Yesterday we watched a mountain burn.
Just down the road from our house is an escarpment that overlooks Mt Solitary – the lone mountain that sits in the centre of the Jamiseon Valley, surrounded by its dense forests. We often gaze upon it from Elysian Rock, a lookout that sits directly opposite the mountain and juts out ever so slightly across a eucalypt abyss below. It’s a place of peace and quiet and one that showcases the enormity of the valley. The light and the moods change daily, hourly. I’ve seen rivers of clouds roll 100 feet below us and I’ve been there on days so clear that the horizon seems endless, revealing previously unseen reservoirs and ranges. Mostly though it is silent and still with scarecely a visitor. The fire that took place yesterday changed all that though, at least for the afternoon.
The fire was deliberate, a controlled burning of over over 3500 hectares, the first of its kind at this particular spot since 1955 and the last that we will see in our lifetime. It is done for two purposes: to clear tinder in prepraration for the upcoming bushfire seasons and to help germinate trees such as the Banksia and Hakea. Over generations these plants have built up hard wooden shells to protect their seeds from the flame, but only release them after they have been scorched. Australia is a country born and raised in fire.
By the time we arrived, smoke had consumed the top half of the mountain completely. We watched as over a dozen seperate fires roared their way down from the sumit leaving a brownish heroin-white plume of smoke in their wake. These plumes collected at the top, sculpting themselves into a colossal cumulous ash cloud many times the size of the mountain. It was an astonishing sight. Apocolyptic in its scale, and in the uneasy feeling it gave by slowly blocking out the blue sky and the feeling that it was an unstopable force coming towards us.
At one stage a helicopter — completely dwarfed by the size of the plumage — appeared from and promptly disappeared back into the smog. It was carrying something by a long rope which at first I thought was water, but then realised was another fire bomb. I began to wonder about how these events are planned: winds assessed, temperatures checked, moisture examined, burn histories studied, emergencies prepared for. How can this element be unleashed and controled at this magnitude? I watch the path of flames and think of the eucalyptus oils fueling them, the countless seeds exploding, grasses cremated into nothing. The temperatures reach 800, possibly even 1000 degrees: halfway to melting the sandstone rocks that the trees grow from. All heat, all power, all consuming.
By the end of the day the smoke was visible everywhere. Not a patch of sky untouched. The smell though was surprisingly faint, barely noticable. As the sun began to set I noticed how eerily quiet it had become too. What was missing? Birds. Their absence most noticable in the late evening when we usually get the call and response of the magpies, the gangland screeches of the cockatoos, and the secretive trills of feeding rosellas. I wonder about their escapes. How soon did they know? How quickly did they mobilise? How many didn’t make it out?
I go to sleep knowing that the fire continued, lighting up a small patch of the colourless sky with a supernatural orange glow. Smouldering in the icy night air. Unlike today, there will be nothing to see once the flames are exhausted and all the fumes have cleared. The fire builds nothing, brings nothing with it, leaves nothing of itself behind but its memory in the blackened skeleton of the forest.