The Day the Fires Came Through

Colleen Armstrong
20 Min Read

I found myself fitting in well to my new way of life: being a woman, living alone in the middle of the wild African bush (during the week my husband worked in the city earning the money to keep our homesteading habit fuelled).  It seemed like just yesterday that I had moved to the farm permanently, the time had passed in a flash.  Already the weather had turned from a bitterly cold July to a sweltering hot and dry September as we waited with bated breath for the first summer rains to arrive and give us some relief.  This is always our most dangerous time of year, winter behind us, dry, brown grass everywhere…

When I awoke this particular day it was different than all the rest: it was my birthday and being a Friday, my husband, Al was coming home for the weekend.  I was so excited even though I knew it would be a long, frustrating three-and-a-half-hour drive for him to get to the farm, and he drove it religiously every weekend.

We had chatted during the day but he had not wished me a Happy Birthday but I was sure he had remembered.  He probably wanted to wish me in person when he got home.  I had made special arrangements for the staff to leave early and this would give me lots of time to get ready before he arrived.  Once they had left, I went inside to get the show on the road, I glanced at myself in the hall mirror as I passed and realised what a sorry sight I looked.  I was in my work clothes which had seen better days: grease stains, different colours of paint, welding burns… get the picture?  My hair was full of grass seed and I had black smudges across my face.  Looking at my reflection made me realise that it would probably take the full three and a half hours to make myself presentable!

I heated the bath water and threw my tatty farm clothes into the wash bin before relaxing in a hot bubble bath.  I chose a summer dress with thin, shoelace straps, it was colourful and hung to my ankles.  I styled my hair and applied light make-up to my sunburned face.  When I was finished I stood in front of the mirror and gave myself the thumbs up, I felt good and I still had an hour and a half to spare.

It then dawned on me that Jesse, our Golden Retriever puppy, and I, had taken a late morning walk down to the river to turn on the water pump.  My car was at the farm next door having a service so it was going to be a brisk one-kilometre walk to turn the pump off, but there was no way that I was going to walk down there at that time of day.  Monty, our resident 5.5-metre African Rock Python might just be waking up after his long winter sleep for a snack.  Besides, I didn’t want to get all sweaty after everything I had done to make myself presentable!  I walked across to the store and started the big old blue Dexta tractor; she started first try, engulfed me in big clouds of blue smoke, then settled into a slow and steady idle.  I hitched my dress up and jumped up onto the driver’s seat and backed her out the store.  Chugging down the road I thought of how much I loved driving her, she was beefy and there was nowhere on the farm that she couldn’t go.  With a huge grin on my face and with my hair blowing gracefully in the wind, I admired the beauty that surrounded me and gave thanks for being able to live out in the bush where nature was still natural.

I was halfway back when I realised that I probably smelled of old diesel oil and that I was going to be covered in millions of tiny black flecks that had come out of the exhaust.  I wondered if I would have enough time to neaten up again, but, as this thought crossed my mind, I noticed big bellowing clouds of thick dark grey smoke drifting across the top of the mountain behind the house.  My blood ran cold as I immediately shifted into a higher gear and then, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand tightly clenched to the front of the seat so I would not bounce off, I sped home.  The house is was on higher ground and, now that it was finished, I could climb into the tower to get a better look at what was happening.

Still with my beautiful summer dress hitched up, I ran up to the tower and looked in the direction of the smoke and, with utter disbelief, I saw the large, deep orange flames twisting and swirling as they headed in my general direction.  Some choice words came out my mouth as I stood staring at the wildfire for a brief moment, contemplating my next course of action.  I developed a distinct metallic taste in my mouth as I listened carefully and could hear the loud crackling noise of the flames as they swept through the dry foliage of the thick untamed African bush.  I realised this was it, if I could hear it that clearly then the wind was bringing it my way….. the time for birthday parties and prettiness was over, we were about to be engulfed in fire and I had to act fast.

I ran back into the house, took off my, now somewhat inappropriate, beautiful dress and quickly tied my hair up in a band.  Then, donning my old farm clothes out the wash bin I was ready for action.  I was ready to confront my first wildfire on my own but I felt confident that I could protect the homestead as this year we had prepared our fire breaks well in advance to keep Murphy from our fences.

When I was inside, I grabbed the radio, set it on the emergency channel and called in for assistance.  The message from our local fire-fighting group was to tell me that the wildfire was spreading in all directions and they were already two farms behind us to the east trying to save a house from burning down.  Most of the local small-farmers have second jobs in town—or operating from the farm in the case of the plumbers and electricians—to supplement income.  In addition to this, their helpers had already left their properties and gone home.  I knew that my chances of getting any help from anywhere at this stage had dwindled to be virtually non-existent and the longer I stayed indoors on the radio, the less prepared I would be when the fire arrived.

I called Al to see how far he was but he was still an hour out and the sun was about to start setting which left me to confront the wildfire solo.

I ran to the store and grabbed the “fire flappers”—long wooden poles with strips of thick rubber bolted to the ends—and placed them along the road in strategic positions.  I planned to be able to move between them as the wildfire approached.  The water-storage tanks in the mountain were full and I was most grateful that I had the pump on all day.  I attached a hose to the closest tank and sprayed down the immediate area hoping that it would at least make a difference and slow the fire down when it came closer.  I then moved quickly to the next tank and bled the water through to the tank that I had just emptied so it would be fully available again.  This tank was first in the path of the wildfire and I wanted to be prepared in case I needed more water.  Once I was happy that I had done what preparation I could, I went back to the house to pack a basket with drinking water, gloves, cloths, and anything I could think of that we may need while we were out in the bush.  I placed the basket on the dusty sand road and sat down next to it, trying to assess the weakest and most vulnerable points along the fire’s destructive path.

