Tuesday, October 17, 2006

flaming days


"What an unusual day it's been," said my sister on Thursday night. Flames and disappointment. Stress and chaos. This week was not quite what we’d hoped for.

Wednesday I had hoped to get a major printing job over and done with, even if it meant a special trip in to the office for the afternoon. That didn’t happen - the photocopier was breaking down at least once a day, sometimes twice.

But those annoyances faded to nothing Julie and I drove down to Kingston for dinner with some friends. When we made the appointment a couple of weeks ago, we couldn’t have foreseen that it would be a day of high fire danger.

My sister was driving, since I can usually cope only with city and suburban conditions. As we left the city and headed south, we were wary of fires reported near Mount Nelson and it seemed that was right. The further south we went, the more smoke and haze there was in the air.

Traffic slowed to a crawl as we passed emergency vehicles stopped by the roadside. The smoke grew thicker and we saw a policeman trying to clear the smoke out of his eyes as we drove past.

I tried to snap a few pictures with my camera phone through the windscreen, but trying to capture such a big canvas was next to impossible. Then I looked sideways and gasped in disbelief as we passed a burning tree - the flames were less than ten feet from the car.

During the 1967 bushfires I didn’t leave the safety of the city heart, but I began to get some inkling of what it must have been like for the rural population on that day.

The dinner was pleasant enough, but we turned for home afterwards with some trepidation. At first everything seemed normal, but as we passed the crest of the highway we could see off to one side a series of vertical orange lines in the darkness. Countless trees still burning after the fire had gone through earlier that day. An unsettling sight.

That night it was too hot to get much sleep. I tossed and turned a lot.

Thursday we stayed tuned to the radio for any updates. There were still remnants of yesterday’s fires and the Fire Service warned that conditions were the worst they’d been in years - strong winds, high temperatures and very low humidity.

We went out early to drop off Julie’s mastiff at the vet to have some stitches repaired. At least he’d be comfortable in the air-conditioned vet hospital. Then in to the church to spend the afternoon working in the office. The 19th century sandstone walls kept out the 33° heat [91° in the old fahrenheit scale], but most of the people there grew increasingly concerned about what was happening at home.

Rod left early in the afternoon when a major fire began menacing his suburb on the eastern side of the river. Robert left a while later; his wife had phoned to say that she could see smoke but no flames although the power was off in the entire area.

That left Julie and I with the photocopier repairman, who was grappling with the intricacies of the machine’s innards. (Our last repairman told me once that copying machines were more likely to go wrong than anything else because they were an unholy combination of the electrical, the mechanical and the chemical; it seems he was right.) After another hour he gave up and said he’d need to return the next day with more equipment.

The traffic out front was slow, with commuters heading down the southern outlet hampered by smoke. Fire Service trucks and volunteer fire fighters were heading across the river, taking up one lane on the bridge just for the emergency services.

You feel pretty helpless at a time like this. You’re perfectly safe, but there’s nothing much you can do for others. Certainly you don’t like to make too many phone calls of the “Are you all right? Are things OK over there?” type - people have got things to do.

We stayed in town and had a meal of wallaby at the hotel down the street, then picked up the dog from the vet. Fires were the least of his worries; he was still feeling the effects of the anaesthetic and slept most of the way home.

But turning into my street at dusk was a sobering experience. The end of the street faces across the river and we were looking right at the fires. There were bright specks all over the western face of the hills, and across the summit of one there was a row of fires, like a torchlight parade of giants marching over the hill and down the other side.

It was again another restless night, even though by midnight the smoke seemed to have cleared and the night breezes were soft and cooling. But that crown of flames could still be seen on the hilltop.

And this is October. I can’t remember ever hearing of such dangerous fires this early in the season.

The punchline about the weather is that by Monday morning the news bulletins were interviewing farmers complaining about frost damage caused by a cold snap on Sunday night!

On my radio dial this week…

SUSPENSE “Heaven’s To Betsy” with Truda Marson, CBS 10/11/55

I haven’t heard Suspense venture into the science fiction field very often, but this low-key entry is not without interest. A run-of-the-mill suburban family find themselves in the spotlight when a glowing UFO crashes on their back lawn. “A man’s home is his castle,” says the husband. “This is my house, this is my backyard, and that is my flying saucer!”

The story ends on a sober note when the alien object’s glow begins to fade. The wife maintains that the UFO is in fact a living being, not just a vehicle, and that it is dying before their eyes.

Compared to much of the science fiction of the mass media in 1955, this is very sensible and restrained stuff indeed.

FIBBER McGEE & MOLLY 47-10-07 football story

Fibber plans a surprise for their anniversary. A highlight - running into an indecisive acquaintance who turns out to be the local weatherman.

RED RYDER 42-03-14 Frying Pan valley

Tolerable juvenile western which was also a long-running comic book. First one I've heard of these; maybe it improves on further listening, but I think I prefer Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickok to the exploits of "America's famous fighting cowboy."

THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE 48-05-26 Gildy drives a Mercedes

This one is fun - Gildy allows himself to be persuaded into driving a luxury car for the day ("It makes you look like a millionaire playboy") and misunderstandings snowball.

PHIL HARRIS 49-11-27 lady wrestler

Irked by Alice's investments, Phil decides to invest in something - and after taking Remley's advice he ends up with a wrestler called The Masked Mangler... a female wrestler in fact. (Did you know female wrestlers were illegal in California in 1949?)

A lot of people know what to do, but not everyone will do what they know.

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