Trigger warning: Bush fire violence, young child in danger.
By the time the fires came, their land had already suffered through three years of punishing drought. The grass turned from green to gold, cicadas sang through the longest summer ever, crops shriveled under a relentless sun, and then the sheep died. Grace had watched, pregnant and dry eyed, as their farm declined from a blithe, green paradise flecked with fat ewes and suckling lambs, to a parched wasteland capable of birthing only dry grass and thistle.
“Tomorrow, when the rain comes.” Marcus would say when she’d ask him when it would get better. When it would be over.
They had hoped the spring would bring rain. Instead it brought fire. Somewhere in the middle of the bush, lightning struck an old eucalypt tree and soon whole forests were going up, fueled by years of dry. Fires had already raged across most of the state, leaving behind a path of destruction and despair. Now it was their turn. Marcus joked there was nothing left on the farm for it to kill.
“Nothing except us.” Grace said.
On New Year’s Eve they cleared around the house as best they could, the radio’s emergency channel a constant murmur in the background. Marcus’ phone rang. His father needed help on his farm down the road moving livestock before the fires hit. Marcus paused, weighing up loyalty to his father with the responsibility of his own young family.
“Go.” Grace said, cradling their six month old daughter. “No use in him losing everything as well. The fires are moving away from us anyway. Katy and I will be fine.”
“If anything changes, just get in the truck and go,” he said. “Just get out.”
She nodded, waving him off as he disappeared down the dirt road that was their only link to the outside world. She went inside, keeping the radio on in the background and soothed their daughter to sleep. The smoke from the fires nearby had made Katy irritable and unable to sleep longer than two hours. Exhausted, Grace fell asleep also.
She wasn’t sure if it was Katy’s cries or the urgency of the announcer's voice on the radio that woke her, but as her eyes snapped open she saw a veil of gray smoke hovering above them.
“Just repeating, the wind has changed to a South Easterly direction. Those in the Cooper’s Flat, Djerri and Fall’s Creek areas are advised to evacuate immediately. Alert levels for these areas have changed from Watch and Act to Emergency.”
Grace jumped up, coughing violently and scooped Katy. She checked her phone, no signal. The house was dark and she realized the power must be out. That meant the water would be cut off too. Time to go. She grabbed the bag they had packed the night before and retrieved two t-shirts which she used to cover their mouths from the smoke. It was three o’clock in the afternoon but when she opened the front door the sky above them was as dark as night. An orange glow of flames marched towards them on the mountain near their house. She ran to the truck, put Katy in the back seat and floored the accelerator, tearing off down the dirt road. As she rounded the foot of the mountain the smoke grew so thick she could barely see past the bonnet. The forest glowed orange on either side of them. As the road dipped into a valley she screeched on her breaks. A giant tree had succumbed to the flames and crashed over the road. She pounded her fists on the steering wheel as Katy screeched in the back seat. There was no other road out. They were trapped. The flames grew closer. Grace put the truck in reverse, spun the wheel and headed back towards their property. They’d have to shelter in the house.
The old eucalypt tree next to their house was already smoking as she pulled up. She grabbed Katy from the back seat, her little face red with tears, and ran into the house. Coughing and spluttering she made it to the bathroom and huddled on the floor. Something exploded overhead, shaking the house. Katy screamed. The eucalypt’s thick branches, brittle with drought, had caught fire and were crashing down onto the house. The roof would go up next. They needed to get out before it collapsed. She’d have to get them to the truck. Running back to the front door she looked out of the front window and yelled. Another flaming branch from the eucalypt lay on top of the truck. Hopelessness set in and Grace began to cry.
Another crash from above jolted her forward. More branches were falling on the roof, it was about to collapse. The shock propelled her into action, her brain frantically trying to think of somewhere, anywhere they might shelter. An idea came to her. A bad idea, a terrible idea, but perhaps their only option. She ran into the bedroom, grabbed a blanket with her free hand and threw it over herself and her child. She bolted out the back door, barely able to see under the blanket and headed out to the paddock behind the house. The fire hadn’t reached the thistle and dry grass that filled the paddock yet. Long grass whipped and cut her legs as she ran to the center of the field toward their farm’s dam. She ran up the bank and waded into the filthy, muddied water, clutching Katy high up on her chest. It had been months since their last water delivery and the dam was heavily depleted by the drought. There was just enough left for her to sit waist deep and soak the blanket, throwing it over them like a tent. The trees surrounding the paddock burned and a flurry of embers landed on the dry grass. Ash and twigs rained down on the blanket. The firestorm was upon them, its deafening roar drowning out Katy’s cries.
Moments went by, feeling like an eternity as the flames devoured all they could find. Finally, the wall of fire moved on. Under the blanket, the woman and her child sat motionless, her baby now eerily silent. Hours passed.
Marcus’ truck came screaming up the dirt road, swerving to avoid smoldering branches and other debris. The chainsaws he and his father used to clear the tree blocking the road crashed together loudly as he swerved. He jumped out. In front of the smoldering rubble of their house was the burnt out skeleton of Grace’s truck. They hadn’t got out. He dropped to the burnt earth, feathers of ash disintegrating under his fingertips.
A faint noise echoed softly through the smoke. Marcus’ head snapped up. Following the noise, he sprinted around the house towards the paddock behind. The charred grass crunched under his boots. Through the clearing smoke he saw a figure on the edge of the dam, hunched and silent, covered with mud and ash. The muffled squeaks coming from Katy’s smoke-damaged throat as she lay in her mother’s arms. He yelled out and to his relief Grace stood up. She almost fell and he caught them both.
As they drove away, ash swirled around the truck like snow. The landscape surrounding them was decimated, unrecognizable. Their farm was gone. They survived. Grace felt she had nothing and everything at the same time. She leant her head against the window and closed her eyes. When she opened them, small drops fell on the glass. Then the rain came.