‘Tis the season – for bush fires…

It’s Christmas eve in Australia.  In country Victoria it’s 21:00hrs: still light and it’s 25 degrees.  We are expecting a high of 34 degrees for Christmas day and suffice it to say that I will struggle to justify an open fire.  Because of that slight inconvenience, I usually crank up the aircon to the point that its actually painful to sit in the living room and before long, the family begs me to light the fire.  Today, I will refuse of course, because there’s a current fire ban.

I can’t help but thinking that there’s something missing?  Have a look back at some of the previous posts to see what my fireplace looks like in full ‘bloom’

Having bleated about my lack of a marsh mellow toaster; last year, a week before Christmas, there was a terrible fire where around 18 houses were lost.  The fire started when a cocky slashed the grass in his paddocks: for the non Australian speakers – that’s where a farmer mows the long grass in their fields with a mechanical cutter called a slasher that’s attached to the back of a tractor and when he finished, he rested the slasher on the ground near his barn.  The grass was so dry and the slasher so hot that within minutes, the grass caught fire.  The farmer had retired for a siesta in his air-conditioned bedroom and then next thing he knew was when the Country Fire Authority (CFA) were knocking on his door telling him to evacuate.

Here’s how it works. On the mount nearby there is a fire watch tower and because of the risk of both the bush and the village going up in flames, whenever smoke is seen at this time of year, the CFA is alerted by the lookout on the hill and the fine volunteers turn out, regardless of the hour or season and battle any fires that threaten us all.

The following picture was taken from a friends deck.  He is a little further from the fire front than we were, but he has more elevation. The front was actually about four kilometres away at this point, but it looked felt and smelt a lot closer.

There have been several fund raisers for those who lost their houses and I’m always careful to put some extra in the tin at collecting time just in case its our house that they are flighting to save.  I have also to admit to some history with the CFA myself as they have been around to our place, more than once….

It wasn’t a fire ban period or I wouldn’t have done it, but we had a spit roast with a whole pig on it for our son’s leaving party a few years ago and whilst the pit was in our brick courtyard and within an old stone tack room; to be honest, it did generate a fair amount of smoke. Something in fact, rather like the entire Imperial German Navy sailing out of the Kiel canal in 1916.  Luckily, the vast majority of the smoke had dispersed by the time the amped up fire fighters arrived on our street. I say luckily because they had hoses, a whole lot of them and they clearly wanted to deploy them.  The lack of a target for their desires quickly led to frustration and with the fire watch tower radioing them “it’s there, I just saw soooo much smoke” they knew they were getting warm; pun intended, honestly.

We have a tall stone wall that blocked their view of the offending and by now, sizzling porker and luckily, the smoke had given way to the glowing embers and they were up wind.   They couldn’t quite smell the thick garlic and olive oil marinade that I was liberally swooshing all over piggy with that huge wand of rosemary either.  Within a few moments of running up and down the street, they quickly overheated and retreated back to the air-conditioned cab and turned the siren on. I smiled and thought that I identified a slightly frustrated tone in that increasing wail.

So, there’s no fire tonight.  Not at my house anyway and with all the lumber currently in the garden, the house wouldn’t last long in any case.  The laser lights, that were a product of my daytime TV shopping habit, are illuminating the property and it’s time to quieten down the house before Santa approaches.  I have finished the last very large G&T of the evening: well, possibly the last.. and its time to scatter the glitter and blow out the candles.

Merry Christmas.

The Tree

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Around 1842 when our house was built, most of the surrounding bush had been cleared and a large orchard was planted.  Several hundred acres of pasture were established and it became a working farm.  The owners, a local Dr. and his wife owned the farm and as he made his rounds on horseback, his wife managed the dozens of staff who cultivated, apples, gooseberries and apples and grew potatoes. They also had a 100 cows and a large dairy making milk and cheese, that by the early 1850’s was helping to feed the thousands of diggers scratching around in the bush trying to find gold.

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This picture shows the farm in its heyday.  The large building to the front right of the scene is the farm office and accomodation for some of the workers.  The house with its distinctive chimneys is just behind it.  All water came from an underground river drawn up by the windmill in the centre of the picture and was then pumped into a deep brick well.  When the Doctor died, his wife Mary decided to auction off the farm and it was advertised as “one of the most desirable family residences in Victoria”  with its ‘dining room, drawing room, parlour and three bedrooms with detached kitchen”   At some time in the late 1800’s, a Monterrey pine seed was planted and you can see the young tree at the right of the painting.