While I was there contemplating my next move the wind suddenly picked up and, within minutes, the fire had crossed over our fire breaks and was now on our farm.  There was no more time for thinking, action it would have to be.  I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and my hands became clammy and moist as I wrapped my fingers around the wood of the flapper lying next to me.  “It’s my birthday, dammit!”, I shouted out to the night hoping that it would somehow make a difference but the fire just kept coming.

When I turned in the direction of our entrance road, to my utter relief, I saw Al’s headlights in the distance.  I could not believe how quickly the time had passed and I grinned from ear to ear knowing that I didn’t have to do this on my own anymore.  He pulled up next to me, grabbed a flapper and said, “Let’s fight this sucker”.  I was now feeling very confident, the adrenalin wasn’t unwelcome at this stage either.  I grabbed my flapper as well and together we strode out to confront the four-foot flames fast approaching us.

As I slammed the flapper into the base of the flames I watched the rubber begin to smolder.  The wind was blowing in our direction and the heat that came off the fire was unbearably hot on our faces.  Luckily, we were watching each others’ backs as the tall flames danced in around us in all directions. “Run!”, I heard Alastair shouting above the noise of the crackling fire and with eyes big, red, and swollen from the heat and smoke, I moved away in the direction he was pointing as fast as I could, the flames chasing closely behind me.  I realised then how vulnerable we actually were and that our safety was the only thing that was really important.  I became even more aware of my surroundings and this, being my first fire-fighting experience, I realised how important it was to read the winds and the directions of the flames.  Instinctively, I became more alert.

By this time the sun had gone to rest behind the mountain and the glow of the flames had become phenomenally beautiful in the pitch black of the night.  We could see clearly what a large area the fire was covering and although it was beautiful, the destruction it was causing brought tears to our red, swollen eyes.

We stood back in disbelief as we followed the trail of glowing flames that lead past us and up into the mountain behind the house.  It had been three or more hours since Al had arrived and yet with all the continuous flapping, we had only managed to contain a portion of the fire.  We had developed blisters on our hands and the chilled drinking water I brought with us was but a distant memory.  We swallowed hard with dry throats at the thought of trying to contain this fire, but the one thing we were sure of was that we could not give up.

During one brief respite when the wind had died down a bit, I walked back to the house to refill our supplies.  During this time, Al reassessed the fire and plotted out the general route it was taking.  When I returned, he pointed out the vulnerable areas that would come under renewed threat from the flames.  Our water tanks in the mountain now reflected their dull green colour as the flames approached them and we stood back to see if the wetting down of the area would do the trick.  That was all we could do, in the mountain we were helpless, blundering about in the dark was just looking for a twisted ankle, or worse….

The fire breaks I had prepared around the tanks slowed the flames and gave us time to get there just before the fire could cross over.  Al was up the mountain beating at the flames as and when they broke through our defenses.  I, in the meantime, went to the store and grabbed a roll of 15mm black water-pipe which I quickly attached to the submersible pump and then dragged the end of the pipe up to him.  I had not told him what I was doing and the confusion on his face when I arrived made me burst out laughing, I could not contain myself.  I knew it was probably fatigue that was making me so hysterical, we both stood there laughing.  I tried to explain what I was doing, “Hold this”, I eventually said as I shoved the pipe into his hands before dashing back down the rocky mountain.  I switched on the pump that I had placed in the large koi pond and, expecting to see the water to shoot out the other end of the pipe with force, saw instead a pathetic trickle.  This was all it took to send us back into hysterical fits of laughter.  I had not realised that the length of pipe would alter the pressure of the water to this extent.  Al ended up putting his thumb over the end of the pipe which caused a spray to almost noticeably increase.  It turned out that it was strong enough to contain the breakout fires that got across the breaks and we were grateful to be able to save the water tank.  From there onward, the fire continued through the mountain free and unhindered as there was nothing more we could do where we were.

We walked down to the house, exhausted; the fire had moved behind the mountain and was now mostly contained in the areas that we could get to.  The five hours of fire fighting had taken its toll on us and we decided to have something to eat while it went on its merry way.  When we got to the house, Al wrapped his arms around me, “Happy Birthday”, he said with a huge grin on his face.  It was full of black smudges from the fire.  He ran his hand down the side of my face and I could feel the blisters on the palm of his hand against my skin.  I poured us drinks while he unpacked the shopping which was full of goodies he was going to put together for a spectacular birthday dinner.  “We did well”, I said as we sat down for the first time since he had arrived home.  Being too exhausted to cook, we had hotdogs and saved the special meal for the following weekend.

The morning arrived sooner than expected and, after just a few hours of sleep, we went outside holding our breath we walked down to the point where we had left the fire. We grinned as we saw that the fire had died out a few metres from where we had left it.

We were amazed to see the black border down the side of the property which stretched up into the mountain where we had fought for hours against this untamable element of our world.  I realised how much I had grown by the experience and to what lengths we would go to in order to save this special piece of land that we love so much.  This would be the first of many fires in the area, but now I had a better understanding of what to expect.  The question was: would everything we had learned pay off during the next fire?  Had I gained enough experience with fire to handle the next one?  Would I do anything differently?  I guess only time will tell…

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