By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The bark on the trees was starting to singe, and the earth was so hot that I thought I wouldn’t make it. I could hear the cracks; some loud, like branches were about to break and fall; some softer, as the trees began to release their seeds.
The small brush-tailed rock wallaby that was panting near my home, was obviously distressed. I needed to get to her with a damp blanket, and try to pick her up. Then I had to get the hell out of here.
I had gone home as soon as I heard the news about the bushfires raging just north of where I lived. My parents had passed in the year prior, and I had all the family photos to make a family tree. I had been writing their stories, and the stories of our forebears; and then scanning and inserting photos where they fit in the sequence of things. I hadn’t thought to scan all the photos first, and then insert them. No, that would have been smart!! Everything was strewn over my dining table, together with my laptop. Who knows where I left my backup drive?
I had tried to get home as quickly as I could, but the traffic was horrendous. By the time I got there, the firefighters and State Emergency Service (SES) personnel were going door-to-door to see who hadn’t yet evacuated. I was that late. I scooped all my paperwork up into my arms; and it was on the way back to my car, that I saw the wallaby. They’re fast animals, with big back legs for hopping and leaping the way that kangaroos do, only a little smaller. They are super-cute, and their fur is soft and fluffy. Their claws are another matter!
I saw the brush-tailed rock wallaby, and realised I had to make a choice: drop all my treasured family photos and family tree research to save her, or to try to save everything and hope I could save her as well. Brush-tailed rock wallabies are “near threatened”. I had to do something!
In moments like those, you might think clearly, if you have had experience with “moments like those”. I had no idea what to do. I had to think on my feet, and I couldn’t. I had to just “do”. I piled the papers and computer into my car, dumping them on the front seat; and dashed to my bedroom. I ripped up a blanket from the bed, and took it to the shower to dampen it. I had no idea if this would work, but I had to try it. I rushed back outside, and the wallaby was gone!
The last time I saw her, she was panting in the heat. There were other dead wallabies nearby, and I thought how she must have lost her own family; her own friends.
My throat was dry, and my nostrils were filled with soot. My eyes began to sting. The air was thickening with billowing pyrocumulonimbus clouds of grey and orange water vapour, released from the trees as they took on the flames. The steam made a blanket above the earth and, from there, made a local weather system. Within it, were carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide; the gases that contribute to global warming; and, with the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, they added to my severe discomfort. I could taste the poison in the air. I was terrified; both by the sight of the flames, and by the blockage in my throat. I couldn’t take air in, and I was like that little brush-tailed rock wallaby; gasping for air. But where was she?
Then, under the house, I spied her. She was hiding, and trying to find shelter from the impending wall of heat. She would have been a great example to the kids in schools, who are taught early on, to “get down low, and go, go, go!”. I crouched down, as close as I could, and tried to speak as gently as possible. She was shivering and looking around for somewhere safe, and I was this big thing with a big wet blanket, yelling over the deafening sound of the roaring fire, not to be afraid!
Somehow, I managed to catch her within my blanket. I placed a corner over her wriggling head, and wrapped her like a cranky baby, so I could protect her from the flames and smoke. The wet blanket, if it stayed over her head, would help to keep the smoke out of her lungs. I hoped!
I hurried to my car, and struggled to open the hatchback door. If she got loose in my car, she could cause an accident. At least, in the boot, she’d be contained. Once I got her in, I slammed the hatch down, and burned my hand on the metal. The fire was getting too close. It was time to move!
I got in and turned the key in the ignition. The motor sputtered and shrieked like it had seen a monster, but finally started. I drove down the gravel driveway away from my haven. When I had moved here two years ago, I had sought a tree-change, and my beautiful home was filled with tall scented eucalypts, leptospermums, wattles, and the most vibrant array of birds I had ever seen. Now, it was all fuel for a hungry fire.
I drove to the end of my long driveway, and saw the firefighters doing their heroic best. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about them now. My sinuses rage with the heat of sorrow, knowing now, that some of them died in that very fire. They left young families.
Their flashing lights showed the way out, and just as I escaped, it seemed as though the walls of fire closed in on those firefighters. It could have been me. I felt like such an idiot, going back for pieces of paper. And now, my actions could have placed them in more danger.
I raced to a neighbouring town, where all the refugees from the fires were congregating on the beach. I had forgotten the scared animal in the back of my car.
As I arrived, I found people in uniforms handing out bottles of water. People in other uniforms, asking questions. More people, still, checking our wellbeing. A girl tended my burned hand, and I became aware of the searing pain that would not subside. Some people were even handing out packs of toiletries (thankfully, as I had forgotten simple things like that). Suddenly, I remembered the poor little brush-tailed rock wallaby! I ran back to my car and opened the hatch. There she was, still breathing; and somehow, more relaxed. Could she have been suffering carbon monoxide poisoning? I gingerly picked her up, like you would lift a sleeping toddler. One arm scooped under her bulky legs, wrapped in the wet blanket; the other crooked under her neck. She had such a sweet face! Her long lashes slowly opened to reveal deep, dark eyes that looked up at me as if to say, “check my baby”.
I crouched down, where I was, so I could rest her body on my knees. My left hand respectfully snuck in, under the blanket, to feel the warm soft fur outside her pouch. There, I could feel the small joey moving under my palm, within her. Relief!
I still didn’t know what to do. I was no ranger. I wasn’t a vet. I didn’t even have chickens. I had “gone bush”, with no idea about the bush. I wanted to become an apiarist and build my own style of beehives. I was still only learning about bees! I hoped the few I had, had escaped.
