We arrived home late on Sunday night last week to a wounded Melbourne. The heat wave had broken by the time of our return so it was hard to believe that the state of Victoria was on fire. The deaths, the desolation, the stories of the wall of fire that engulfed so many regions seemed surreal. We had seen the fires on television in our hotel room in Shimla, perched on the side of a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas, but it was only when we came home that the true horror of what has happened began to sink in.
At dawn this morning, the sun glowed blood red and our front hallway was filled with an eerie orange light. Now the sky is hazy with smoke and the sunlight in my garden is flat and yellow. I’m many miles from the fires, safe on the edges of the inner city, but my heart aches for all those who have been hurt by them. I remember the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires well. Back on the eve of those fires, I sat on the roof of my sister’s house and watched in disbelief as the Dandenongs blazed and fire raced down the ridge opposite her house. But for a change in the wind, I might not be here to write this blog. But more than that memory, I’ve been surprised how often I’ve thought of Ivan Southall’s Ash Road. I read it during a cold Melbourne winter when I was ten years old but I have never forgotten the way it conjured a summer of fire and grief. I can recall Southall’s descriptions of the hellish landscape, the melting bitumen, and the boys running through the smoke and haze as if I had read it only last week. Southall captured the terror, the heat and the power of a cruel Australian summer. Even though at that stage in my life I had never seen a bushfire, I learned how deeply embedded the tragedy of fire is in the Australian experience. Perhaps one of the gifts of fiction is to make us understand our own reality – our home and our country – and to appreciate ‘its beauty and its terror’ all the more poignantly.