The big red roo stretched to full height, his eyes on the horizon. He knew what was coming. He’d seen it before. It wasn’t dust roiling up into the afternoon heat, it was smoke. Thick grey and white clouds of it, and it was heading in their direction. Others in the mob who remembered fire were nervously alert, waiting for a sign from their leader. He turned and bounded gracefully away from the approaching maelstrom, the mob following him through the scrubby bush.
Miles away from the mob, firefighters battled the aggressive blaze, assisted by farmers, wives, teenage lads who’d been excused from their school, any able-bodied people who could assist were gratefully welcomed. There were three district fire trucks with their experienced crews; silent, grim faced, constantly assessing the fire and the people. They’d been chasing this blaze for three days. The water bombing aircraft had been deployed to a blaze further south so they were on their own for now. A storm was expected from the south within a day or two, and it couldn’t come quick enough for the weary fighters. Each heart held its hopes and prayers.
By the grace of God, they’d had enough notice to evacuate families, no homes had been devoured, farm animals had been safely moved away, and the only injuries were minor burns and blood shot eyes from the sting of smoke.
There would always be loss of wildlife. It was the way of the land. Had been this way for thousands of years and it was not going to change for a few meagre human beings.
They’d been working around the eastern end of Gordon Heath’s barley crop in the hope of being able to burn back the scrub and save the crop, but things weren’t looking good. The fire was too fast and they were too few. A call came through from headquarters. Chief Watson listened silently, nodded and murmured ‘OK’. He passed on the message – ‘Let it go, it’s too dangerous to stay here now. When the fire hits the barley, it’ll burn like fury. Sorry Gordon,’ he said to a man who tugged his hat down, nodded in mute understanding and walked slowly away.
The crews discussed their next move which would take them north to a dry creek bed. They’d set up there and start back burning as soon as possible.
Big Red knew amongst the small hills about a kilometre away was a large dam. They would take refuge there. He was the eldest buck and the three younger bucks and four does followed his lead. They kept a pace for the youngest joey to keep with the mob.
Frequently Big Red would pause to check the position of the fire, nose twitching and ears swivelling, while the others kept travelling. When it reached the barley crop, it would race through at a terrifying speed, and he bounded quickly after his mob, urging them onwards.
The fire-driven wind accelerated, lifting high into the air tiny embers that tumbled around then landed lightly on the dry grass where they transformed into hungry fingers of flame. Eucalyptus trees in the fire’s path exploded with a loud roar, flames leaping from one tree to the next. They were about halfway to the dam.
A dingo and her pup raced towards the hills, also seeking safety of the water hole. Birds screeched and flew overhead. They were the only ones to benefit from the danger as they snapped up the flying insects trying to escape the fire, then darted away to safety from the heat and smoke. As Big Red leapt through the scrub, creatures of all types were running, slithering and scurrying for their lives. They knew death was hot on their trail and many would not survive.
The fire reached the barley, greedily devouring every standing stalk as it relentlessly hounded the mob. Red and gold flames shot into the air, reflecting on the smoky clouds, turning them pink. Sounds of exploding trees and the terrifying roar of wind and flames was close behind as Big Red and the mob approached the dam.
The young joey was tiring and struggling to keep up with the others. His mother held back, looking fearfully at the roaring inferno but not wanting to leave her young one. Big Red slowed to keep pace with his mate while the others jumped up the side of the dam and down into safety on the other side.
The dingo and her pup were crouching in the shallows at the water’s edge. Snakes and goannas were in the water with the roos but it was a form of animal etiquette, there was no fear of attack while they all shared the imminent danger.
As the inferno hit, smoke billowed around them; embers landed in their fur, scorching their skin and nostrils. Dust and smoke filled their eyes. Big Red waited as long as he could on the crest of the dam for his doe and joey but they didn’t come, and he jumped blindly into the water.
A wave of incredible noise and heat, of wind and leaping flames and burning embers roared over their heads as they cowered in the dam. Two grey, smoking shapes tumbled over the dam wall and rolled down into the water. The young joey was so exhausted he could not keep his head up, but his mother grabbed him with her forepaws and held him to her chest above the waterline. The tiny baby in her pouch may not survive the trauma, but this one would.
When the aftermath of the fire had passed, the dingo and her pup were the first to go. Big Red hopped cautiously up the ramp and gazed at the still smoking, blackened earth- all that was left of Gordon’s barley. He saw the clouds of dust thrown up by the fire fighter vehicles as they moved to their next stand. In the distance, he could hear a rumbling, rolling sound, followed by forked lightning flashes. Dark thunderheads moved quickly across the sky toward them. The mob hopped out of the dam and gathered around him, their noses twitching to catch the smell. They could hear it coming. Rain. Great big splotches of it hissing on the hot earth.
Big Red sat quietly as the rain reached them, his face turned upwards to the storm. The mob waited patiently, until their leader turned and led them away.