“Where are you off to?”
Kaden picked up the keys and looked over at his mum in the lounge room, accidentally catching a glimpse of the photos of his father on the sideboard. “Just out,” he said.
“Oh c’mon, Kade, please. Just stay in,” there was no nagging in her voice, but Kaden could tell she was close to tears. “You want to talk about it?”
Kaden shook his head. No, he thought, you want to talk about it. “Mum, I’m going out.”
“Fine . . .” He turned back to where his mum was standing in the doorway. She looked vulnerable – much older, gaunt without her make up on – but Kaden couldn’t stand it in the house any longer. “See ya,” he said and walked out, wishing he didn’t feel so bad for leaving her alone.
”Don’t worry, Kade. You’ll be fine!” His dad smiled at him as he climbed up into the fire truck, looking comfortable in his yellow uniform. His dad had been a long-time volunteer with the CFA, but this was Kaden’s first time out in the real thing. He’d done the drills, done the training, but he’d never been out in such heat and the wind was blowing harsh northerlies like a blast furnace.
Kaden smiled at him and walked over to the other truck. “Yeah, no worries, Dad . . .”
He took his mum’s car, leaving his Monaro behind. He was fixing it up with his dad’s help and he hadn’t been able to touch it since, leaving it to gather a thin layer of dust in the garage. He drove slowly down the driveway, watching out of the rear-view mirror as the house grew distant. He waited until he was over the cattle grid and onto the sealed road before he put his foot down, speeding as he left the paddocks and the hills and headed into the mountains.
Even with his high beams on, he could barely see the trees beside the winding road. The once-white trunks of the ghost gums were all turned to black, absorbing the light they used to reflect back and making the forest into a seemingly endless void. He had reached the outskirts of the fire . . .
They had set off into the national park, heading after a small spot fire lit by embers from the main front – an angry, growing blaze burning south-west away from their position. No one expected the conditions to be this fierce and Kaden felt light-headed from the scorching heat.
They were at the end of a track, winning the battle against the little outbreak when the wind suddenly whipped around, blowing up dry leaves, ash and dust. Kaden saw his father working with the men and women from the first truck down the very end of the track and turned back to his work manning the pump.
Kaden pulled up to the picnic spot, not far from the track. He hadn’t been able go down it since. He grabbed the beer he’d hidden under the driver’s seat and walked over to the picnic table, climbing onto the brand new tabletop: the picnic area had been rebuilt and the tracks cleared for walkers yet there was barely a hint of regrowth in the forest all these months after the fire. Kaden looked up at the moon through the bare, spindly branches once full of leaves and hugged himself in the icy night air, wishing he could cry or scream or do something.
He finished his beer and threw it idly away, watching it smash against the new brick barbecue. Taking a deep breath, he jumped off the table and walked over to the broken bottle. He found a broken shard, big enough to hold in his hand and set off down the track.
The fire front moved so quickly they didn’t have a chance. The change had blown the smoke all around them, blocking out the sun, and sent the fire racing towards them through the treetops: the only warning they had was the roar of a thousand jet engines as it sped down the mountainside.
Everyone from his truck ran back to the tanker and Kaden dropped to the ground, rolling under the vehicle. The heat was so intense he thought he would die and he buried his face into the dust, suffocating and desperate for air. After what could have been seconds or forever he felt the fire pass and the men from his crew shouting, jumping out of the truck. Crawling out, he looked down the track to where the second truck was smouldering, red paint puckered and black, and he fell to his knees . . .
He wanted to turn back, but told himself he had to keep going. After walking for twenty minutes down the track, past the eerie pocket of green the fire didn’t catch and saved his life, he reached the end. The moon shone down, lighting the barren landscape unhindered by forest canopy, and Kaden could still make out the melted rubber from the truck’s tyres. A wreath had been nailed to a tree nearby, left for one of the other six volunteers who died in that blaze and Kaden felt his stomach turn to ice. This was the place his father died.
Taking the shard of glass, he walked up to the next tree, carving deep, white letters into the blackened trunk: R.I.P Robert Birchwood 1/11/1964 – 23/1/2009.
Kaden paused, then wrote in large letters underneath: DAD.
I was debating whether to put this one up here or not, given how many Victorians there seems to be on this site. But here it is anyway. I wrote this after driving through Marysville on the way to a camping trip, and the devastation there and the sight of the moonlight through burnt trees around Beechworth/Myrtleford really brought a lot of stuff back up to the surface for me.
This was written with all respect to those who lived through Black Saturday and those who didn’t, along with other bushfires around the country, and I hope I haven’t offended or upset anyone in the process.