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The Summer of ‘23

When the bushfires nearly won

By Wendy ThackerPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 15 min read

It was a stinker. The air shimmered above the tin roof, the grass was crunch dry and the birds along with the dog, were panting. Mary squealed with delight with each of her gangly sashays across the sprinkler which brought deliberate sprays of water and mud increasingly up to her knees. Mary was too young to remember what happened in the summer of 2019, the summer that saw more than half the country burn to a crisp. Too young to remember the scorched landscape with all the horror it contained. Mary just knew that it was hot and the sprinkler was cool and fun. Mary was five.

“Time to come in,” called the sweetest voice Mary knew. Mary also knew how to get another ten minutes.

“Awwww Mum,” she cried. “It’s so hot and this sprinkler reeeally is cooling me down.”

Mary ran and danced through the sprinkler, a budding Anna Pavlova or Margot Fonteyn developing her very own sprinkler choreography. Giggles and splashes, leaps and spins.

“Muuuum,” she called. “Come and watch me.”

Mary’s mother whilst busy, also knew the importance of watching her children, especially when they asked. She knew all too well that at some point in the future, they will stop asking.

“Show me what you can do,” called Mary’s Mum. “Then we have to go in for dinner, it’s nearly six.”

Mary always stood in the back doorway while her mother dried her off. The doorway that showed both her and her brother’s heights, taken each birthday without fail. “I’m getting big,” Mary exclaimed, with only her eyes and nose poking through the ruffling towel. “Yes, you are,” replied Mary’s mother. “Now scoot,” she instructed. “Pants and a shirt…. Then straight back for tea….. Quick sticks this time Mary”

Six o’clock was dinner time. Dad at the helm and Mary and her mother at adjacent sides. Patrick normally sat opposite but he was away at school camp. Mary couldn’t wait until she could go to camp. He got a new torch and sleeping bag and colouring pencils and other things that he wouldn’t show her. Mary was jealous of those things, even the things she didn’t know about but the upside was that he wasn’t going to hog all the ham and she could ask whatever she wanted without him making fun of her. The news was always on in the back ground.

And whilst none of them were overly religious, grace was said before even one morsel of food was touched. Mary doesn’t remember going to church, except that one time when the lady at the chicken shop had a baby and they sang funny songs and sprinkled water on her baby’s head. The best part of church was afterwards. Cake and pastries and soft drink. All the things she didn’t have except for at parties. Grace was part of that. Maybe it was a tradition, something handed down like teddy bears.

The radio interrupted the saying of grace and normally they would just continue, not this time. This time they fell silent. “We have a special news bulletin. Today, which has been rated a catastrophic fire danger, the first since the black summer of 2019 has seen multiple spot fires break out across Beechman, Gyver Falls and Ada’s Ridge. All fire trained personnel are to stand at the ready for further announcements. Residents of these towns have been asked to evacuate to Ferry Point. Please gather your immediate necessities and head to the marshalling booth at the football club.”

Mary’s mum and dad looked to each other with longing, fear, sadness and secrecy. “Eat up, poppet,” encouraged Mary’s mum.

After dinner and as a bed time ritual, Mary’s mum always hummed Brahm’s lullaby. And as Mary drifted off to sleep, she heard the words “Good night, I love you, have a good sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.” This was one of the traditions that Mary liked the best and she heard it every night without fail. “Good night poppet,” said her dad from the doorway as usual but this time he leant over to Mary’s mum and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be back when I can.”

Mary was used to her Dad going at all hours of the day and night. He held a regular job at the chicken factory but he wore a suit, not like the other workers. Most people in the town worked at the chicken factory and most nights they ate chicken. Ham tonight was special. Tonight he had his fire clothes. They were very dirty, thought Mary as her mother stood to leave. She watched her close the door behind them.

“If they sound the siren, you know where to go, right,” said Mary’s Dad.

“Yes dear,” replied Mary’s mum. “We’re packed and ready.”

The following afternoon, Mary’s mum had the radio on. She never had the radio on except at dinner time so they could hear the news. Every now and then a fire bulletin would interrupt the songs and Mary’s mum would stand stock still, digesting every word.

The phone rang and the lunch dishes leapt from her hands. Sudsy and shattered to pieces. “Damn.” This was not a word she often used but they’d decided as a treat to eat off the good china. Her hand was still wet which made the blood look so much more gory as she swiped again and again to answer the call.

“Hello,” she said quickly.

“It’s me honey,” yelled a distant raspy voice on a line that was more crackle than words.

“Are you ok,” she yelled back.

“Yes, I’m just taking a break, the road here to Ada’s Ridge is just holding. We’ve got 37 crews here just trying to keep her at bay. Honey, I can’t talk long, I just wanted to check in. And if you hear one sniff of evacuation order, you get yourselves out, OK.”

“Will do, honey, stay safe. I love you.”

The crackle won and for the few seconds of singular beep, Mary’s mum just stood there.

“What did you do to your finger, Mummy?”

“It’s nothing poppet,” Mary’s mother replied. “Nothing a band aid won’t fix.”

