If you drive through Wollombi now, you will see a different landscape. Trees have replaced grass on the hilly terrain. This is due in no small measure to the passing of Jimmy Roberts, crow catcher and your friendly neighborhood arsonist.
It is really a bit harsh to label Jimmy an arsonist. He was simply following the local tradition of lighting up the bush every year as an efficient way of clearing scrub.
Within days of a summer fire, grass would sprout, providing feed for winter when cattle take to the hills to escape cold damp air on the valley floor, moving into forest remnants at night into warmer air then back to the slopes to feed, strolling down to a dam or creek for a drink every other day.
But, things changed in the seventies. Young people, I hesitate to call them Hippies, moved out of the city in an attempt to create a life for themselves that was less dependant on big everything. Big oil, big mortgages, big job commitments, in other words, small enough to feel manageable.
After a year as deputy I was elected Fire Captain. Not knowing much of the layout, I spent a few days on a trail bike familiarising myself with the network of trails that criss-crossed the bush. As I buzzed around, I found scores of huts and shacks sprinkled through the bush, most not attended but some well established with families.
After marking what I found on the map, I reported my concern that the local culture of burning off in summer could result in tragedy, maybe even death. I was ordered to warn the arsonists off, so I pulled Jimmy aside next time I saw him at Mel’s. Pleasantries passed both ways then I got down to business.
‘Jimmy, you can’t keep lighting those fires up in Stockyard Creek in summer. You’ll have to do it in winter and take me along to burn back around the weekenders.’
‘What bloody weekenders?’
‘Jimmy, there are huts and shacks up there now, so you can’t just light up the bush whenever you feel like it.’
‘No good burnin’ in bloody winna ya dill. The scrub won’t burn then, it’s gotta be summa.’
‘Well, people live there now so you can’t do it any more.’
‘If those silly buggers wanna live up there in th’ bush that’s their look out!’
‘I’m afraid the law says otherwise Jimmy. Someone could get killed, so if you’re caught you'd be up for murder.’
Jimmy skolled the last of his Muscat and turned to leave.
‘Yer won’t catch me, mate.’
He gave me a pitying look.
‘I light a candle in the grass and when it gits away, I’ve been in Cessnock fer two hours ‘avin’ a beer with me mates.’
And he was right. I never did catch him at it and maybe just as well.
Many a time while I was guiding Jimmy's fires around people's houses, if I'd caught the old bastard at it, It might have been me that was up for murder!