We live in a fire zone, which means a fear of bushfires is a reality in the dry summer months. Any hint of haze in the sky means I am on the back deck, sniffing the air for the familiar scent of burning eucalyptus. From November until March, I have the VicEmergency app dinging on my phone, alerting me to nearby incidents and monitoring how many trucks were dispatched, how big the fire is, how far away.
The properties around ours have fire plans, woolen clothing in bags, industrial sprinklers which can empty a 20,000 litre water tank in twelve minutes. We haven’t lived at our house for long enough to install the proper firefighting equipment needed, so our fire plan is only one word: leave. The extended version includes an additional adverb: leave early.
On the road at the bottom of my driveway there is an electric sign which categorises the fire risk for the day, from low risk to code red. We will leave when the CFA declare it a ‘severe’ risk of fires, regardless of whether it is raining or foggy or hot and dry. We will go to my brother’s house, or Lee’s workshop, or the beach, and eat Zooper Doopers and obsessively watch the news and refresh the CFA website.
The CFA are important in this town. They get a standing ovation at the Warrandyte Festival and people leave signs and banners on the bridge, thanking the CFA for their service. Everyone knows someone who died on Black Saturday and anyone over the age of 30 can remember the fires that came right up to the kindergarten fence in 1990. The stalwarts who run the Arts Society, the Historical Society and the local newspaper remember the fires that came through in 1962, a year before my parents were born. The ’62 fires burned down the house that was originally on our property, before the owners commissioned Robin Boyd to design them a new aluminium-clad fire-resistant home.
Part of the CFA Fire Ready packet that we received recommends packing a bag with essentials and any special items to have in the car, ready for when leave early. On the only hot, dry day we had this summer (thanks, Melbourne) I wandered through the house with an old calico bag, looking for ‘special items’ to pack.
I picked up items and put them back down. The first crochet blanket I made, but I can make more. My laptop, but all our photos, including photos I’ve taken of the kid’s artwork, is somewhere in the cloud. The furniture that Lee has made is too big to pack in a car. I’d grab the boy’s favourite teddies, a change of clothes, maybe whatever book I was reading. My wedding ring, which is also my great-nanna’s engagement ring is already on my finger. Everything else can burn.
My relationship with stuff is complicated. I don’t like clutter, but I like new things. I simplify where possible, but enjoy hobbies which require quite a lot of stuff. My kids seem to breed toys and clothes and books and my husband has quite a lot of tools for one person. I hoard books and wool and indoor plants. But there still isn’t anything in particular that I will save when the fire inevitably comes through.
If we were caught unawares by a fire in the middle of the night, and were told to evacuate, I would gather my sleepy family and pile into the car. I’d put on a Fireman Sam audiobook to diffuse the tension, squeeze Lee’s hand and get out of there, away from the trickling river at the bottom of the hill, the dead grass matted at the base of the eucalypts.
And my heart would be beating louder than the sirens, and I would call my parents up the hill and make sure they were getting out too, or that they had their sprinklers on and their hoses laid out. And we would leave our home, drive away from the bush and into suburbia, and wait.