“Now, I need you to get your back pack and something you’d like to carry in the car. We have to go down to Ferry’s Point.”

“And go on the Ferris wheel,” asked an excited Mary.

“I don’t think it’s working today,” replied Mary’s mum. “It’s too hot to sit in the seats. People would burn their bottoms.”

Mary giggled at the word bottom. Like it was something naughty. She never heard her mother say anything naughty, even when she was cross. Mary was disappointed though. Every summer they’d all go to Ferry’s Point and eat fairy floss and go on the Ferris wheel.

“I’ve got Dingo,” called Mary’s mother from the loungeroom. “Can you find Molly? I bet she’s sleeping somewhere.”

Dingo was their blue heeler. He was old and grey around his whiskers. He wasn’t hard to find. Molly on the other hand could sleep anywhere when she wasn’t catching mice. She gave them as presents and most mornings there was at least one well placed as the nightly offering on the back doorstep. A beautiful stripy cat of no particular breed. Mary’s mum just called her a moggie. But she was in hiding.

“Will the following towns, please evacuate to Ferry’s Point….. Thaxton, Pantonville, Blind Bluff. If you live within 10kms of these towns you are to evacuate also….. I repeat….”

“That’s where we live Mummy,” said Mary. “We live in Thaxton. Is that why we’re going to Ferry’s Point?”

“Yes, poppet,” Mary’s mum replied. “Now, please take Dingo and hop in the car.”

“But Muuuuuum,” protested Mary heartily. “We… haven’t… got… Molly.”

Mary’s mum crouched next to her. “She’ll find somewhere safe, she knows all the best places but now we have to go. The fire is coming, Mary. We can’t wait anymore.”

Dingo sat next to Mary with his head cocked sideways. He was never allowed in the car. He really was her best friend. Even better than Eliza at school. She didn’t tell anyone though, especially Eliza.

The corrugations on the road seemed especially harsh today. The air was acrid and made breathing almost painful. The recirculating air conditioning was on but today it made little difference. The smoke was getting thicker and the bright sunshine of the day was growing dimmer. They were heading to Ferry’s Point but had to bypass Ada’s Ridge and the smoke was making the road impassable. Mary’s mothers knuckles were white on the steering wheel and neither Mary or her mother realised that she was screaming.

The glow atop the ridge was generating enough heat that it could be felt through the windows of the car. The glow that became flames. The flames that would later be described as a firestorm. Mary’s mother had no choice. If she kept going, they would both surely incinerate. She veered the car with as much gusto as a rally driver and headed down the fire trail. The car wasn’t built for off road and Mary screamed and cried as vomit covered her new pants.

Mary’s mother pushed the car to it’s limits, branches scraping the sides and no four wheels on the ground at any one time. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, maybe an hour. Time was not an ingredient. Mary’s mother knew that this was how people died. Going off the road and being stuck in the bush. She couldn’t have kept driving at Ada’s Ridge, she just couldn’t.

The fire trail slowly gave way to flatter gravel and the car stopped creaking. The deafening sound of the fire was well behind them. They weren’t safe yet.

Mary’s mother kept driving. “We’re going to go to Aunty Dottie’s place,” she said as calmly as she could. “And you can have a bath….. And don’t worry, we’ll make your pants as good as new.”

Mary’s sobs about Molly and vomit and smoke were waning and less wrenching but still snotty as they pulled into the driveway of Dotties’ Animal Rescue.

“Oh my word,” burst Dottie, creating a plume of dust in her race to the car. “It’s all over the news. Ada’s Ridge is gone and it’s heading towards Thaxton. Are you alright? Come, get inside and cleaned up. Where’s Patrick? And……”

“We’re all right and Patrick is at camp,” reassured Mary’s mum. “But I think Mary could do with a bath.”

“I couldn’t help it Mummy,” cried Mary. “It just came out of my mouth and I couldn’t stop it.”

“Hey, poppet,” said Mary’s mum. “You were being very brave. It was scary. It was very scary but the fire can’t get us here.”

“The fire goes where trees are Mum,” said Mary, not quite believing the reassurances. “That’s what Dad says and Molly climbs trees”

“Yes poppet. But there’s a big freeway and the lake in between. We’re safe here. And you know Molly, she’ll find a nice hidey hole somewhere that’s safe too.”


Mary sat colouring in with four joeys in pouches snoozing, the pants hanging on the back of the chair to dry with the smoke painting an eerie horizon, all split instantly at the sound of the phone.

“Hello,” answered Mary’s mum nervously.

Moisture collected in the corner of her eyes during the many silent minutes of intense listening.

“Thank you for telling me. Please let me know when he wakes.”

“What is it Mummy?”

“Come sit, poppet.”

“Daddy is ok but he got a bit burnt in the fire he was fighting. He’s in the hospital sleeping and they’ll ring when he’s awake.”

“He’s not going to die is he,” said Mary, panic renewed.

“He’s just sleeping Mary, and when he wakes up they’ll ring us.”

Sleep was hard to come by that night. Even Brahm’s lullaby couldn’t soothe.

