(Fire anniversary piece written for the Coonabarabran Times)
This evening, it will be 12 months since the Warrumbungle (Wambelong) fire started. I'm camped high in the mountains surrounded by flowering angophoras. In spite of the extremely dry conditions, these tenacious trees have produced masses of white flowers; attracting bees, small birds and even flying foxes.
It's been such a privilege to witness the resilience of this fire ecology. Every day brings new growth with creatures big and small - miracles of survival. With the best of intentions, some of the organisations in town refer to those of us that have lost our houses and possessions as fire victims. The Mayor says there are regulatory moves to stop us living here. But I'm not a victim. I've lived here (on and off) most of my life and I'm in heaven here - even without a house. I don't need help. I'm lucky the fire did not destroy my livelihood and I'm fortunate that I have the time and resources to look after myself. Nevertheless, this fire was a significant event in our family story, so these personal observations are my way of marking and sharing the anniversary.
This place was once a much larger property that became a significant portion of the National Park. It's no longer grazed by stock and is slowly reverting to bush. The landscape has always worn the marks of fire. On our boundary with the Park you can see the ruins of a house destroyed by bushfire in the 1920s. In the spring of 1976, the last big fire escaped into the Park from one of my burn-offs. It was a slow moving fire that took weeks to burn up to the tops of the mountains. I was in my 20s and thought it was the end of the world but in those days it was thought to be a good thing and no one tried to put it out. Since then the reverse has happened, with fires escaping from burn-offs in the Park. Local wisdom has always been that it's better to burn regularly and put up with occasional break-outs than not to burn at all. When the Park stopped fuel-reduction burning it was inevitable that there would be a big fire. We were expecting something major.
The Park is to the north and our track-in comes from the south - the direction from which this fire came. My wife and I bless the fact that our son left days before the fire broke out. He would have been trapped and died. At the time I was working in Melbourne. Communications from the Rural Fire Service were poor but I was able to follow the progress of the fire (with increasing alarm) through twitter feeds on an astronomer's blog. Several days after the fire, when the road was re-opened, my wife, grown-up children and I sifted through the ash of our hand-made house. There were tears and laughter. A particular floral cup that we all hated was the only piece of crockery to survive. We left in pouring rain.
Apart from two weeks at Easter, my contracted work kept me away until July when I arrived much as I had done nearly 40 years before (in 1974) to set up camp and begin again. So hot was the fire that it had melted the brass water taps. But at Easter I repaired the spring-fed water system and installed a tap at my campsite so that I could arrive to the luxury of running water.
Before the fire our place had been teeming with wildlife and activity. It was suddenly silent; a silence broken only by the occasional sound of falling branches and dead leaves. My daughter likened it to being in snow. For us, the activities of the wildlife had been a source of constant fascination and delight. Like Aboriginal occupation, the sense of absence was palpable. Our track-in passes a volcanic dyke. At its base are the charred bones of dozens of kangaroos that were trying to escape. Every summer we had been visited by a large, battle-scared goanna. I have super 8 film of my son feeding this goanna an egg when he was 3 years old and the same goanna again when he was 18 years old. It's doubtful that he will reappear. Our children swam in the dam, unafraid of nature and self-reliant enough to disappear and then reappear on the tops of distant mountains. Visitors from overseas took away an experience of the seasonal beauties of the Australian bush.
Immediately after the fire we saw just one traumatised kangaroo and a very thirsty little gerigone. By Easter there were 3 kangaroos and a pair of wallabies. Now, a year later, there are 15 kangaroos and 3 pairs of wallabies. In spring, I woke to a hungry fox trying to run the wallabies down. A solitary white goat appeared on the cliffs above and last week I heard pigs. The grey shrike thrushes are constant companions, currawongs, bronze wing pigeons, friar birds and crimson rosellas are all abundant. At night, I hear the murmur of a tawny frogmouth, the call of a boobook and a barking owl. Much could be written about the succession of birds and their activities. I wish I knew more about what I was seeing and hearing. But life is definitely returning.
The impact on the plants seems more complex and varied. Again my observations are constrained by my shameful ignorance. Most of the native cypress is still standing but all of it is dead. I'm quite pleased about this because the encroachment has been of concern to me for many years. Cypress secretes an inhibiter that creates bare ground and monoculture. I prefer grass and variety. Besides, I have set up a saw mill and the standing trees are providing useful building timber.
Our white cypress house stood on small sandstone rise amongst scribbly gums (eRossii). These delicate, cryptic, sensuous trees were another source of fascination and wonder. When the fire came through they had just begun their summer shedding of bark. Around Christmas cracks appear in their smooth grey winter bark and quite suddenly the breezes would carry away tiny shards to reveal the trees as bright yellow sprouts lending the crackly ground litter a fresh sense of life and vigour. They were such polite trees in the sense that they would drop a branch rather than bump into another tree. After the fire they shed their bark twice more as if to rid themselves of the memory of the fire. But mostly what was revealed was dead wood. Now the entire grove consists of standing dead trunks with the ever present sound of branches crashing down. But all is not lost. Some are sprouting from the ground amongst the wattles. Time must pass. Unless undone by drought or climate change it will be at least a century before these trees attain the girth of the older trees. Around where the house stood, the bases of the trees we knew so well had barely changed in 40 years.
Unlike the scribblies, most of the angophoras appear to have taken the fire in their stride. With the exception of higher branches they are clothed in leaves and great bunches of blossom. Higher up the snow gums and iron barks are also bouncing back. But higher still, where the rocky cliffs begin, there seems to be a kind of death zone where the fire was so hot that it not only burnt the trees but the stumps. As anyone who has been into the mountains will have noticed, you can now see the bones of the landscape. Surprising formations are revealed that we, who thought we knew every crevice, didn't realise were there.
During winter storms it rained sticks that punctured the tent fly. Early spring brought wonderful orchids with varieties I've not seen before. These soon gave way to slender chocolate lilies and great purple and white rivers of Darling Pea. Like the wattles many of these species have been waiting for the fire for years and are now fixing nitrogen and improving the soil.
Ants, wasps, cicadas and other ground dwelling insects appeared as summer approached. One day I followed a wasp resolutely dragging a black cicada three times its size more than 100 metres to a hole in the ground.
With the summer heat and ongoing drought many of the trees are showing signs of stress. Epicormic growth is dying. I'm particular concerned for a magnificent pre-settlement angophora growing over rock known locally as the faery or funny tree. To lose it would be a tragedy. With the mountains so dry and with so much dead timber to burn, there is a significant risk that a second fire would set back this natural recovery.
I've no doubt that the resilience of this ecology is directly related to its health before the fire. Sadly, it's hard to say this about the ecology of the Timor Road community beyond the Castlereagh River. It's surely a key indicator that many of those who lost their houses are choosing to leave the district. Communities under stress are fragile things. In the absence of strong and inclusive community networks with clear, shared objectives, communities are often dependent on the rare people who are connectors. I'm fortunate in having supportive neighbours but since the fire I've encountered far too many isolated individuals in these mountains in need support and companionship rather than regulation. Naturally shy, I'm working on becoming a connector and trying to think of ways to bring people together. Ideas are always welcome.