By the time the firetruck drives through and the fireman tells mum to ‘get in the car and get out’, a long curl of dancing flame has cut Bald Hill in half. I watch as the serpentine fire front smothers the polished gold grass and leaves the Hill black in its wake.
Dad jumps off the truck and heads quickly inside to get another shirt and handkerchiefs. His face is half dark with soot, the rest is white.
“We’re going up to Churchill Park,” he tells Mum, “The fire’s got into the farmland at Heaney Park.” I hear him say ‘exploding’ and ‘out of control’.
He doesn’t stop to talk to us but just climbs up onto one side of the truck and calls to Mum, “You’ll have to follow us out.”
We pile into the Datsun with a washing basket of clothes and nappies. I catch Sadie up in a blanket and her fretful paws claw at my legs. Johnny is on Tony’s lap and Mum clips Bart into his new little seat in the back. Matt balances a stack of photo albums on his knees
Ash flies everywhere and smoky air swirls around us brown and yellow as we tail behind the fire-truck – just making out its lights.
We drive past the Simpkins and see Mr and Mrs Simpkins’ lanky figures with cloths to their faces, as they drive the horses toward the drain that runs along Wellington Road. If the fire hits they will cut the fences.
The firetruck stops for water on the curve behind the petrol station and then we are on our own. I can’t see Dad anymore.
Once out onto Stud Rd we see a whole line of police cars and fire-trucks coming from every direction. The police on the road direct traffic with grim faces and only let the trucks toward the fires are which now cover all of the Lysterfield Hills.
Mum stares at the road and bites firmly on one side of her lip as the police direct us onto Wellington Road. We take the long ribbon of road with other evacuees, past our old Primary School and the footy ground at VFL Park. There is no point asking questions so we all sit silent all the way to Springvale.
By the time we arrive at Aunty Cath’s the sky is strangely dark, although it is only 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Mum busies herself with Bart and Aunie Cath puts on the kettle and makes us 50/50 cordials.
The moon rises large and blood red that night and all we know is that Dad is still out with the truck somewhere in Churchill Park. We feel the wind swing and change from the south and hope the fire will be put out soon.
When we wake up, like caterpillars rolled up in loose sheets on the lounge-room carpet, it’s Tony’s birthday but Mum says we will have a party another day.
The phone rings and I can tell it’s Dad. Mum nods to Auntie Cath – she is half smiling. Dad is OK. The house is OK, but we can’t go home yet, she tells us. When she hangs up Mum goes outside to put the washing on the line.
We follow Uncle Reg outside after lunch, although the air is still full of smoke and the sky is awash with shredded orange clouds.
“That’s how easy the fire spreads,” Uncle Reg points out bits of ash and singed leaves which have blown all the way from the fire to settle in the gutter on his shed. “So you have to be careful with fire, don’t you Matt?” he cautions.
“Yes Uncle Reg,” Matt concedes, and ducks evasively into the glasshouse which is a labyrinth of pots, potting mix and ugly fleshy plants Uncle Reg proudly calls ‘his succulents’.
Dad wrote an historical account of the 1973 Lysterfield Fires for the Rowville Lysterfield News and describes the 10 year cycle of serious fires – 2013 is looking to be the same http://www.rlcnews.com.au/main/about-us/history/part-b/bush-fire-1973/
Dad did describe fighting the fire like being in a war – the sense of disorientation from the thick smoke, with trees exploding and telegraph poles falling.
When we got home on the night of 21 January I remember Dad arriving home on the truck exhausted and black with ash from head to toe.
His hair was all singed off and he must have been burnt in places. He looked thin, his cheeks sucked in and I realise (now) he would have been completely dehydrated.
The volunteers then had no real protective gear and really very little training.
They had been fighting the Lysterfield fires with barely a break since the CFA (Country Fire Authority) fire station siren sounded on 19 January.
The black line half way down Bald Hill defined the point the wind changed and mercifully burnt the fire back on itself – a moment all firefighters (and land holders) hope for. Today, suburban homes have displaced the farmland right up to that burn line.