Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

17.2.09

One Wednesday night.

It was twenty-six years ago yesterday: February 16, 1983. Ash Wednesday.

I was at home in the evening with my children - William and Thomas’s much older brother and sister - at the small Carlton terrace house in which we lived from 1979 to 1985. Much older brother was six; sister had turned three three days earlier. They were in bed, asleep. Their mother was at a concert at Hamer Hall or the State Theatre or whatever it was called in 1983.

I sat in my favourite chair with its polished timber arms and green brocade and wondered how to spend my evening. A cold beer sat, just opened, on the arm of the chair. The beer was Abbott’s Lager. Why do I remember that? Because they had just changed the can design from its traditional white to yellow and I didn’t like it. Why change a beer can design? You can't drink the design. The things you remember.

I gazed out the small high window of the tiny lounge room towards the south-west at an angry sky.

The day had been hot, well into the forties, with a raging northerly that had turned, fatally, late in the day. A week or so earlier, the biggest dust storm Melbourne had ever seen crossed the state, rolled around Port Phillip Bay and came back at the city on a rogue wind, turning it black at three in the afternoon. Ash from earlier fires had been falling in suburban backyards all week. You don't often get to sweep up half-burnt gum leaves from a tree in Mildura when you're in Melbourne.

When the winds changed that afternoon, the fire fronts changed with them and barrelled towards towns and roads and houses and people. I switched on the television and watched the Dandenongs and the Otways and the Adelaide Hills burn.

My wife arrived home around eleven and told me the concert had been cut short because smoke was filling the theatre through the air conditioning vents, and what was happening? Are you sure you were at the right show, I started to joke. It wasn’t a time to joke. Two states were on fire.

*

In Adelaide, radio journalist Murray Nicoll went to air almost live – in both senses – as his house burned down. Twenty years after the fires - in 2003 - Nicoll was interviewed on ABC television about the 1983 fire and how it changed his life.

MURRAY NICOLL (RECALLS IN 2003): I ran down the road to my place, and of course it was burning. ... All the houses around were burning. We saved a couple of houses, but I think 30 went up that day, and five people died right where I was.

NICOLL (BROADCASTING IN 1983): We are in deep trouble. We can't see any houses. Greenhill Road is just wiped out. There are a dozen people here with me - we can hardly breathe. Things are white with heat and smoke. There are women crying, and there are children here.

And we are in trouble. There are people crying, and this is just too much. And I really can't believe it is happening. At the moment, I'm watching my house burn down. It's in flames, and there's nothing I can do about it - absolutely nothing.


NICOLL (RECALLS IN 2003): In fact, I was quite certain we were going to die, so I started broadcasting through to the newsroom, live on the air, at 5DN, because I thought if we're going to die, people have got to know about it, because nobody knew what was going on up here at the time, did they ... I said, "Put us to air, put us to air! ... Put us to air now! We are dying up here!"

Nicoll survived, won a journalism award and rebuilt, with a new attitude.

MURRAY NICOLL (IN 2003) ... something changes in you when you lose everything. Material possessions don't seem to mean so much any more. Like, there's no point in buying antique furniture. What is it? Just old stuff. It costs a lot of money. There's no point in trying to replace all the books that you lost. You get other ones, you get new ones.

You just lose that sense that a lot of people have that their home is their showpiece. It's not a showpiece, really, it's a roof, and it's got to operate efficiently, and it's got to be comfortable, and it's got to be fireproof. Apart from that, it's just a house.

... You hear the same things said now, twenty years down the track, that were being said the week after Ash Wednesday. How houses must be better designed. Well, of course they must be better designed.

But we just don't do it, we're lazy, and we haven't had those heavy northerlies this summer, thank God, but if we had had a northerly, and the fire had started, you'd see the same thing. Exactly the same thing.

*

Exactly the same thing:

"Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia’s worst fire days in a century. ... Many fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front. .... The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke, made fire suppression and containment impossible. ... In many cases, residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies."

From the Wikipedia description of the Ash Wednesday 1983 bushfires in Victoria and South Australia.

*

Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

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