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The new family decided to move out of farming and instead, split up the land between the many children and invested in other businesses.  The tree watched over it all. It kept its own council, only occasionally dropping a branch by way of comment as the years passed and Australia moved towards electing its first Prime Minister in Sir Edward Barton. When we moved into the house nine years ago, the tree was fully grown. Its hollows were home to both ringtail and the more common brush tail possums with nesting king parrots and scarlet rosellas making the most out of the smaller chambers in the tree. There was no way of course that anything could grow directly underneath the tree as it created so much shade.  The root plate had spread under the house and the corner closest to the tree had been lifted up slightly as it reached out to claim more of the property.  You could actually feel the shape of the root and the rise in the floor boards under your feet when you walked into the front bedroom.

Over the years, the power company had come along and viciously shaved one side so as to keep falling branches from taking the power lines out. That had caused an alarming lean towards the house and all the weight of the tree hung over the front of the house and the fence with our neighbours. We decided to call in an arborist who would help trim the tree, open up the light to the garden and lighten her load where she appeared to be struggling to hold her many arms out.  There is another tree nearby that is significantly older and has a special place in the culture of the local Aboriginal people.  It’s called the corroboree tree and while its not much taller than the tree, he’s probably around 400 years old and being taller than anything around him, became a focus and meeting point for the Wathaurong people.  A few years ago when the council stepped in to clear up fallen branches and to to trim those that appeared to be next to go, the local historical society, accompanied by local Aboriginal elders lobbied the workers to stop work until a proper explanation of their intent was given.  Our tree, not being a eucalyptus, is not a native and therefore has no legal protection, but nonetheless when the arborist moved in with her chainsaws, the locals gathered and glowered before we could explain that this was just a haircut. Luckily, they put away their pitchforks and returned to their homes before we all fell victim to the mob, metaphorically speaking, of course.

In Australia we get storms, floods and fires of biblical proportions.  Bush fires do happen with alarming regularity and a couple of years ago, one came quite close to home and had us all very worried. On that day, in the very high winds, our tree dropped a branch that only narrowly missed the house, which worried us. There have also been several very scary storms that locally have destroyed houses, blown trees down that have crushed cars and even people.

img_1706 Around a month ago, it had got to the stage that when the wind blew, we couldn’t let the kids sleep in the front bedrooms and this large branch almost took out the power line.  Such was our fear of having the tree fall on the house in a storm, we had to take the decision to have the next haircut become a dismemberment. Quotes were sought, kidneys sold and a new arborist arrived and took one look at the tree and said, ‘he’s going to split down the middle and take out your house and probably the neighbours too’.  It was only a matter of when apparently. They swarmed all over the tree and moved the most threatening branches first, before leaving us with an almost unrecognisable lanky stranger.  They then left the scene of the crime for another job, with promises that they would return.  We dried our eyes and instead looked at all the firewood we’d have for the next winter.

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Paddy, the ‘tree fella’ and his team have been back and finished the take down of the tree.  They spent two hot and sweaty days annoying the villagers with the noise from the chainsaws and have left the mutilated remains of the tree strewn across the garden.  I dare say that it will take me six months, at least, to break down the huge biscuits of wood (yes, thats what they are called) and render them into manageable chunks that will fit into the fire place.

An english lady out walking her dogs spent quite a while observing the goings on and bearded me on the drive as I was wrangling Christmas shopping and children (trying to stop the latter from observing the former) and getting the packages into the house.  She noted very politely that I had a lovely house and that it was also a lovely tree.  I could see where the conversation was going and so chipped in with ‘thank you, it was such a pity that I had to make a choice between them’  She nodded her understanding and we discussed the recent storms and the number of trees around the village that had fallen.
Well, its done now and we have a pile of wood chips that mountaineers can work off any excess energy on outside the house and a sea of logs that once dried, will keep us warm for the next ten years.  We’ll really miss the tree and I am very sad to see it go, but I would have missed the squashed kids more…