Necessary Nature

Elemental Fires of Fury

March marks the traditional end of the fire season in Australia. It’s a time to thank the fireys for another season’s physically- and emotionally-demanding work, battling dangerous fires on the ground and in the logistics centres: I myself was a volunteer firefighter for 15 years, although my number of turnouts was relatively small. I give silent thanks to those of you who keep me and mine safe as I reflect on how lucky I am to have escaped another fire season with my family and house intact.

Ten years ago people weren’t so lucky. 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria superseded 1983’s Ash Wednesday bushfires in Victoria and South Australia, in terms of houses lost and people killed: 138 lives lost in 2009, compared to the previous record of 75 in 1983. Everyone who lived in Victoria in 2009 knew someone who was impacted, either through loss of life or loss of lodging.

In 1983 I was in year 11, my second last year of secondary school. Around 8 o’clock our dog jumped up on the window ledge, which was her usual method to get our attention when she wanted company. I opened the back door to let her in, and was shocked to feel the ash thick in the air. No wonder the dog wanted to come in, she couldn’t breathe! The night clouds which blanketed the sky were an eerie orange, lit up from below by the fierce fires, even though the closest were 50 kilometres away.

One of my future best friends lost her house in those fires, although I didn’t know her at the time: I wondered whether she received the lovely jumper my mother had knitted, that I had grown out of, that I donated to the Australia-wide Bushfire Appeal for the many victims who were left with nothing.

I remember the massive dust storm that rolled in over Melbourne on 8 February 1983, preceding the breakout of the first Ash Wednesday fires by eight days. Year 11 Chemistry, the last class of the day: a class full of students trying to conquer difficult concepts and mangle some sort of scientific understanding into our reluctant brains. It was hot, because February- and the return to school- was always hot, and the ceiling fans largely failed to take the edge off.

Suddenly- within mere seconds- the room was plunged into darkness as the dust storm rolled over. Twenty or so excited students raced to close the windows, then stayed to gasp at this phenomenon! Our kind and brilliant teacher, acknowledging he couldn’t compete with nature on such a mighty scale, merely made sure no-one was injured in our stampede to the windows. With fifteen minutes till the bell the lesson was abandoned.  The dust rolled on and on, coming from drought-ridden farms to the east and the north, rolling over our school building from behind us and rolling onwards towards other eastern suburbs. I’m not sure how we got home that night: the traffic would have been in chaos.

For months the TV news stations used incredible footage of the kilometres-high cloud of red and brown dust simply dwarfing the central business district with all of its 50-storey skyscrapers.

Even now the two 1983 events move me, and I feel that to have experienced them first-hand is special, as I realise many people of younger generations cannot believe they happened, let alone imagine them! I’m old enough now to understand the laments of my parents’ generation, with their collective statements of, “You kids’ve got it so easy! In MY day we had to…” Which I guess demonstrates a benefit of ageing… much to the young ones’ chagrin, as I increasingly find myself saying, “In my day” before heading off down Memory Lane…

For a news report from the title see

*It’s worth it for the ‘80s period set-up, which looks so foreign now!

*Given that new high temperatures are breaking records every year, this is far from a record now.

For images of the dust storm over the city go to



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