The large pile of fire-damaged trees, shrubs and other vegetation from mum and dad’s garden and orchard stretched across the bottom of my parents’ block. And by large, I mean roughly 45 metres long, 5 high and wide (and 900 cubic metres, dad calculated; the equivalent of 90 big blue tip trucks). The pile was a shape-shifter: it grew longer over those 18 months as progressively more trees were cut down and bushes pulled out by dad, mum, professional tree cutters, me, and even the occasional volunteer group, then ferried down the back in dad’s truck or ride-on mower pulling a trailer; even wheelbarrows. But it also shrank, as branches settled, or large limbs weighted down lighter, leafier masses. But it was always impressive, and became a familiar part of mum and dad’s landscape.
Over time, the pile also accepted non-bushfire stuff: rose prunings, agapanthus that survived the fire but became dominant weeds in the barren aftermath; and even my unwanted bay and apple trees.
Finally the local firies came to take care of the pile — it was always going to be too large for dad to be responsible for; we didn’t want to take any risks. I told my parents I wanted to be there to witness this strange milestone; after all, I had helped them in the months immediately after the fire, clearing their garden. I had warned my manager that if the firies said ‘now!’, I’d be leaving work. You may not be able to understand that, and there is no logic in it beyond wishing to watch this, the end of one of life’s chapters.
So one crisp, clear and fairly still Saturday afternoon, it began. Three firies from the local volunteer brigade and a couple of trucks trundled down the driveway. There is something about fire trucks that brings out the kid in us all (or maybe just me). Look mum, a fire engine — in our driveway! Mum, dad and I, and a couple of neighbours — some hovering near the fenceline, others closer, brandishing a bag of celebratory marshmallows. The joke of course being that you’d need a 20 foot stick for toasting them, so big would the fire be.
What I remember: the intense heat in the cool autumn air, drying my skin. The hypnotic, sparkling orange flames licking the blue sky; the falling ash. The crackle, the roaring whoosh as the flames created their own energy. Mum saying solemnly, I don’t like that sound. The men adopting that wide-legged stance, appraising what was happening; sharing a laugh but also tending the flames with their metal rakes and eagle eyes. One of the firies murmuring approvingly of their controlled work, that’s a beautiful burn. Four little field mice running helter-skelter from the flames, and us all giving a cheer. Boomer Bay is experiencing something of mini-mice plague at the moment, so the only good rodent it would seem is a burnt one. These were the ones that got away.
The embers glowed in the dark, safely, for hours. We have bagged up some of the ash (unfortunately damp from rain and rather like quicksand) and it is sitting in small mounds in my vegie garden, ready to dig in, because I’d read potash is good for the soil.
And dad has begun the pile again, because trees and roses and shrubs continue to be pruned; no longer fire-ravaged, just the normal cycle of a garden’s life. But I don’t think we’ll be letting the pile get quite that big again before the next burn.