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Memories of a quaint, old-fashioned bushfire

In hindsight, this remote house deep in a wooded valley was a perfect site for a fiery Armageddon. But Black Saturday was two years away. We set up our fire hoses and made our preparations. At dusk we agreed we would need to post a sentry all night. Michael said he’d do first shift. He couldn’t sleep anyway, he was so juiced for the coming battle. Don’t worry, we’d be safe on his watch. He spoke of mateship and the Anzac spirit as he settled into an Adirondack chair out on the deck and Andrew and I went inside to get some sleep.

I awoke at midnight to a sound I’d never heard before. Some girthy ungulate flushed from the bush by fire, some unknown beast, its primeval call, “Uggov … Uggov … Uggov …” Fearfully, I edged back the curtain. In the moonlight, I saw a CFA man standing at a safe distance poking Michael with a shovel handle to wake him while he enunciated “f— off” about as well as any unconscious man I ever heard. Michael habitually spends as many hours comatose in chairs as beds, so we should have known.

I took next watch out on the deck. Sitting in darkness listening to the sound of trees slowly tearing apart before crashing to earth as the battle raged closer. A reporter from The Australian slept in his car in the field below our deck. His engine ran non-stop, the aircon blowing cool, smokeless air at him.

Next morning, we were dousing the locale with our fire unit when the bush animals fled past on the slope behind the house with the fire after them howling like a rebel army. I looked at my two friends, suddenly realising they were idiots, candidates for the Darwinian cleansing of Australia’s gene pool – they looked at me in like revelation. Seconds played as eons.

About seven forevers, or maybe a minute, after the fire arrived, six CFA trucks pulled up. Their crews jumped out, blokes we knew by sight and reputation: balding blokes who hung around the village talking bullshit, mulleted blokes who congregated at the servo to discuss 4×4 adventures, blokes who tinkered with mowers, blokes who drank early, homebrewers and fishermen, retired blokes, lifelong shedders whose dreams hadn’t ever run as well as their outboards. Ordinary blokes called to fire.

They worked their trucks in cool amateur sync, no fear, jousting the beast with white lances, orders shouted by blokes called Smithy to blokes called Dazza. And when, despite these blokes, this thing came too close and grew too hot, the captain called in an airstrike. Elvis, an S-64 Aircrane Helitanker, appeared above us sounding a siren like a Stuka and bombed us with 10,000 litres of water that came down through the canopy like a different day, soaking the world and dropping the temperature, and turning me and Andrew and Michael from idiots into the type of happenstance heroes who couldn’t remember that a minute ago we were idiots.

But that happened back then, before Black Saturday, before the new fire, before our hydrangeas turned assassin, before each amateur St George was being called out to fight Godzilla.

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