Through cracked, dry lips, Clay whistled to Meg, his trusty old sheepdog, and shouted his instruction for her to “get in behind”. She circled slowly and cautiously around the sheep, who seemed dazed and confused as they scattered in chaos. Meg panted as she ran behind them in an attempt to contain them.
Clay could taste the grit as it formed in the corner of his mouth. He pulled the brim of his hat down to protect his eyes from the scorching sun, as sweat trickled down his forehead, mixing with dust to form channels that ran into the crevices of his weather-beaten face.
After 63 days without rain, the once lush green hills and paddocks of Tui Ridge Station looked brittle where the scorching sun had seared the vegetation. The brown landscape looked relentless against the backdrop of a blue sky. Ideally, there should be new grass sprouting by now, but there was no moisture, no growth, and the land was dry and parched. With the threat of climate change looming, he knew the worst wasn’t over.
Clay was worried about his livestock as the long drought gripped the heart of the country. The summer sun was always harsh in New Zealand, but this was fierce. He looked out across the horizon from where he stood at Peddlers Creek; his eyes hunting for rain clouds. They needed rain within the next 10 days, or they’d be in big trouble. The land below him was unrecognisable as the dry soil had separated to look like parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Where there was once running creek, it now looked more like an ancient burial ground scattered with dried tree boughs and stones.
A lone horsefly buzzed around his head, and he swatted it away with his hand. He caught a glimpse of what he thought was smoke in the distance. He blinked several times to wash the grittiness from his eyes, not sure if it was a mirage. Black smoke and orange flames danced wildly against the backdrop of the hazy blue sky. It was definitely a fire alright, and it was coming from the neighbouring property, where hectares of pine trees sheltered the land.
Clay slipped as he clambered down the hillside, leaving a swirl of dust behind him. In the distance, the flames were now jumping out from above the tree line.
Running towards his vehicle, Meg followed closely behind him. Pulling his phone from the glovebox, he dialled the rural fire and emergency service number, something he’d hoped he’d never have to face.
“Rural Fire and Emergency. What service do you require?"
Clay swallowed hard; dryness catching at the back of his throat.
“Fire at Smithy's. Can you get the boys up here fast. It’s at Pine Ridge- The plantation. It’s spreading fast.”
It was a farmer’s worst nightmare, especially in these humid and dry conditions. Once a fire takes hold in these parts, and with the denseness of the bush, there was danger of it spreading to neighbouring farms. Clay knew he had to act fast.
Putting the four-wheel drive into gear, Clay picked up speed as they made their way across the rugged terrain. Meg’s paws gripped the seat as the vehicle made its way across the rough dirt track and up to Pine Ridge. He came to a screeching halt at the closed gate and jumped out to open it.
Clay made his way up to the long drive to the farmhouse. The smoke was heavy now, and he covered his mouth and nose with his hand. He could hear the crackle of burning wood and the citrusy smell of pine needles as the Radiata pines were engulfed in flames.
Clay banged hard on the Smithy’s door with his fist. “Jed… Emma. Are you in there?”
He made his way around the house, peering into the windows, looking for any sign of life, but no one appeared to be home. The flames were still far enough away from the house to not cause any damage yet, but Clay knew that it would spread fast, and it wouldn’t take long to reach the sheds or the haybarn. Fire had no mercy for what stood in its destructive path.
Clay ran to the side of the property where several sheepdogs were barking in their kennels. He unbolted each kennel and freed them. Making his way to the chicken coop, he opened the door as the chickens clucked and flapped wildly in fear.
The heat from the fire mixed with the fierceness of the afternoon sun penetrated Clay’s skin, as he fought through the thick billowing smoke.
If fire rescue wasn’t here soon, Jed and Emma Smith might not have a property left.
Clay heard horses whinnying and ran to towards the stables. He unbolted the doors and released each one of them one by one. Fear unnerving them, they bolted in a bid to find safety. Unbolting the last stable door, he was confronted by a large black stallion, eyes bulging with fear. Rearing up on its hind legs, it threw Clay backwards onto the hard drought-stricken ground, knocking him out cold.
Meg whimpered at his side and nuzzled him to try to wake him, but he didn’t move, as the crackling of burning wood and flames danced their way closer to the farmhouse.
The rural properties were too far out of town and the roads too narrow to get a fire truck up to the Ridge, so a chopper it was. Twenty minutes later, the rescue helicopter was circling above Pine Ridge in an attempt to dampen down the blaze.
Dom Jenson had flown the rescue chopper for over 20 years and had never known a summer so dry and destructive. The fire risk was high, and it was heart breaking to see the destruction that came with a long drought, as well as what it did to the farming community. It was the farmers that felt it the hardest, and it would be a long haul to pull themselves out of this one.
The chopper circled around the plantation. Water spilling out from the monsoon buckets and sizzling as it dampened the fury of the flames below. Dom moved the chopper in closer to the farmhouse and stables to check if there was any imminent risk of danger to the house and its occupants. As he circled in, he noticed the body of a man lying in the dust. His trained eye was quick to spot any danger.
“Rescue to base, rescue to base. We need another chopper up here at the Ridge fast. We have a possible medical emergency on our hands.”
Dom circled around again, managing to land in an empty paddock close to the stables, the blades of the helicopter clearing the smoke just enough for Dom to see Clay as he lay unconscious in the dirt. Andy, the co-pilot, jumped out and ran towards Clay with his emergency bag in hand.
“We’ve got ya, mate”, said Andy, as he pulled Clay to safety. He placed an oxygen mask over Clay’s face. Meg wasn’t going to let Clay out of her site, and Andy lifted Meg into the chopper beside him. “Come on then, get in old girl.”
Two days later, Clay awoke to find himself in a hospital bed. His mind was foggy and his throat raspy and sore. His head felt heavy like a bad hangover and his ribs hurt.
“It’s good to see that you’re awake Mr Simpson. How are you feeling?” asked the tall, dark-haired nurse standing beside his bed. “You’re a star, do you know that? There’s a big write up about you and your dog in the Valley Times.”
Clay was confused, then he remembered the fire, and tried to lift his head off the pillows.
“Where’s Meg? Is she okay? The fire? Was anyone hurt?”
The nurse smiled, gently pushing him back down onto the bed. “I’m sure your dog is fine, and the only one who got hurt is you, Mr Simpson. Now you just lie down and wait until the doctor comes to examine you. You just have a bit of concussion, but you’ll be fighting fit in a day or two. Doctor won’t be long now.”
Clay lay back onto the pillows and heard a shuffle of feet entering the cubicle. It was Jed and Emma Murphy, carrying a basket of fruit, and a copy of the Valley Times.
“We’ve come to thank you, Clay,” said Emma. You saved our home, you saved our animals, our property. You’re a hero and we don’t know how to thank you enough. If it wasn’t for you…”
Jed held out his hand, but Clay flinched as pain shot across his ribs.
“Sorry, mate”, said Jed.
“Where’s Meg”, asked Clay.
“She’s fine, Clay. We’ll look after her until you’re out of here”, said Emma. “It’s the least we can do for you after all you've done for us. Oh, and Jed’s taken your sheep up to the point for you, so no need to worry about them. Just get better.”
Jed unfolded the newspaper article across the bed to show Clay. There was a photograph of Meg sitting in between Dom and Andy, with the helicopter behind them. The headline read, “Our local heroes save the day.”
“Do you think you can handle some more good news, mate?” said Jed.
Clay looked at him quizzingly. “What’s that?”
“Mate... 50mm of rain is about to fall in the next few days which will be enough to break the drought."