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“Bushfire!” Friend, Jan. 1984, 40


Great Bushfire Danger Today!

That was the headline in the newspaper that Ross read as he buttered his toast. It was only eight o’clock, and the heat was already thick.

Ross looked outside the screen door at the paddocks and the peach orchard. It was early January in southeastern Australia, and the land was brown from the heat of a summer drought. Across the fields and all the way to the dam the grass shimmered in a hot wind. “It’s going to be a scorcher, Mum,” Ross said. “May we go to the beach?”

“No, Ross,” his mother answered. “I must run to town to do some shopping, and I want you to be here while I’m gone. I don’t like the feel of that north wind.”

“All the men are on fire alert,” Ross told her. Then he asked hopefully, “Will Dad take me with him if there’s a fire?”

Mum ignored his question and eyed five-year-old Colin, who was teasing the dog in the yard. “I’ll be back sooner if I leave Colin with you and your older sister,” she said. The bleat and blare of a radio announced Marion’s whereabouts deep inside the house. “Anyway,” Mum added, “your father’s already left for the day.”

Ross grunted as he bit into his toast. This vacation is so boring that I might as well be at school, he thought. With a long sigh, he picked up his plate and took it to the sink. Then he started outside to the chicken house.

Caring for the chooks (chickens) was his chore. Ross gathered the eggs and sorted them for sale. Then he cleaned the coops and refilled the water containers. He filled cans with feed and let the chooks squawk at his ankles as he tossed the grain into their feeding trays outside.

Dust flew up in the yard as the quarreling chickens pecked away. A few scuttled under the shade of a eucalyptus tree at the end of the enclosure. It was getting hotter and hotter.

His shirt was sticking to his back as Ross climbed the ladder to inspect the water tank.

Ross’s father had placed a huge corrugated iron tank on the roof of the chicken house, from which pipes led to the watering trays. There was another, larger tank next to the main house, for every drop of rain that fell in this parched country was precious.

Ross peered into the tank. When he holloed into its dark, warm interior, an echo holloed back. Not much water, Ross thought. The surface of the water must be two-thirds of the way down the tank.

From his perch Ross looked across at the dam. Even browner than the surrounding landscape, the water hole had shrunk from its normal half-acre size and had exposed its cracked earthen bank. Ross guessed that at its center the water behind the dam was not more than six feet deep now.

Swiveling around to face the northern hills before descending, Ross noticed something. Is it smoke? he wondered.

Ross was scrambling down the ladder when Marion burst from the house, shouting, “Ross, quick! It’s on the radio. A bushfire’s started in the ranges, and it’s getting bigger.”

Ross felt a surge of excitement and fear. Dad would be among the firefighters if the bushfire spread closer. And in this heat, with the drought and the wind, it surely would.

Ross and Marion ran inside. With Mum in town, what should we do? Ross worried. Save the house? the chooks? ourselves? But how?

Marion was already pulling blankets off the beds. “Colin, help me!” she directed as she dragged the blankets through the door into the dust of the yard and across the paddock to the dam, where their best chance of safety lay.

Ross dashed outside. The north wind was like a foul breath. He could smell the fire now, although it was still miles away in the hills. Bits of soot and singed leaves whirled past.

Marion was back. “I left Colin by the dam,” she said.

Ross glanced over and saw his brother playing on the blankets.

“Ross, help me with the sandbags, please,” Marion said.

They ran to the woodshed and dragged out several heavy burlap sandbags. Ross hauled his to the chook house. Marion pulled hers under the water tank at the main house.

Turning on the spigots, they soaked each bag, careful to turn off the water in between soaks. Then Ross piled the bags side by side around the outside of the wire chicken runs.

“It won’t help if the sun dries the bags before the fire comes,” Ross told Marion when he came over to help her with the harder job of protecting the house. To save time, he piled dry bags around the back of the house, then turned on the hose.

Only a trickle came out. Ross followed the hose back to the faucet, flattening out its kinks, but only a little more water came through.

At the back of his mind he worried about Mum. He hoped she had not already left town for home. If she had, she could be cut off on the road by the fire. Here at least was the dam.

Suddenly Marion yelled, “The radio says the fire’s out of control now. It’s heading south. That’s us!”

Time to go. The children stumbled hand in hand over the field and across the rise to the dam. There was their safety. But where was Colin?

There was no sign of the five-year-old. Ross felt panic rising. Could he have drowned? They scanned the water but could see nothing.

Marion and Ross spread out, searching. Up to the house they ran, around to the dog-house, then to the orchard. Colin’s toy cart filled with peaches was there. He had obviously tried to save the crop. But where was he?

All of a sudden there was a terrific cackling from the chook house, and a barking dog ran out.

Hens flew and scurried in all directions. The dog yapped, nudging the terrified birds toward the dam. Then Ross saw a tow-headed figure chasing the chickens with a stick and yelling. It was Colin.

“The chooks! The chooks! Don’t let them burn!” the little boy cried, as his brother and sister half dragged him to the water’s edge.

The three almost fell down the bank, carrying the blankets with them. After soaking the blankets, they covered themselves with them and crawled into the shallow water with the dog, while the screeching chickens crammed over the banks and scrabbled for perches above them.

Just in time! Huge red flames spread over the grass paddocks to their right. Soot flew into their faces, and the children coughed and buried their smarting eyes in the blankets. There was a popping noise as the eucalyptus tree by the chicken run exploded.

The children waited, terrified, for another explosion to tell them that the house had gone. There was none. The roar of the giant flames swept beyond them.

Colin put his head up first. “Fire’s gone!” he yelled. It was true. The fire, finding little but dust and wire in the chicken house and guided by a changing wind, had veered off to the east. Behind it the fields were charred, the orchard was half-gone, the chook house was totally gutted—but the house was still standing!

As the children stared at the devastation, they heard shouts, which quickly grew louder. The volunteer firefighters—including Dad—came roaring up on a fire truck. And Mum was with them, happy tears streaming down her face at seeing the children safe.

“You kids were your own fire department,” Dad said, hugging each of them.

“And we’ve no roast chooks, thanks to Colin,” Ross said happily.

Illustrated by Dick Brown