Yesterday, for the second time in a week, people we don’t know, and people we will probably never meet, saved our block of land. From bushfire. They were sleeping in tents and some of them were very far from home. I don’t know what they’ve missed while they’ve been away. Children’s concerts. Birthdays. End of year work shows. The others – the ones who live nearby – have been working to save a land they know intimately. Know and love. And all the while, we’ve been here in Adelaide, spooked by the smoke which reached us yesterday afternoon and the warnings on the radio and the distance which separates us from them. It’s a cliche, but Thank You doesn’t even begin.
If you go and look at the Country Fire Service (CFS) website, you will see that an extraordinary proportion of Kangaroo Island’s national parks has been burnt by the fires. You might not have heard much about them, but they have burning since the Thursday before last when lightning started a number of fires around the island. Only last night, the fires were declared contained.
Not many people live out near our place. We are on a stretch of undeveloped land, with blocks divided into twenty hectares (or acres – sorry, I’m hopeless with numbers) which are allowed to have one dwelling each. It’s at the end of a lot of dirt road and sandy track, and it doesn’t get the number of visitors that some other parts of the island do.
Until recently, our stretch was mostly owned by islanders who used the blocks for their own holidays, camping on them or building shacks, and just a couple of people living there. Then, over the last few years, a few of the blocks have come up for sale, and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. As it happens, we bought it from the grandparents of some very old friends with whom we had lost touch, and now we spend a few great days together every year. That’s what South Australia is like.
The dwelling on our block is a shack. It’s pretty much one room with no mains water and no mains electricity. We had a small gas hot water system connected to the shower (which is gravity fed, so has bugger-all pressure, but washes the day’s sand and grit away), and we’ve just had a couple of solar panels put on. It’s kind of camping without the edge and with permanent walls.
It – the block – came to us when there were some very difficult things going on. Over the last little while, while I have needed to take it easy, to slow things down, it has been there. There’s no mobile coverage, no internet. There are stars at night, hard-sand walks, and a seabreeze which soothes my soul and reminds me of the simpler days for which I yearn. (even though I know that I romanticise those days).
That block is my haven and the place of my dreams. It is where I will go to recover. To lick my wounds. We will live there one day, me and the mister. Our children will come and say to theirs ‘look, here’s the stairs in the tree we built with Dad’.
Of course, compared to the people who already do live there, or have been visiting there for twenty or thirty years, we wouldn’t lose that much. Dreams mostly. A couple of origami frogs Eldest Boy and I made at Easter time. The hammocks from Mexico. The Birthday Stick. That kind of thing. But we’ve got copies of pretty much all the photos, and I brought the journal back with me from our last trip. So, you know.
But in the last week, an astonishing amount has been lost.
The life of one young man who had a fiancee, a father, a mum. I don’t know him or his fiancee or his family. But you don’t need to know someone to understand the tragedy of his death. That’s one of the things I remember from when my mum died. All of the people who wrote to us, who didn’t know her or us, but still, they seemed to understand.
Other people’s blocks have burned. Land where they live and work. People’s livelihoods have been threatened.
And the land. The scrub, the bushes, the trees. Where do the wallabies go? The goannas. The bats.
If you do go and look at the CFS website, you’ll see it’s asking ‘is your family bushfire ready?’ We’ve always planned to go. We don’t have much choice. We’ve got a good clearing around our place, but we’ve got limited water, no water pressure, and we’ve only just had the solar power put on so we wouldn’t have a reliable pump. We’ve got two little children, and having really only one road out, we’d get no second chance. So even if we’d been there this last week, we’d be gone by now.
So, I’ve looked, from a distance, at those photos of the firefighters. And I’ve heard, through the newspapers, the voices of the people who have had heartbreaking decisions to make this week. I think of the young man and his family. I remember the day when we were living in the Hills, and the smell of smoke, and the fire engines racing down our street, and how I put things in a suitcase while I wondered ‘when exactly do I go?’ and ‘where?’.
I don’t have an insightful reflection on which to end. There don’t seem to be any conclusions. But there’s a lot of things to think.