When we went back for a look in February I felt more worried about the Grampians than our house.
During the last ten years they have had three major bushfires, and when I say major I mean 600 or more square kilometres completely burnt out, in 2006 more than 50 percent of the park area. In 2011 there were most unusual floods which created a great deal of damage and generated monster land slips, unprecedented in my life time and longer. Above is a picture [thank you Thomas Parkes] of the Silverband Road, formerly an established two-lane bitumen road. To the left the road at Zumsteins, the only way over the ranges for vehicles. Below, a land slip in the Serra Range.
Six months later there was a localised earthquake which registered 3.8 on the Richter scale.
And then in January this year the north-west side was ablaze again. You can see the fire’s extent in this photo.
Many bush fires in Australia are started deliberately, including some of the ones on 7 Feb 2009 which burnt 1.1 million hectares, destroyed more than 6000 buildings, injured 414 people and took the lives of 173. The energy released by this set of fires was estimated to be the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Temperatures of 1200 degrees C were reached. That’s enough to melt rock. It also razed one of our favourite towns where we were heading that very day before Myrna decided that it wasn’t a good idea and we turned around. You don’t try to fight such things directly.
However this fire, like many in the Grampians, was started by a dry electrical storm. It began at several points towards the top of the photo and, driven by fierce northerlies, swept south. To see one of these fires in full pomp is to have nightmares for the rest of your life. This is the fire cloud I would say nearly directly above the Wartook area where our house was located. This news photo was taken from Stawell, more than 40 kilometres away. Look at the comparative size of the mountains.
It wasn’t like wood smoke which, at least when it’s fresh, can be quite sweet. It was acrid and sour, charred rather than burnt material. This is three weeks after January 20 when it went up.
But it had all gone up. The ground cover, the heaths and the bracken, completely gone; not much sign of the second layer either, the melaleucas, the leptospermum, the banksias, the native pine. Many of the canopy trees were also damaged beyond repair. I was especially sorry about this huge yellow box which draped over our front veranda and had a family of phascogales living in it. Perhaps ironically, it would have been less damaged if it hadn’t been for the heat generated by the house burning. Not enough to kill those bella donnas though.
This is our gate. It may have been important for the CFA (Country Fire Authority) or SES (State Emergency Service) boys to drive over it. I don’t know. But they did. There was no fence or gate posts to bother them.
3/8″ coach screws, favoured joining medium.
The first fire and the last. The Jetmaster was left quite intact.
One of the famous concrete stanchions with 150×75 Oregon from the ceiling structure of Horsham HS. The fire was hot enough to flake the concrete. And an important photo given what I had to say about the slab we built the shed on.
In excellent condition: no cracks or chipping, no movement. You could go and whip up another shed there tomorrow. Take that Fred Heinz. The shed didn’t burn in the fire. It had been like this for a while. Things come; things go.
And so they do.
We sold the property to a service station owner who wanted somewhere to retire. He partitioned the big room with dividing walls and put a flat ceiling in, built a connecting corridor between the bedrooms and the main room, pulled up the quarry tiles and tried to straighten the fireplace, lifted the toilet pan, put pickets around the back deck, got the power on and painted everything.
The next owner, a legend among the women of the Wimmera, undid a certain amount of this and got some of the bracken under control. As far as I know Girin Flat became a very cool out-of-town party venue. The next owner got going with bluestone and might have planted the bella donnas. But regardless, it wasn’t the house we built and there is no reason in the world why any of those things shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t ours any more.
Woody (the legend) built a pottery and tea rooms on the road, one component of the commercialisation and development of the Wartook area and the Grampians in general. Our house hidden back in the bush was offered as holiday accommodation, now in almost endless supply. For that purpose it was probably still too exotic and ‘mucky’ to attract tourists. So the couple of times we have gone back for a look over the past 20 years it stood as forsaken but not derelict. Freddy Heinz might be pleased or perhaps he might think he did his job and that was all that was required: not the consequences of your actions, but their conformity with the appropriate conventions of behavior was what mattered in the end.
Then it got burnt down.
The Taylor’s house — all that western red cedar at $19.12 a lineal metre — went up; the Raleigh’s was saved. The Pykes would have been fair square in the fiercest of the blazing drives, but being Will he may have had a cunning plan. For all I know the Carters are still there. Maybe Bradney has taken over. John and Dan are dead. We haven’t heard anything about Diane for years. Rod Parker and John Anderson have died. But Geoffrey Ainsworth lives nearby and we still go to the football. Not everything changes.
‘Trees with rough bark such as Red Stringy Bark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) and Messmate (Eucalyptus oblique) have epicormic buds (dormant growth buds) deep beneath the bark, which are protected from fire. When the tree is burnt and the foliage removed, the epicormic buds are triggered into life and start to grow. Once these buds sprout, the tree then begins to regrow all of the lost foliage and, over time, will recover.’
The bush doesn’t acknowledge the idea of ‘damage’ of course. That’s very much an anthropocentric reading of a situation. Nature’s not tough; it’s just nature.
Do I regret our adventure in the Grampians? Not one second of it. When Myrna hears people talk about going off to live in the bush, she usually says she’s glad we did it when we were young because we got it out of our system and don’t have to do it again. When she left Girin Flat and went to live in a normal house where something happened when you flicked a switch she swooned with delight. I think that’s right. I hope it is. It would be the sensible response. I have patches of thinking I’d like to build another house in the bush, but not, never, under the conditions we had then. So much work. But do I regret it? How sad to have regrets.
Am I sad about the fate of the house? Not for a second. I had a great time building it and I did enjoy living in it — we both did. The fire going, wonderful Alladin lamplight, fantastic food with some nice wine, friends round the table delighted to be there, a game of Briscola, Linda Ronstadt singing ‘Love has no Pride’ in the background, a walk before bed down through the orchard and the shed clearing across to the pump and then back to the house listening to the noises of the night creatures. Come on … there’s not much better than that.
As for all the complaint, possibly the dominant theme, in the journals — well, there were things that were difficult. Sometimes on still white nights when you could hear wind coming up the valley from minutes away and it would hit the house like a bus … Not that the house ever moved, it was just that there were times when it felt like we were out on some sort of edge. In the case of a fire we would most certainly have been. Maybe the screech owl …
But the generative causes of the complaints were mainly human in origin. It was a relief to come back to the city to discover there were people who thought, and acted, more like we did. It was grand to be normal.
Am I sad about the fate of the house? That photo above of the Silverband Road … a week ago we drove down that road. It has been restored. Epicormic roadworks, the sort that rebuilt London and Dresden (the pic), the sort that will have to apply in Homs and Aleppo, the sort that allow any of us to get through any day. How we are able to recover from knocks — enforced retirement, loss of a loved one, unexpected failure, deep disappointment — is one of the great mysteries of consciousness. But from an evolutionary perspective it is all plain as day. Some people don’t recover of course — which makes the fact that so many of us do, from so many apparently appalling incidents, even more remarkable.
Am I sad about the fate of the house? Forty years ago. Lot of water under the bridge. It was a different house. Scarcely been back. Moved on mate, moved on. Pretty much when I drove out the gate for the last time.