09.02.2009 - 02.03.2009 20 °C
In every direction I turned an expanse of white-capped water greeted me. I sighed. There wouldn’t be any boats for a few days at least. The ocean is a fickle master, and Bass Strait in particular is not known for its kind temperament. My gaze caught on a peculiar cloud rising above the nearest landfall, Wilsons Promontory, and my stomach plummeted. I cursed and raced for the satellite phone.
“The Prom is burning.”
By sunset I’d been through the fire plan three times with my supervisor, then repeatedly with my volunteers. At the least sign of trouble we were to grab food, water, and warm clothing, make a dash to the rocky haven of the seal colony, then call for a chopper. An island is both the best and worst place to be facing a bushfire. We were protected on all sides by several kilometres of open water that could only be circumvented by windblown embers. Unfortunately high winds were lighting spot fires all over Australia, sending embers six, eight, ten km from the nearest fire line. We were also trapped on a small rock covered in knee high, drought-stricken tussock grass that would burn quick as a rat up a rope.
Darkness fell and the clouds were lit with an ominous orange glow. We were left to wait anxiously for the wind to change. Growing up in the temperate Oregon rain forest, I’d never before felt that instinctive, gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach, but it became a familiar companion. A night stretched into days, then a week. We tracked billowing pillars of smoke as they crawled from one side of the Prom to the other and back again, watched as the wind daubed the horizon with a dirty brown smear, and occasionally choked on the acrid tinge of burning gum trees. Each morning when the sun broke through the smoky haze, it would set the entire sky aflame.
The fire burned more than 25,000 hectares, nearly half of Wilsons Promontory National Park. The southern point nearest to us was the only coast untouched by the flames. Thanks to the brave and tireless actions of Parks employees and firefighters from around Australia, the fire was contained without any loss of life or major structural damage. Three weeks after I watched that first cloud of smoke rise we cruised along the smoldering, devastated ruin of a coastline, finally on our way home. Life in the bush can be filled with awe-inspiring moments of beauty and serenity, but it is the occasional reminder of the sheer, violent power of nature that makes the strongest impression.
This year’s bushfires were some of the worst Australia has experienced in the last two centuries. Few people in Victoria were untouched by the horrific swath of destruction they brought, taking homes, friends, colleagues, family members. Nearly two hundred lives were lost. The remarkable outpouring of sympathy and support from within Australia as well as from around the world has been a powerful reminder of what a unified global community we have created.
(Support for the victims of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires can be donated through the Australian Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.au/vic/services_emergencyservices_victorian-bushfires-appeal-2009.htm)