Sunday 10 February 2013

Where There's Smoke ...

[Bushfire smoke billows above Kunanyi/Mt Wellington]

The cloud was rising from a mountain -- at such a distance we couldn't tell which. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches." I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand. 

So wrote ancient Roman, Pliny the Younger. The event he evokes is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79AD. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, died that day while seeking his closer scientific view.

Today a large plume of smoke is rising from the mountain behind our place. The sky has an uncanny, jaundiced hue, and the citizens of Hobart are on edge. As much as I admire Pliny’s scientific curiosity – many of his contemporaries simply cowered in fear at this “wrath of the gods” – I will not be emulating it. Today, for the third day in a row, Hobart and surrounds are swathed in thick bushfire smoke. Satellites, helicopters and the internet tell me exactly where the fires are. And I have studied enough to know how they behave. I have no desire to see this fire close up. 

We have had a summer of savage bushfire all over our island State. On January 4, 2013 Hobart reached 41.8 degrees Celsius. That’s more than 107 degrees Fahrenheit. For a cool-temperate island, derided by mainland Australians as sub-Antarctic, that’s impossibly hot. And it’s the kind of weather which makes fire impossible to control. On that January day around 200 houses in south-eastern Tasmania were incinerated, along with countless livestock and wildlife. Incredibly, no-one was killed by the fire.

I was driving home from the north of the State that afternoon, dodging fires, listening to the car radio to find the safest route home. The heat was so intense that sections of bitumen on the Midland Highway were melting. Ash and smutty embers were drifting out of a hellish sky.

[Map of a SW Tasmanian fire, January 2013. The blue sections indicate burned areas. Its "dragon" shape, more than 50km long, appears ready to swallow the Western Arthur Range.]  

Smoke from those fires persisted for days. For me, as for many Australians, such smoke elicits two opposite, primal responses. Gum leaves, and the wood from gum trees, make the very best of fires, whether in the fireplace or at an overnight campsite. For me those are hugely nostalgic settings, home to some amazing memories. A whiff of that smoke transports me to a happy place. But the same wood’s combustible qualities make wild fires in eucalypt forests and woodlands some of the fiercest, most frightening fires on earth. That smell on a hot day is the antithesis of nostalgia, especially when combined with strong winds and the judder of helicopters overhead.

[Thick smoke all but obscures the mountain]
Older Hobartians only have to hear “1967” and they shudder. In February that year conditions similar to those of January 4 this year caused the State’s worst ever fires. 62 people lost their lives, nearly 1000 were injured, and around 300 dwellings and buildings were destroyed. If I wanted the horror brought home, I need only recall that thirteen people in our street died. Our local landmark, the Cascade Brewery, was gutted, and 163 South Hobart houses were lost.

[A Tas Fire Service image of South Hobart after the 1967 fires]
A few days after the January 2013 fires it rained. Not hard, not for long, but we got a medium soaking. I walked outside and caught a different eucalypt whiff, one with no downside. It was the scent of wet gum leaves, and there are few smells as heavenly: sharp-tanged, clean, spirit-lifting. With this latest Vesuvian cloud still hovering over us, that is the smell I am wanting more than any other.

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