An ominous sky and a palpable sense of foreboding stalked us as we drove in towards the Warrumbungle National Park. Thick with smoke and ash, it screamed a warning we ignored. While we didn’t know it at the time, the fire had breached its lines of containment and was continuing to burn toward the Newell highway – the way we had driven in not too long before. As we got closer and closer to our property, a dark hush settled over the landscape – a quiet we had never heard before from the bush; a lifelessness we were witnessing for the first time. Where once there was dense scrub, the earth stretched before us like a dark moonscape. I’m not sure what I felt then. I think I was in awe. It was not until later, when we begun our walk in, that I was overcome by a sense of extreme horror. ‘I smell death.’ Dad said as he turned from the wind to avoid the acrid smell of rotting animal flesh.
There was nothing left of the house. The fire had certainly been thorough. Amidst the ash and cinder, not much really remained. The roof lay on top of the waste like a grotesque reminder. ‘Once,’ it taunted, ‘…a house stood here.’ And the valley? Soot carpeted the ground like a falling of black snow. In a strange way, in the late evening light, it was beautiful. Lain open and bare, the scorched tree trunks were now all that covered the mountains – the lonely bones of what used to be.
During the few days we were there, some incredible stories emerged. One man survived beneath a tarpaulin with a cup and a barrel of water for two hours as the fire raged above him. He was burnt but physically okay although when we saw him we got the impression that he would never be the same. He slept in the other room of the house where we were staying but woke fitfully, screaming in terror. Another told the story of two horses who survived by rushing into the dam as soon as the ash rained down. It had been their habit to wash off when they were dusty and it had saved their lives. It seemed to be that amongst the people who had lost everything, there was an incredible sense of hope and optimism. It was the strength of the human spirit that was on display, where people gathered and united as a community, happy that no one had died and grateful for what little they had saved. In my parents, it was the grace of their concern for the wildlife that moved me almost to tears. The first thing they did was buy hay and birdseed for the traumatised survivors – to spread on the land so that they could feed.