Mary’s mum and Dottie sat at the kitchen table. Normally there was tea but today it was whisky. Good strong whisky. “He’s in an induced coma. Over 10% burns. Face, arms, back.”

Mary’s mum rested her face in her hands. The tears flowed and her whole body sobbed. “I can’t do this without him, Dot.”

Dot’s weathered hand cradled her sisters arm. “He’s in the best hospital, with the best doctors and the best treatments. And you know he’s a fighter. We’ll do this together ok.”

Crying is good for the soul but not so good for the make up. Not that that really mattered in this moment. Panda eyes and blotchy skin. And contents to fill the tissue twice over lest it run down her face.

Sleep didn’t come easily to Mary’s mother either.

Over the next few days, news of which towns were lost and which houses were spared came filtering through. One lone house at Ada’s Ridge and none at Thaxton. Mary didn’t quite comprehend that this meant her house too. She had designated herself to the role of helper as Aunty Dottie had many animals in her family room now. Some the vet couldn’t save. Some had to have dressings done. Some that would never be rehabilitated. One of Mary’s jobs was to collect the bandages at dressing time. She didn’t wince anymore when the dressings came off and somehow the smell that had her run from the room the first time, didn’t bother her. Or if it did, she didn’t let on. Her job was important.

“I think we need the blue bandage for this one,” said Dottie.

“Do you think we’ll need one or two, he’s a big fellow,” asked Mary.

“Get two, we can always put one back.”

This went on for a week and life was kind of routine. Just a different routine until the air was split again with the phone ringing. It never rang.

“Yes,” said Mary’s mother, again listening intently.

“When can we see him?”

“Uh huh, I see.”

“Thursday it is.”

“Thanks again, bye.”

Three days until Thursday. Anguished painful waiting days. “I want to go too Mummy,” pleaded Mary.

“You can come next time, poppet,” said Mary’s mother softly. “They’re only allowing a few visitors and Dottie needs your help today.”

Sullen faced, Mary stared longingly through the window as her mother drove the long driveway and out of sight.

“He’s doing much better,” said the doctor. “But please be warned, he’s still in a bad way.”

Mary’s mum could hear some of his team in with him. As she rounded the corner of the ward, she could hear banter and camaraderie that only came with being a fire fighter. This was his second family. Only they knew the risks that were taken every time the pager went off and the truck started.

Only they knew the scars that were beyond the scars protected by his bandages.

“Ahhhh, Mrs Hero,” called the captain. “We were just about to leave, weren’t we fellas.”

The five crew members bid their farewells and it was just them. It hadn’t been just them for over a decade. Mary’s mum looked searchingly at the bandages knowing from seeing the animals, that he was putting on a brave front.

“What did he mean, Mrs Hero,” queried Mary’s Mum.

“Yeah,” said Mary’s Dad flippantly. “They’re talking about a medal or something. But you know, honey. I just did what any of them would have done.”

Mary visited. Then Dottie. And often there was one or two of the crew members. Visits were between two and four but longer for Mary’s Mum. Slowly the bandages became less and less. The hair would never grow back he was told and the scarring would need grafts down the track. Day by day, inch by inch he grew stronger.

“I want to go see the house,” he told Mary’s mother. “I’m out of here tomorrow. And we need to assess the damage.”

“I’ve contacted the insurance company but they can’t send an assessor until next week. I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t know what’s salvageable and what’s not. I got the photos and some of the clothes, the bank and insurance papers…. And the wills.”

“Tomorrow then,” he said suddenly comprehending the enormity of what his wife had also been through and well and truly knowing that the scars of a fire don’t only burn the skin.

“Only if you’re up to it,” she replied.

Mary was so excited that her Daddy was coming home she jumped and leaped and spun until she was dizzy on the floor. “Oh Mum,” she said softly. “I had an accident.”

“Well, go and get changed, poppet,” said her mother. “I know it’s an accident but wee is meant for the toilet and I don’t think it’d be very good for Aunty Dottie’s seats. Quick sticks.”

Mary wore her new pants to collect her Dad. It seemed fitting to wear something special to collect someone special.

He smelled funny. Kind of like a hospital but also kind of like the roads they were travelling down. Everything burnt. Everything. Some of the chimney’s were the only reminder that there had even been a building there. Some of the trees were still green, little pockets of refuge. How does that happen? How does a firestorm race through an escarpment and decide to burn this bit but not that bit. They pulled up in front of what used to be their home. “Don’t go in,” called Mary’s Dad. “Just walk around the outside. It’s not safe.”

Mary held her mother’s hand as they walked around to the rear of the house. Oddly enough, what was left of the doorway still proudly displayed Patrick 9 and Mary 5 in perfect charcoal relief. And in the quietness of the ruins a noise caught all their attention.

Mary wrenched her hand away from her mother, hurtling towards the only pocket of greenery next to what was left of the sprinkler.


Short Story

About the Creator

Wendy Thacker

I’m a nurse, mother and house renovator, one of those is begrudgingly. And I love words, big words, small words, obscure words and the way they can captivate, send you somewhere you never thought you’d go. Like magic.

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