Tuesday, April 5, 2011

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.
They left.
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.


Blogger JJ said...

David I am so sorry. Words cannot event begin to express how I feel about you loosing everything like that.

Thank goodness you and your family are safe.

Was this one of the deliberately lit fires?

Good thoughts beaming your way..


April 5, 2011 at 6:16 PM  
Blogger wayne said...

Hi David,
This most recent post of yours has to be among the most moving blog posts I've ever read or seen. I can't think of anything that comes close. The way you've described the experience is intensely personal, graphic in the noblest and finest way, painted with words that are spell-binding, an artist devoid of easel paints and brushes, an artist of acute visual acuity, and even more inspiring, someone of great dignity, composure, and presence of mind in a time of crisis, of an acute need for rapid and ongoing assessment and action in a critical situation.
The image you've painted in words I won't forget. It's a reminder to us all of how fragile we are, vulnerable, human.. and that we need to reassess our values and priorities. The way you handled and assessed managed and controlled the situation to the utmost of your ability, triaging every event and possible scenario, as they unfolded in quick succession, is something I greatly admire.
Valuing family as #1 and knowing *when* the call was needed to send them to safety is but one of many examples that all who read your post would see as a signal of someone able to to assess a situtaion and act under extreme stress. It's a tremendous credit to you David, and your family can feel rightly proud of you, and I'm sure will feel even prouder in the years ahead. Who knows what great things/destinies unimaginable may lie ahead for your very own children whose lives you saved! I noted the PM Julia Gillard was there (in the photos) and think that's a wonderful credit to her and will have made a lasting impression on your children.
Also, knowing when it was time to go for your own safety on behalf of your family's needs and future, is beyond my meagre words. The few mementos you could salvage speak reams and help us all to consider what we treasure the most and which might surprise us if we give it a second thought.
All in all, your post here is (to me) a mixture of heart-rending tragedy and yet inspiring, especially in how you have given an account of that day..
Best wishes David to you and your precious family, thankfully to your presence of mind they are safe. Best wishes for a new dawn and chapter in the life of someone I've grown to admire via the web and these blogs..
Through all the grieving you can and should feel proud of your admirable humanity and dignity and courage that has inspired me and I'm sure so many who follow your pages..

April 27, 2011 at 4:48 AM  
Blogger David Burge said...

That's a very touching response Wayne.
Thanks mate

April 27, 2011 at 8:36 AM  
Blogger Lauren Everett Finn said...

David... I could not say it better than wayne...

"All in all, your post here is (to me) a mixture of heart-rending tragedy and yet inspiring"

When I try to empathize with you...i realize that it's impossible.

My thoughts are with you and your family.


May 8, 2011 at 5:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm so sorry David that you and your family has gone through this. As Lauren said, I can't respond any better than Wayne.

May 8, 2011 at 9:35 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I've been out of the blogosphere so missed this until now. There's no way to feel "lucky" after this, until that photo of Erin which reminds us that all of the material possessions in the world, no matter how dear, aren't worth a single hair on her precious head.

May 18, 2011 at 12:08 PM  
Anonymous mimi torchia boothby watercolors said...

David, I am so sorry for your loss. Although as I read your story, I was glad to hear you made it out of there!!

May 20, 2011 at 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Jean Burman said...

You showed great presence of mind and courage in not only staring down this incredible monster but also enduring the grief of such a comprehensive loss. Thanks David for reliving the nightmare [by writing about it here] so that others can learn from it. Fortunately you have your beautiful family and when it's all said and done that's all there is. It's all we need and what life is all about. I am so sorry.

More than three months on I hope you are coping okay and pulling your lives back together.Thoughts are with you.

May 25, 2011 at 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Catherine De Ryck said...

Hello David,
I didn't read this post before.
I met Nick last week who told me what happened. I am so sorry for you and your family and I sincerely hope that you are all well now. Your great presence of mind saved the life of your children and you are all togheter, this is the most important thing and the best consolation to think about. I hope that time will help to forget, little by little, the records, books, paintings, material, ... that were lost. You will have new souvenirs to build with your loved ones, like a new start, and I wish you all the best to do so. My thoughts are with you and your family.

July 12, 2011 at 6:04 AM  
Blogger Nancy Lee Galloway said...

I could feel the disbelief and surreal atmosphere of the disaster in the intensity of your description Dake. I know that you are now in a good place as you have mentioned previously but what an experience to go through. The speed with which one's life can change is frightening.

August 26, 2011 at 7:53 AM  
Blogger Sandy Maudlin said...

Just finished reading this and am stunned and amazed at what you went through nearly a year ago... How fast it happened and how much it took, how much it changed everything. I am so glad you were all safe but my heart goes out to you and your family, as I'm sure that even a year later, it can be still so difficult.

February 3, 2012 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger David Burge said...

Thanks for your thought folks.
A year today.

February 4, 2012 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger Karl S said...

Hi David, I constantly search the internet world for artists to inspire me and one such artist is Carol Marine (check her out) whose home also burned down to the ground. I am spooked that as I flitted from her blog today I found yours. What an experience and your account had me spellbound. Well done on getting everyone out and good luck on rebuilding your life and home.


September 3, 2012 at 12:16 AM  

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