I stepped outside of my office this afternoon, to the sight of my city burning.
I looked out at the horizon, and briefly felt a thrill at the sight of dark skies, thinking that a storm was building. Stepping around the corner, I soon realised that what I'd seen was thick, dark smoke. Ahead of me was a massive column of smoke, pumping into the air. I'm used to seeing smoke in the distance during summer, a bushfire far off in the bushland that surrounds my city. This wasn't a distant fire though. This wasn't burning deserted land, this was close. Very close.
The city was almost deserted on the walk back to my car. Not many people work to 5.15pm on Christmas Eve, crossing what is normally a busy road was an exercise in simplicity. All the time, I was staring at the sky, realising that there was more than one fire burning in the distance. Sirens filled the air. My normal trip home was straight towards the thickest of the smoke, and I wasn't surprised when I had to turn around not long after beginning my journey, the road closed. At least there was almost no traffic on the road. Most people would have been home long ago. Some of those people would have been feeling sheer terror.
My alternative route home was going to take me through the drifting smoke, the further I drove, the more I realised that people's homes are directly threatened right now. Passing the large, sweeping round-about that passes Parliament House, I noticed the lights of Police cars, in the large, grassed median-strip in the centre of the road. At first, I thought I may be turning around again. Then I realised that the traffic was still flowing. Soon after, I noticed the crumpled front end of one of the Police cars. It had hit something - hard. I guess it took me longer to find the other car...because it wasn't looking too much like a car any more. Flipped onto it's roof, every panel bent, doors ripped off. Or perhaps removed with the Jaws of Life. A Sports 4WD, crumpled and bent, a Police Officer crouching low, taking photographs of the wreckage. I guess that in the rush to attend to this fire, in the haste to help people in need, something's gone horribly wrong for the driver in that Police car. And for the people in the other car, Christmas Eve has taken a drastic turn. I was fully expecting to come home, turn on the news, and hear of a fatality. News that the road toll had increased in the A.C.T. All I could wonder, was whether someome would be receiving a knock on their door, to say that the people they loved would never be coming home. That Christmas day would not dawn to happiness - instead of families gathering to celebrate life, they would be gathering to ask why? Fortunately, it seems that all involved survived. No mention was made of death on our roads tonight.
Further down the road I drove, and the smoke just kept getting thicker. Eventually, visability was reduced significantly. The car was totally surrounded by smoke, it was all I could smell. Too hot to wind up the windows without air conditioning, the smell of burning pine needles and eucalyptus was everywhere. The sun shone through the smoke, tinged copper, looking like the most beautiful sunset ever seen.
Once home, the news was straight on, to see just what was happening. Residents in several suburbs have had homes threatened by fire. Every half hour or so earlier in the evening, a grim faced news presenter appeared, reading instructions to those in danger. "If your home backs bushland, hose down your fence and roof. Keep pets indoors. Don't drive unless visability is good, and you can see other people travelling. If you're home is in danger, and you can't see emergency services in the area, dial 000." I've never seen messages like that on my television screen before.
With every mention of the emergency gripping my city, I thought of the firefighters, the police, fighting to make sure that everybody was safe, fighting to ensure that nobody lost their home. On Christmas eve, these people are away from their families, because other families are in danger. Our rural fire service is made up of many volunteers, people who are willing to risk their lives, to make sure that the lives of strangers are kept safe. Willing to sweat in the intense heat of a bushfire, breathing smoke and ash, fighting until exhaustion overcomes them. They do this year after year, knowing that many of the fires they fight are the work of arsonists, lit for kicks, or through the stupidity of a cigarette butt thrown out of a car window. They're always ready to answer the call, and it humbles me. Knowing that there are men and women in my community who will take that risk for their fellow man. Many of them won't be home for Christmas day. They'll still be out, ensuring that nobody is given a blackened home as a Christmas gift. In my country, elite athletes are often raised to hero status. While in the grandstand, an ordinary man or woman sits, cheering with everybody else...not looking for praise, or recognition, of the fact that they have saved homes, lives, dreams. It's an incredible thing.
Well, Christmas morning has dawned, and there's far less smoke in the skies. The gusty winds died down overnight, and it looks as though the fires have been contained. Hopefully they won't flare up during the day, because the winds have returned, as strong as ever. It does look like there'll be firefighters able to spend the day with their loved ones though. I hope they get the chance to relax, and enjoy a cold beer today. They've earned it.