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The Last Word – Fire on the mountain

March 18th, 2022The Last Word – Fire on the mountain

Here’s a world-class whinge: many Central Highlands residents know what it’s like to evacuate their houses because of an oncoming bushfire, but, you know, it sure is a hassle having to unpack all your stuff when the authorities sound the all-clear and you’re allowed to return home.

Here’s a world-class whinge: many Central Highlands residents know what it’s like to evacuate their houses because of an oncoming bushfire, but, you know, it sure is a hassle having to unpack all your stuff when the authorities sound the all-clear and you’re allowed to return home.
On a recent Friday morning we looked out our living-room window and saw a plume of smoke billowing into the azure north-west sky, where no smoke had any business being. It’s supposed to be our rainy season here, except we haven’t had enough rain this year to moisten the flap on an envelope, so everything is crispy dry, and our area is densely covered in pines, oaks and hard, woody brush.
It’s one thing to receive a warning on an app or public service announcement but quite another when in five minutes you can walk up your road and see a bushfire just starting to flex its muscles no more than a few kilometres from your house. So there I was, just another 21st-century idiot with my phone out, trying to find the best position from which to photograph this nascent disaster in the making, when the first bulldozer crew arrived, followed not long after by air support. Hmm, I thought, standing here might not be the best idea I’ve had today.


In Wheatsheaf Carol and I were firm adherents of CFA bushfire advice. We recognised the many hard questions posed by the fight or flee discussion. Three times in our years in the Wombat Forest, when fire threatened, we grabbed our bags and left our home. The worst, as it would have been for so many people in our region, was the February 2009 fire.
We’d done our homework, had prepared a good defensible space around the house, and had the necessary tools – including a dam full of water and plenty of fuel for the pump – at the ready. But fight or flee? Tough choice. We loaded our cars and decided that Carol would take the pets into Kyneton and secure a room in the motel in Piper Street, while I stayed behind and watched for ember attack. As night came, I decided I’d done all I could and so joined the gang in Kyneton.


The next day we were relieved to return to Wheatsheaf and find our house untouched by fire. That homecoming is my favourite memory of that day. Next best is from the morning when I emerged from my room in Kyneton. The motel was chockers, of course, and despite the urgency of the situation, the innkeepers had stuck to their policy of no pets in the rooms, which meant Gizmo, Scout and Jackson spent the night in Carol’s car. When daybreak came I was up and preparing to head for home. As I stepped on to the motel verandah, a Telstra contractor was outside having a smoke. Looking across the crowded carpark, in which it appeared that almost every car had at least one furry friend waiting in varying degrees of patience, he asked: “Is there a dog show in town?”
Back in California, our Wheatsheaf experiences served us well as we calmly packed up our vehicles. The smoke became thicker, darker, and firefighters and heavy equipment rumbled up our road to the fire ground. Spotter planes and helicopters buzzed overhead. A line of sheriffs in their cars raced up the road; one pulled into our driveway and an officer came to the front door, advising us that it was time to leave.
We took a last look around, hopped into our cars, and left. Our dog Scout is 18 now and these evacuations don’t impress her. Along with her Aussie adventures, in 2018 we fled the Carr Fire and were away from home for more than a week. She didn’t bother to wake up for this one. We headed to my parents’ house, nearby but well out of the danger zone. We spent the day monitoring fire news, later on I went out for Chinese takeaway, and around 7.30 that night we received word that the blaze had been knocked down – not contained but definitely controlled – and residents were being allowed to return home.
All up, the fire burned about 36 hectares, and no homes were lost. Despite the long dry spell and a forecast of strong winds, CalFire, the state agency that puts out bushfires in California, and which most certainly had prevented a disaster here, had set a “controlled burn” which, oops, wasn’t quite so controlled. Investigations are forthcoming.
Slightly odd postscript: the nearest landmark to the blaze was Flanagan Road, named for a pioneering family from the area, so it was given the name Flanagan Fire. Margaret Flanagan was my grandfather’s second wife. My grandfather built the house in which we live, and Margaret lived here with him for many years.

After many happy years living in Victoria and working at The Age, former Wheatsheaf resident Jeff Glorfeld went back to California, the land of his birth, where in the past four years he has survived bushfires, snowstorms and drought. And Trump. And Covid. The cicadas and locusts didn’t arrive. Well, not yet.



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