Did You Tell Me To Go To Blazes?
On Friday morning, things started to go wrong very early in the morning. It was the third successive day with temperatures peaking around 45 Celsius, or 113 Fahrenheit - Melbourne's hottest spell in a century.
At 7.30 am I rang my boss to say my car was overheating and the warning chimes on my instrument panel were sounding like a Brahms concerto. Being the good man that he is, he advised me to take the day off and sort the car out before anything else.
About three hours later, I got a call to say that the problem - an errant fan - had been fixed. As I left the house to pick up the car, I noticed a pall of thick smoke. I knew instantly it was a bushfire. I took the shot that you can see at the top of this post and then left to pick up the car. It was 12.35 am.
As I collected the car, I noticed that the smoke was suddenly much thicker and had taken on a menacing orange tinge. It was also very close. The service manager, the person who had fixed the fan problem, told me his colleagues were monitoring the CFA (Country Fire Authority) website - just in case.
I'm not fond of hot weather, but I went home and grabbed just two things. One was my camera. The other was my media ID - just in case. What follows is a series of shots taken in quick succession.
I'm looking down the valley and judging by the smoke it seems the CFA firefighters, assisted by heli-tankers, have the situation under control. The orange tinge has vanished. The smoke is thinning out. There is more grey smoke than black.
Dramatically, the situation changes. Only four minutes later, the smoke is thicker. I can see a brief tongue of flame. The bush, I know, is tinder-dry. The fire is in Churchill National Park and now I can see it is on the move up a valley. Quickly.
I know the area well. There is so much fuel there for a bushfire, after the long, hot, dry summer we've had. Every twig, every fallen branch, every square metre of parched underbrush will act as voracious accelerant.
The wind is blowing embers ahead of the fire front. There are several black blasts of smoke, thick and gusting. I know each is caused by the fire accelerating rapidly up the valley, consuming everything in its path and travelling swiftly up to the crowns of the tall gums and eucalypts.
Only a minute later, there is another tongue of flame. It's almost like watching a Hollywood disaster movie. It's only nine minutes since I shot the first frame - and already the bushfire has raced a couple of hundred metres up the valley.
I reach for my cell phone to call my wife. But now the flames are gathering strength. Halfway through dialling her number with my left hand, I stop. I raise my camera in my right hand and shoot as the fire moves rapidly toward the roof in the shot.
It's a minute past one o'cock. Only 11 minutes have elapsed since my first shot. The breeze carries a hint of menace. I put my camera down. I dial my wife's number and tell her I am dropping everything. I tell her there has been a quick change of plans. We face no immediate danger, but the rapid advance of the fire will soon threaten our youngest child's school.
Do I turn around and take the short cut to the school? I opt for the longer route, knowing there will be less traffic. It is a wise decision. The shorter route has several vehicles parked on either side. The media have taken up vantage spots, members of the public are watching the situation carefully before making up their own minds whether to evacuate or not, and there is a command post there as well.
For years, we've been warned that bushfires don't just take place in the bush. The CFA has continually stressed that even those of us who live in the burbs need to be bushfire-savvy and to have a contingency plan. What happened on this day was the perfect validation of their campaign. This time, though, we were lucky. It was just a wake-up call.
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