Braidwood, the town in which I live, has been on a war footing.
The enemy blazed away relentlessly – as is the nature of fire.
Smoke and ash from the front have covered every surface, every minute of every day for more than a month now. The air we’ve been breathing these past five weeks has been rated among the world’s worst. The light is thick and creepy during the day, after dark on bad nights the town appears enveloped in one of our high-country winter fogs, but it’s a hot summer night and that’s not fog.
There’s only one topic of conversation in town. People share their direct experience and knowledge of the fires, augmenting the excellent information provided by the ABC, the NSW Rural Fire Service and numerous regional micro-media.
As the biggest centre around, Braidwood’s been full of fire trucks and their crews from far afield for weeks. They gather at the fire station down near the cattle yards, massing like great red beasts; in for refills and replenishment, crew rotations, food and water.
It’s not only the official fire crews. Local farmers and workers load their utes and trailers with 1000 litre tanks they self-operate, whacking spot fires and attacking the fire front down minor local roads they know best. The mosquitos, as they’re known, swarm together at threatened properties, their tiny units building strength in numbers to remarkable effect.
The experience of the landscape around town is entirely changed. The dense Kunzea scrub that obscured the shape of the topography itself is gone, now we can see the rise and fall of the charred ground in a way we’ve never been able to before. Houses previously hidden in the bush are now in plain sight.
Another house in another nearby place, down at the coast in Lilli Pilli, is where six of us planned to spend NYE together; Matt and Emma, Rae and Glen, Cathy and me. For months Emma’s been searching for a house for her and Matt, finally settling on one just weeks ago. NYE was to be our long-awaited first night all together in their new home by the beach, just an hour’s trip from Braidwood.
Instead, we spent NYE at home in Braidwood with my daughter Sascha, Rae, Glen and their two young boys Jarrah and Marley; none of us knowing if Matt and Emma were OK. They had made it the long way down to the coast the previous day, but by the time we were ready to leave, fire had closed all possible roads. Matt and Emma spent the next several days fighting to protect their first home together as fire tore through the NSW south coast and the world disintegrated around them.
Rae and Glen are recovering from their own battle at Rae’s family’s property ten kilometres west of Braidwood a few weeks earlier. The fire front came within twenty metres of the house that’s been their family base for decades, taking out a shed and the berry vines that have provided them an income. Despite every possible preparation, a well enacted fire plan and a family who gave their all to protect their property, when the erratic fire cut off their escape route, only the fact that a fire crew become trapped with them saved them from disaster.
A couple of nights after New Year I chatted with Jake and Ang whose Dog Leg Farm just out of town was overrun by fire and completely burned out. I feel oddly connected to their plight; it was from Jake and Ang I bought the house we now live in while they moved on to hand-make their farm from scratch; every one of its elements a personal labour of love. Since the fire razed everything they’d created, they’ve been back in town staying in a room at their daughter’s place. An effort to get them re-established on the farm is already well underway with friends working to get a shed habitable, so they can move back to continue what they started, albeit it in a new way.
This is personal resilience and community spirit writ large. And yet it’s something more. What’s happening here, and in countless communities across the broader regional landscape that’s been connected as Yuin country for millennia, speaks of people’s deepest connection to place. Even when the landscape we experience as place is destroyed or entirely changed by the forces of nature, we hang on.
When the tangible elements of place that make it familiar to us are obliterated, something intangible replaces them.
Most people find to their surprise that they can bear the painful loss of the homes they’ve built, acreage farmed, the gardens planted, art made and acquired, objects inherited, photographs taken, and documents recorded.
But their absence opens the space for an otherworldly experience – a moment to transcend the material and glimpse the lived experience innate to the Traditional Custodians of this landscape. It’s not things that sustain us, rather it’s the land and place, country, that holds our consequential knowledge, our relationships, our community, our stories and memories, the essence of our spirituality and the foundations of our art.