When the Dragon Came (2003) – Extract from Meditations in Orange

JGMontgomery 16 November 2014

The next morning, Sunday, is hot and still, almost as an epitaph to the events of the day before. At the depot I wait in the hazy early morning air and smoke a number of cigarettes before the team arrives. Everyone is tired and dirty from the terrifying events of the previous night and all have a slight tinge of numb disbelief in their eyes.

After loading the Land Cruiser with equipment and supplies we drive to Curtin where the staging-post is now located. Above us the sky is a dirty brown as we pass roadblocks, deserted streets and burnt out paddocks.

The roads are empty and a strange silence seems to have fallen upon the city. The air is an ugly, filthy brown and it stings your lungs when you breathe. Turning onto the Tuggeranong Parkway we are waved through by a lone policeman who has blocked off the southbound lane. As we pass Scrivener Dam we notice that trees and stumps are still burning and the grass, once green, is now a carpet of thick, black ash. We wonder what we are going into and what we will find when we get there. Smoke hangs languidly and ominously in the air. A reverent silence seems to pervade everything, as the team is quiet and reserved with none of the banter and  chatter that usually takes place on operations. Soon we will have no idea what day it is as they will all blend into one.

At Curtin we are forced to park on the road as the staging area is still in a state of disarray. Trucks, tankers, Light-Units and four wheel drives are coming and going. Tents are being erected and chairs set out for weary fire fighters. Out across the oval a number of helicopters, including a huge green Army Blackhawk, sit brooding in the brown morning air.

We are given a quick briefing on the situation and to be honest, in the confusion no-one is really sure what to do. We end up being tasked to the RFS workshop compound on Cotter Road which has just about burnt to the ground. We fill our water bottles and head back to the troopie.

Again, the roads are deathly quiet apart from the occasional tanker or police car. Our instructions are simply to clean the workshop up enough so that it can be operational again, a simple enough task one would think, until we arrive to find cars melted onto the tar and a completely burnt out tanker. Apparently the tanker had broken down after sucking burning embers into its air intake and the mechanics were unable to fix it in time so it was left, with the rest, to be ravaged by the fire.

It takes most of the morning to move the burnt material, knock down or stabilise dangerous bits of the compound and to sweep out parts of the building, but by midday the workshop is again operational and staff are moving back in to survey the damage. Incredibly, a car that had been left in the panic has been burnt so badly that an alloy wheel has completely melted and drained away across the car park like water. Now it has solidified in a long, silver piece of alloy. The intensity of the fire must have been incredible.

From Curtin we re-deploy to Kambah where a massive fire and windstorm has destroyed a large area of housing. The damage is unbelievable. Driving through what should be a normal suburban setting on a Sunday afternoon we are greeted by an urban warzone of burnt and uprooted trees, roofs destroyed by massive fallen gum trees, cars melted and burnt where they have been abandoned, and smouldering black and grey ash where lawns and green, lush gardens once flourished. People appear to move in slow motion.

We cannot fix it. The damage is simply too severe. And yet our presence seems to lift the spirits of the residents that now wander aimlessly around the devastated suburb. We do what we can and then move on to the next task.

After this we are re-tasked to turn off gas and water mains in Duffy. At this time numerous houses are either smouldering or still actively burning and as we wander through this desolation we are reminded of the savagery of nature. Everywhere I look is devastation and heart break. And ash, dirty black ash, everywhere, covering the ground, the trees, your boots and overalls and getting into your nostrils so that when you blow your nose you are presented with a thick black sludge.

I walk slowly through the wretchedness that surrounds me, feeling as if I have intruded onto someone’s sacred ground in some voyeuristic way. A feeling of almost complete helplessness seems to be evident in everyone’s whispered comments, as if we are afraid to awake the slumbering dragon that rampaged through the area the previous day. The air is still thick with smoke and by late afternoon the sun sits low and menacing like a bloated, over-ripe orange on the horizon.

By that evening authorities have a clearer picture of the tragedy – Duffy being the worst hit suburb, with over 200 houses burnt to the ground. The Rivers ACTES depot is also completely razed, including a number of private vehicles owned by the ACTES volunteers, who have been out battling the fire.

Tragically, it is also confirmed that four people have died – Alison Tener, Peter Brooke, and Douglas Fraser, all from Duffy, and Dorothy McGrath, from the Mount Stromlo Forestry Settlement. With good reason the shocked community questions the lack of preparation and warning for the fires and also expresses disbelief at the total confusion that reigned at the time.

Extract taken from Meditations in Orange by JG Montgomery (Pendragon Publishing & Design  2104).

Now available from Paperchain (Manuka), the National Portrait Gallery, Bookpassion (Belconnen), Smiths Alternative Bookshop and from www.pendragonpublishing.com.au

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