Nothing nicer than a fire on a cold night, But in country Australia fires are a blessing and a curse.
Our back garden is a thirty acre forest of Jarrah and Marri. It has been unburned for forty-five years. This is a rare and precious thing in Western Australia where fire is the biggest frightener. Common practice is to set fire to bush in order to reduce the fuel in the event of a big fire. The alternative debate is that heavy burning means that the forests are compromised and struggle to survive and hey we all need oxygen and bees need healthy trees. For this reason we see ourselves as custodians of this little forest.
Living in a heavily forested area in the vast expanse of Western Australia means that from the moment the ‘burn off’ season ends to the moment it starts again we are on fire duty. So, for us, over the months of December, January, February and sometimes March we have a number of special jobs added to our usual ones.
We start with a mad scramble to add to, and set fire to, all piles of fallen leaves and branches on our property before the fire ban comes into effect. These piles have been waiting for the right moment; not too wet, not too dry or hopefully rain coming to put the whole thing out if there has been a judgment error or it gets too windy. We don’t set fire to things because we are neat freaks or because we truly believe that it will improve our chances of our wooden cabin on the edge of a forest surviving in the event of a fire. We do it because it’s the law and we risk fines if we do not.
The local fire brigade barbeque is held. Mostly the blokes gather round the fire truck and try to remember how it works and the women stay in the fire shed and catch up about matters totally unrelated to fire. Then fire season begins. Glenn gets called out to help man the trucks on very hot, very windy days, mostly this is to watch over fires that have got out of control due to ‘controlled burns’. Controlled burns are purposely set fires, to keep us all safe, by what used to be called I think, The Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM), then The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and now called The Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW). I spend those days doing all Glenn's jobs as well as my own, worrying about my fire plans, which change from hour to hour depending on what's happening, wondering if the kids are going to be sent home from school, trying to find the latest web site that gives updates. This is made all the more tricky as the government department that organises all these, changes its name regularly. It was FESA and now it’s DFES and maybe Emergency WA too.
The fires we have to set, to comply with the law, are themselves are interesting. You pick a hot dry day and help with the ignition while simultaneously ensuring you don’t cause a fire. So you have to pick a dry, wind free day. You have to ensure that they cannot get away from you by having a cleared zone around them and water/sand on side in case they escape, otherwise you’ll have to call afore mentioned fire truck and look like a silly goon to your neighbours. You want to rake the pile up before you set it alight, otherwise you find yourself in a hellish scenario where you can’t see and your eyes sting and you get toasted. Wearing your ‘fire clothes’ helps as you need to be properly shod and clothed and the heat given off by a fire burning oily eucalypt leaves on a coolish day makes you very aware that you could burn to a crisp in seconds on a hot day in the middle of summer if a big fire came through. You also want to drizzle diesel on the pile for easy ignition. You do have to keep raking up into the centre every so often as fires burn inwards leaving a outer patch of tinder which you don’t want. Also part of the routine is clearing your gutters and reviewing your fire plan and getting your emergency provisions, outfits and grab bag ready, you then just have to allocate time on raking round the house over January and February.
We find ourselves paying careful attention to any sign of smoke. It's got a scary smell in summer. Mostly the whole thing fills me with a sense of dread and I breathe a sign of relief when autumn comes. But I'd still rather live here than anywhere else.
Romy Surtees works with Glenn Pattinson at Elixir Honey, the rural Western Australian good honey business that helps to keep busy people healthy & energised.