Grace Barr 2013

Dark Day

Standing in the ashes of my home, I thought about how my life had changed in the last week. Today I had no home, my parents were distraught, my sister Lucy had barely spoken, our friends and neighbours were dead and I was in shock. A week ago I had been so innocent, but now my knowledge outgrew my years. I had been sheltered from real fear, horror or trauma. I really did believe I was safe. Now I was walking along a tightrope, falling meant death. Safe was just a memory now. The things I had seen in the last week were never going to leave me. I stood between ash, iron, melted glass, and piles of rubble. I knew this room; this had been the living room.  A week ago I stood here, and it was coming.

 

We had finished everything mum had told us. We had put wet blankets against the cracks under the doors, the dogs were leashed to tables. We had litres of water ready to drink. We had spent the last hour watching the sky go from blue to grey, grey to twilight, twilight to black, under the cloud of smoke. It was four in the afternoon. Lucy and I stared out the window at the north side of the house. Trees whipped wildly in the strong wind. It was as dark as midnight outside. But through the pine forest that covered the neighbour’s hill, lava moved between the black silhouettes of pine trees. The fire raged, moving with incredible speed towards us. Flames licked the sky. I was frozen. I had never really ever thought about the idea of a bushfire. It had never seemed nearly as scary as an earthquake, tornado, or something that never really happens in Melbourne. For some reason I was not yet scared, just fascinated. With my heart beating fast I ran from that room to my bedroom on the other side of the house. I quickly grabbed a bag. I filled it with a few precious things to me; my first teddy bear, my first mobile phone and silver jewellery box, lined with velvet. I slung the bag onto my back. Just before I ran from the room, I stared out the window, expecting to see the last memory of outside before it got consumed by fire. Instead I saw a wall of fire in the distance. I was so confused. Bushfires only went the way the wind went. I ran to the bathroom and stared out the window at another side of the house, and there was a fire wall. This wasn’t just any fire, it was so big, so strong, and the wind couldn’t guide it. The fire was making its own wind. It was coming from all sides. Our house was about to be the meeting place, our small white washboard farm house. We stood no chance.

 

Mum and dad were soon inside, unable to beat the heat outside. The fire walls were almost at the house walls now. I dived under the dining room table, not really sure what I was meant to do. I wrapped my arms around Chaz, my dog, while him and Cooch, my other dog barked and howled. Mum and dad stood with hoses, ready to fight any fire trying to creep inside. Lucy was frantically pacing around. For a second I sat still just waiting, my skin starting to boil with the heat that was filling up the house. Suddenly the first ring of a fire alarm rang. I realised I could see smoke creeping through the cracks. Within seconds every smoke alarm in the house rang, like the screams of all the other people perishing with us. This was life or death.

 

Lucy screamed into the phone “PLEASE HELP US! Please,” but there was no reply from 000, the lines were dying. Fire surrounded us. Everything outside was the flicker of red and orange, or black. Anything outside would be dead. I lay under the table, gasping for air. The smoke was so thick I could barely see my parents standing feet away. The adrenaline I had been running on had been drained from my body. I was shaking violently, crying, screaming. My stomach felt like it had fallen to my feet, my heart beat so hard against my chest I thought it was going to stop all together. This must be what having a heart attack felt like. I was so scared; I had never known real fear till then. I couldn’t move, even if that could save my life. The roar of the fire was louder than the fire alarms. My ears screamed in pain. I tried not to open my eyes, the smoke stung. Mum and dad yelled and screamed. I couldn’t hear the rush of water coming out of the fire hose dad held. It wouldn’t make any difference; there was no way we could beat this. Within minutes I didn’t think it was life or death any more, it was death. There was no possible way me or any of my family were going to live. I tried to imagine a happy place, somewhere I could drift off to sleep and die peacefully. I tried to go to sleep. My parents, my sister, were fighting hard to save themselves, this house, me, but I just lay there. Guess I was the real coward. I swallowed my tears, blocked my ears, tried to breath normally through the thick smoke. It felt like hours I stayed that way. I have no idea how long it was, could have been seconds.


When I finally opened my eyes I saw fire creeping through the cracks in the ceiling. The roof cavity was on fire.

“MUM THE ROOF!” I screamed as loud as I could. I thought my voice was lost under the noise of everything else but somehow she heard me and aimed her hose at the roof. Just then my dad ran out through the front door, out into the fire. He didn’t really say goodbye to me, just him and mum shared a quick goodbye. For what felt like hours I waited for his return, and to my extreme luck, he did. He screamed at mum.

“THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE ANGE, BUT THE FRONT HAS PASSED THROUGH!” To me he made no sense and he and mum yelled back and forth until dad dragged me out from under the table. I read from his lips ‘We’re leaving,’ and I do not know what happened next, but I found myself outside, where to my surprise it was freezing. It wasn’t until then I realised the house was an oven. Outside the whole landscape was black, trees had turned to coals and the wind had moved the smoke through, but it was still incredibly thick. I didn’t recognise where I was. Even though we had survived the front of the fire, we were not out of danger yet, but there was hope.

 

Lucy couldn’t hold onto Chaz. He was strong and pulling wildly on his lead. Cooch had slipped her collar and disappeared into the smoke. I like to imagine she died in a happy place, curled up on mum’s bed sleeping. I had left my bag behind in the house. My possessions were gone. Lucy held onto a single item, her teddy bear from when she was just a little kid. Before we fled far away from the house dad did one last thing. He ran back into the burning house and emerged with a box of photos. It was too heavy to carry so he threw it into the front lawn, and with the last remaining water from the hose he was carrying he covered it. Then we fled.

 

With mum’s hands gloved, she pulled apart the red hot wire of the fence so we could slide down the embankment to the main road. For a second my hand touched the coals and I yanked it away, already feeling the burn. It was going to blister, that’s how hot it was.  My family and I stumbled down the main road, exhausted.  Mum and dad were either side of Lucy and I, holding a fire blanket around us. The surroundings were eerie. It was just grey, apart from the black silhouettes of trees that slowly emerged from the smoke and the flicker of the last few flames left to burn out. Cold wind bit at my bare face. As we moved away from the house and the scream of the fire alarms, I realised how dead still it was. There were no life, no animals, the rustling in the bushes, no bird calls, just silence.  We walked along the road, scared for our lives. How far had this fire gone, what had happened to St. Andrews? I heard a small whisper from Mum, “Oh my god”. I looked ahead to where she was looking. Through the smoke, there was an unusual colour, blue. The flash of a blue light, follow by a red one. My mouth drop. It had to be the CFA, the police, anything. They were our saviour. We almost ran towards the light, too exhausted to feel relieved. Jumping over a red hot wire fence, we must have looked like ghosts emerging from the smoke. We ran into the paddock, which belongs to some of the neighbours. Their home was a pile of rubble, burning out. There was a red fire truck, named “wattle glen 2,”a handful of fire-fighters, a few surviving neighbours and a blue car. The fire-fighters stared at us, in complete disbelief, but the next thing I knew, I was being passed from person to person, having my eyes checks, being given water to drink, having my burnt hand pushed into cold water. I sat there it silence. I refused to have my eyes washed out, and when we had heard a transmission from the St. Andrews CFA, which meant the town was still there, we mounted the truck and slowly drove back into St. Andrews.

 

We reached the St. Andrews CFA. The colours of the green bush almost hurt my eyes, since all I had seen had been grey black and orange flames. Mum and dad had disappeared the moment we got off the truck. I went inside. I was covered in ash, my eyes stung, my hand stung, my lungs ached, I was sooty and my hair was singed. I was a complete mess. I sat down in a vacant chair, while people ran wildly around. A girl I barely knew came up to me and sat with me. She was 6 years older than me, I remember her being one of my friend’s buddy in prep. Tears began to well in my eyes. She didn’t say anything, she just held me close and I cried and screamed into her shoulder.

 

I was back, standing in the ashes of my home. I had remembered everything so vividly, like I was there again. I began to build a wall in my mind, placing the bricks firmly, and put all those memories behind it. I was not ready to face that yet. I wiped my face clean of all my tears and I went and sat far away from the house. I played with the bandage covering my hand, it had burnt and blistered. The day had already come up with a nickname, ‘Black Saturday.’ The death toll was now estimated to be over three hundred people. Three hundred people had been lost and I couldn’t even comprehend how lucky I was to not be one of them. Chaz came up and licked my face. Roger, a friend who was a policeman, had found Chaz sitting on the front lawn the day after the fire, while looking through the rubble of houses. Chaz was protecting the photos that dad had thrown on the lawn and three chooks were still wandering around, confused as to what had happened, but perfectly alive and healthy.  If only a dog could talk, I bet Chaz’s story would be better than mine.