While Wollombi itself was set on the valley floor, surrounded on three sides by well grazed grassland, Bucketty, then within the Wollombi Brigade area, was set along several ridges, a fire fighter’s nightmare. To take advantage of views, houses were built right in the fire-ball sweet spot.
If you have ever held a bit of paper over a fire, you know how hard it can be to light, despite the temperature. No oxygen, and that is how fire balls form.
Super heated gases created by fires rushing uphill cannot all burn as they are released from oily leaves. Unburnt gases overtop the ridge in an envelope of oxides then follow the hill shape to where, in fresh oxygen, they combust from the outside in. Whispy bits burn first, until what is left is a ball of burning gas, flying along near ground level, igniting all it touches.
There is no point trying to hold a fire hose against such a terror, so the only way to win is to back burn down the slope. But for that to be possible, the fire fighter must be way ahead of the front. On the day of the double back burn I was, but so was Old Frank.
At least two ridges away in bushland, we could see the long line of brown smoke smudging the view below circling crows and hawks, looking for roast dinners in cooling ashes behind the front. We stood there with our map on the bonnet of the jeep, me the captain and Frank, my boss, making our plan. We decided I should take a drip torch on the trail bike and start a back burn to establish a containment line. Fine so far.
It needed a long light-up, so it took a while. But with a couple of kilometers of flame satisfactorily creeping towards the menace and several checks to be sure it was all travelling in the right direction, I headed back towards Frank and the village.
I digress to explain something. In unburnt bush, wind at ground level is reduced significantly so spotting ahead from a backburn is not usually a problem. But at the front of a wildfire, wind rushes unhindered through denuded trees and shrubs throwing super hot leaves, bark and twigs way ahead to reignite in fresh air up to a half kilometre or more, leapfrogging the front at deadly speed as happened in Victoria recently. A backburn must be wider than spot fire range.
Anyway, I was almost back when I saw Old Frank walking along, having lit a second burn between us and the village, putting himself and worse still, me between two fire fronts. One end had closed and the other was closing rapidly. Fifteen minutes to BBQ long pig!
He really was a bright bloke, but sometimes C2H5OH hangs around into the next day to cloud judgment and befuddle memory. I really believe he had forgotten I was out there and thought he needed to save the village single handed. So there he was, drip torch in hand cutting off our escape. By the time I dropped the bike and ran to Frank, visibility was almost nil and breathing difficult.
He saw me coming and did the classical double take. I wish I had a photo of his face but there was no time for recriminations. We had to get out, so I led him through the closing gap. With eyes streaming and the only clean air near the ground, we crawled on hands and knees while flames raced in on both sides.
Luckily it was not far but it was far enough. Wheezing and coughing, we slid and scrambled between rocks and scrub, cinders and ash swirling, eyes streaming, until the air cleared and we were out.
‘Hey Frank!’ I yelled at his blackened face, tears washing pink strips down his cheeks into his beard. ‘Am I being paid for this job?’
‘Don’t be bloody stupid!’ he growled. ‘Nobody gets paid, yer dickhead!’
‘So it’s not a real job then!’
‘Waddayamean, a real job?’
‘Well,’ I laughed, ‘If it was a real job, I’d tell you to stick it up your arse!’
I stopped, hysterical, while he glared at me from baleful eyes, coughing, panting and sweating. I guess seeing the funny side is harder through a hangover, but then again, maybe it wasn’t all that funny.
(Photo courtesy The Age)