I looked around to see who could help me care for my little wallaby. Uniforms everywhere, but which were rangers? Who were the vets? At last, I saw people carrying dogs and other pets toward a tent, and I lifted myself up off my haunches and carried my cherished companion in that direction. A young man lifted the blanket to see what I carried, asked if there were any burns, and (because I didn’t know), placed her on a picnic table. My arms felt so empty! He inspected her, and made some notes; and then directed us to a water station.
There, I was able to find a woman who knew what to do. She showed me how to help hydrate this young mother, and I felt like everything would be alright. Finally, I started to breathe a bit more normally. I hadn’t realised it, but I had been holding my breath for most of this time. The pounding in my chest began to ease.
I sat down on the ground next to my car, exhausted but relieved. I drank the water like I was in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert; I was so dry. I closed my eyes, and through snuffled snores, somehow fell asleep.
Just as I was resting, wallaby in my arms; a siren pierced the darkness. It cracked through a dream; or, rather, a nightmare. I was a bee, trapped in a hive, surrounded by fires. Then I was a chicken, flapping wildly to escape the flames. Then I was me; in my dining room, with photos of my mother and father fluttering all around me; and I was too scared to know what to do. And from my mouth, I could hear the sound of my raspy voice wailing, and no-one coming to rescue me. I was utterly alone.
The time was about midnight, but it was hard to tell because the colour of the sky was a dark orange. Someone on a loudspeaker announced the fire was on the way toward us. Suddenly, we were trapped all over again!
The fire now encroached the town, from every direction. It had waged it’s war on so many different fronts, and now those fronts combined into one long line of terror.
Again, I packed up my companion, and looked toward the sea. It was our only hope, but how would we all get off the shore and to safety? There weren’t enough boats. This wallaby was too heavy for me to swim and take her with me (let alone my papers and laptop that I left in the car). To be honest, she was weighing heavily in my arms now. The adrenaline must have given me the strength I needed to carry her this far; and now, I was depleted. She was about six kilograms in weight, but she felt like a tonne to me.
I must have passed out. I don’t know, for how long. When I awoke, my burnt hand hurt like it had been dragged over hot bitumen. My arms were empty, and I could hear a woman sobbing. A man with a kind face came to me; and I felt his soft hands on my upper arms, as he whispered, “It’s alright. You’re safe. Everything will be okay now”. I looked into his green eyes, and I don’t know if it was the sight of them or the change of medication in my intravenous drip, but I started to feel better. The sobbing stopped. I went back to sleep.
Another day, another nurse. More morphine. I didn’t realise how bad my injuries were for a long time, because I had been placed in an induced coma. But now that the coma was lifted, I started becoming more aware.
I had the feeling that something was missing. Something? Someone? Who was it? Who did I lose in that fire? I remember holding something or someone in a wet blanket. I remember my left palm touching something soft, and the movement within. Back to sleep; I’m so tired.
Another day, another allied health professional. Sometimes, my visitor is a social worker. Sometimes, I talk with a psychologist. Sometimes, they make me get out of bed and try to use my body. I look at my hand; and it’s not my own. My feet don’t work like they’re supposed to.
My sister comes to visit. It was a long flight, but she made it. I’m so glad to see her; to have her wrap her arms around my tired, sad body. I sob onto her shoulder uncontrollably. I wriggle away to find tissues to blow my nose; I hate crying in front of people because blowing my nose is so ugly! But I just can’t help it. I feel like I’m grieving; but I can’t quite remember what or whom I’ve lost.
My sister says I’m a hero. Apparently, I saved one of the last brush-tailed rock wallabies in my area. A-ha! That’s who I’m missing! She says that when I was evacuated off the beach, a ranger found my little companion and took her to a sanctuary. I can visit her when I’m discharged, if I like!!!
I need my sister’s help; because, unbeknownst to me, my feet were burned in that fire on the beach. Walking can be painful. Bathing can hurt too. We go home to my house in the bush, and all we see is devastation. The smell of burnt timber, and dead animals, fills the air now. My car was burned that night at the beach, and everything in it. No family photos remain. The only things fluttering in the breeze around me, are the ashes.
My beekeeping mentor calls to check on me. Seventy per cent of our country’s bees were killed in that fire. Our country’s honey industry is on the brink of disaster. Our bigger beekeepers helped to keep other agriculture going; and now our primary industry is facing decimation too. We need to start again, but so many went without insurance (because they couldn’t afford to pay it), and it will be so hard to build the industry up again.
I’m staying with my other sister, because I have nowhere else to go. I’m lucky that we get along! But I feel like I’m imposing on her, and I’m itching to go home and rebuild. Small steps. I keep telling myself, “Small steps. I’m not the only one.”
Today, though, I’m happy. The ranger called!!! My little brush-tailed rock wallaby is doing fine. Her joey is okay! Around seventy per cent of the habitat was destroyed, and with it, all their food sources. People from all over have been sending sweet potatoes, and donating money to help get more, so they won’t starve. I’m inspired! My new home will have a garden so I can grow sweet potatoes, just for the brush-tailed rock wallabies that might come to visit. The ranger has a question she’d like to ask me.
“Would you like to help when we release your wallaby back into the wild?” I don’t need to be asked twice!! Whatever it takes, I’ll be there. I can come sooner! She says that I can come any time I like. They need more helpers …
So, my sister and I drive south to the sanctuary, and there she is. My special companion. She, who knows the fear of that awful day and night. As soon as we see each other, we know! And we bound toward one another. And unlike the first time we met, this time, we’re all hugs!