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Ashes to ashes: aftermath of a bushfire

Drew Rooke reports from the frontline in the Blue Mountains

Photo: AAP
Photo: AAP
Photo: AAP

All is quiet now on St Georges Parade in Mount Victoria, Blue Mountains. It’s insidiously peaceful. Blackened leaves wash in the gentle breeze and the afternoon sun shines orange through a thick haze still blanketing the sky. A yellow street sign warning of an approaching “DIP” is charred brown and a powerful smell lingers. Not just of burnt wood, but of burnt plastic, rubber, and iron. Ahead, a bearded middle-aged man walks his dog down the middle of the empty street.

“It’s devastating. What can you do though? It’s part of living in the bush.” He despairingly raises his arms and examines the destruction as he speaks. His name is Tony and, living just ten minutes up the Great Western Highway, he was one of those lucky to escape the raging bush fires fuelled by extreme winds that ravaged the area last Thursday. Across other parts of the Blue Mountains and New South Wales, they continue to burn and have so far claimed at least one life and 193 homes.

The thumping beat of water-bombing helicopters above is a reminder the fire is still burning. Its now at Mount York Road, just two kilometres away. But there’s no more fuel here. The street now resembles a black-sand beach, littered with burnt logs and the rubble of the beautiful country homes that once lined it.

The silence is sliced by the clang of corrugated iron as a couple rummage the ruins of their brick home for valuables. Four totally burnt-out cars sit in their front-yard, their windows melted, not shattered. A tree-stump beside is still ablaze. I walk inside and offer my help. They refuse. Their eyes scream helplessness, but they know I can’t do anything right now. Only they know what they’re looking for amidst such destruction. Leaden ash puffs into the air as they continue rummaging as I walk away.

Further down the road, the white-picket fence of Number 32 remains. Nailed to it is a white-tiled, mosaic sign reading ‘Sunnyside’. But the house it once enclosed is now a pile of still-smoking timber, melted glass and warped iron. A yellow fire hose stamped ‘Woodford Blue Mountains AFS’ lies lifelessly, like the shedded skin of a red-bellied black snake, on the pavement leading to the ruins. It was no match.

But the flames chose their victims randomly. At Number 25, its roof buckled and insides turned to ash, a stack of dry wood is untouched. Down the road at Number 38-40, John’s mustard-yellow rendered brick home escaped unscathed. Burnt trees surround it. He and his wife only finished building this house six weeks ago. Even his clothes-line survived. “We didn’t even lose one peg.” he laughs. Nor did they lose any spirit, and today, they are back finishing the fence they started building last weekend. “There’s no point moping about it, you know? Ya just got to get on with it.”

His resilience is striking but not unfounded elsewhere on the street. Suzanne and Gavin are also newcomers and had part of their property damaged on Thursday. They’ve spent the afternoon helping neighbours extinguish spot fires around the area. Suzanne shrugs. “We all know fires happen up here. We’ll all carry on.” Her voice is calm and relaxed as she pushes the wheelbarrow of watering cans and buckets back home.
The sun turns red as it falls to the horizon. Lines of burnt gumtrees are beautifully silhouetted  against a smokey, mauve sky. Rakes and spades are put down. Leather gloves slipped off. As cicadas sing their Song of Life to those on this Parade.

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