Saturday, 23 February 2013

It's been 30 years …

On Sunday Feb 17th this year,  it was 30 years since the hills above Adelaide were on fire. Everybody calls it Ash Wednesday because coincidentally it was…. and Ash Wednesday was (part of) the reason we returned to Canada to live.

We used to live up in the hills above Adelaide, in a, small open-plan house on the side of a hill.  It stuck out from the side of the hill so it was open to the elements underneath - in Canada it would have been a basement  - and our balcony was almost level with the (gum) tree tops. It was a great view, with a steep driveway and our water came from two huge rain water tanks.

Every summer bush fires were a concern for anybody who lived in the hills. If a fire made it to the gully below our house, it would create an up-draught and there wouldn't be much you could do to save our house.  We tried to clear the brush and blackberries in front of the house and kept our gutters clear so that any embers wouldn't catch fire and a reserve of water in the tanks and crossed our fingers. 

On Wednesday, Feb 17th, it was very hot, even early in the morning.  There was a hot wind from the north.  North winds blow across the land here and by the time this one reached Adelaide it was full of dust and when you looked up to the hills from the city it was hard to make out the landmarks.   The day had a feel about it.  Just after lunch somebody at work told me there was a fire in the hills and perhaps I should go home - to try and protect our house!!     (In previous fires there were people who lost their homes because they weren't allowed to return to their houses to try and save them.) 

So I picked up Mischa from day-care, and drove up the freeway towards our house.    The police said the freeway was closed and I should use the road on the other ridge!  So over I went, up the windy narrow road and as I drove I could look across the valley and see the fire burning … in the general direction of our house.  At the top of the road I turned to drive across the road between the ridges.  Halfway along the narrow road, it turned black and the fire-fighters stopped me and told me I should keep the windows up and stay in the car and just drive!!  There was no need for me to attempt the suicidal drive so I did a three-point turn, banging into the rocky wall behind me and the fence in front of me and was out of there as fast as I could. 

There were trees exploding just beyond me and I couldn't really tell which way the fire was travelling so I drove onto the the football oval in the middle of Uraidla to join a couple of cars already there.  More cars arrived and the sky was red and dark and you could hear the trees exploding (seemingly all around us) and so of course I started to panic and I walked over to the EFS men who were filling a fire-tanker with water and suggested that they turn the hoses on us so that we wouldn't burn. One of them told me that we were surrounded by vegetable gardens (there were gardens to the east of us) and had I ever seen cabbages burn to which I replied NO, and he said then go back and sit in your car - you'll be safe there. Humph! 

So there Mischa and I sat. Some ladies from somewhere bought over sandwiches and then a car arrived full of people and with it's trunk smouldering. What we didn't know was that the wind had changed and blown the fire back towards that windy narrow road I had just driven up.   There were fireballs shooting kilometres ahead.  People were preparing to leave their houses and were caught  as the wind from the south that brought the cool change, caused the fire to travel so much faster than anybody realized.  The driver of the smouldering car that just arrived on the oval, had driven through the streets above that windy road while the trees and houses were burning, and picked up people as he drove through.   Cars were caught on the windy narrow road with nowhere to go and three cars burned to the ground and one girl died in her car because she had her window open (the other two stayed in their cars and then got out after the fire passed and received burns to their hands and feet and one where her pendant chain was around her neck). 

Finally we couldn't hear the trees exploding anymore and the sky was a bit lighter and people started to leave; driving home to find out if their houses were still standing.   At 6.00 p.m. I drove off with Mischa in his car seat,  along a road that was burned on both sides with some bits still smouldering ( but not the cabbages!) and as  I crossed the freeway to get to our house I saw that the fire had jumped across the six-lane freeway - the freeway we always thought would act as a fire-break. I turned onto our road and it was burned, but then 250 meters along it stopped.  At home  joseph was beside himself because nobody had any idea where Mischa and I were (there were no cell-phones back then).  He  somehow managed to get home and was preparing to save the house when the power went out and the water wouldn't pump. He had no idea just how close the fire was down the road before the cool change sent it back where it had come from.

Twelve people died in the hills that day . The next year the trees grew green leaves up their trunks and you could almost forget about the fire, so we sold our house and decided it was time to go back to Canada. We realize now that we should never have been allowed to build a house where we did.

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