. Some of Erin's treasures. I was concerned at this stage; even the agathapanthas had started to burn.
Despite the inferno however, I was optimistic as the front of the fire being driven by the strong wind, which was by now entering a new set of physical dynamics as one reads about being characteristic of high volume fires, had all but passed the home.
I had decided that upon the ignition of my trusty eastern hose that retreat was the only option and I decided to take up the western hose and skirt the immediate house perimeter to manage the spot fires in the gardens and immediate grassy places. Before implementing this plan I decided to update Jenine on the acuity of the situation and offer some suggestion that now would be an appropriate time to evacuate with Erin, Cookie the terrier, and Heidi the guinea pig. The Land Cruiser in the drive way was being licked by flames on the western side of the house. The fire surrounded the north and south of the house but was quickly moving westward.
I remained to implement the protection strategy which seemed to be working. I was begining to breath sighs of releif and thought I might have a moment to call into work and inform them that due to the situation, I would not be attending work that afternoon as I was due to commence after one oclock.
I did this whislt squirting small grass fires on the south perimeter of the house.
Time to return to the nothern side to check on spot fires. As I rounded the corner something on the rooftop caught my eye. The evaporative air conditioner was ablaze. It was something I'd not considered. It has not been used that day and was was therefore dry. The pads which when saturated act to cool the air, when dry are akin to a small haystack in a plastic box, or perhaps dry paper. A worthy fuel source for a rampant fire.
Any effort to extinguish the air con unit was pointless as the hose volume was now almost a trickle, which as I later realised was a result of the fire department accessing the Mains water supply just down the road.
The sensation when confronted with the sight of your home alight is difficult to describe, not so much panic as disbelief. I decided to look inside to see if there was anything I could do to minimise damage. When I opened the back door I was confronted with a puddle of blazing molten plastic which was cascading from the air conditioner duct between myself and the piano. The adjacent doors were to the kids bedrooms and were open, a glance inside their rooms made my stomach knot as their carpets were hosting the same molten plastic party from the ducts above. Black toxic smoke was now quickly filling the house. I had to leave as I was trying to make my way back thought he door something tangled around my leg and almosgt tripped me, I disengangled what appeaed to be a wire that had fallen through the ceiling, it burnt into my right hand. Later I realised it was an electrical cable that had burnt out. It ws clear that the fire was in the ceinling space and gaining intensity.
I rounded the house to try the front door to perhaps access the loung room to check of Jenine had remembered my father's violin.
I couldn't enter, the acrid smoke was overwhelming. The noise of the fire was a constant explosion as the trees were bursting to flames on all sides as I ran to the carport to make my final retreat.
Driving out, I met the police coming up our driveway. "Time to leave" he said. (I wonderd where else he thought I could be going)
I turned right, onto the highway where a fire unit was wetting the surrounds of a home immediately opposite our driveway. I explained that our house was on fire to which he responded with some expletives and explained that by the time he had disengaged from the current sitation that it would be amost ten minutes and as such our house would be beyond saving.
I had no idea where Jenine and Erin had gone so headed to Albany Highway and found a carpark under a tree near a community medical practice in Kelmscott. Called Jenine and told her where I was.
The loss of property was total. My studio and framing set-up is naught but ash and twisted metal. All the paintings (probably over 300) with 1/3 of those saleable, sketches, written ideas gathered and recorded over the years, certificates of awards, books. The equipmemt gone.
The erasure of thirty years of accumulated stuff is both liberating and painful.
Everything seems new now.