Danger is where you least expect it

8 04 2009

The local bushfires in January followed very soon after by the catastrophic bushfires in Victoria in February got me very spooked and fearful, especially as there’s a really big bush block down the hill directly behind our house. I’ve taken steps with the local authorities and have been assured — in writing — that the bush block behind us will be control-burned over the winter months this year to reduce the 15+ year fuel load from the forest floor.

So it was with a great deal of disbelief that I found out that the next door neighbour nearly took our house (and hers) out today with a fire! I had gone into town around lunchtime to collect the mail, etc. I was maybe gone 30 minutes. When I returned, my husband got me to sit down (he knows me well!) then told me that the 80+ year old woman next door had decided to rake some dead/dry leaves in a pile in the corner between our properties and pour oil (!!) on the pile and set it alight. Under a dry overhanging eucalypt tree. Next to a dry, rotting wooden fence. Down the slope from our property. And on a 30+C day after some weeks of fairly high temperatures for this time of year. It seems there was also an old car tyre in the pile too…

By some extremely fortuitous circumstances, the son of the neighbour across the road and his mates were outside her house having just finished some whipper-snipping of that neighbour’s property. They were talking and one said he smelled smoke, another said he heard crackling. The over-the-road neighbour immediately realised it was a fire, then she saw the glow and the smoke. So the young lads raced across the road to our place. They didn’t bother knocking on the door — they just hightailed it to the back of our house, grabbed the hose that was there and proceeded to put out the fire.

According to my husband, one of them tried to stamp on the fire (but it had oil on it and his pants got a bit burned as the fire went up his legs a bit), another split his pants scaling the fence. The fire started to go into the overhanging tree, but fortunately their very quick thinking meant they could get the water on to it in time and put it out. They also put out the main fire at the old lady’s property and the small fire that started on our property — some 10 feet or so from the house — when an ember flew into some dry grass and leaf litter.

I was away all this time and missed the ‘action’ — thank God. I don’t know what I would’ve done. My husband said that he didn’t have time to even think about putting on some protective clothing — it was that quick. But the boys actions were incredibly quick too — without their clear-headed, quick response, I hate to think what I might have come home to.

It seems that the next door neighbour thought that she could light a fire today as she thought the fire bans had been lifted (they don’t get lifted until April 26 — and then only if the conditions warrant it). But what was she thinking, lighting a fire in hot dry conditions in a corner of her block that adjoins another property, that is surrounded by dry vegetation, a rotted wooden fence and overhanging trees, and putting oil on it to get it started properly?? She also has a wooden house and a wood pile on that side of her house, for goodness sake.

After I got home and my husband explained what had happened, we went over to the neighbour’s house across the road and talked it over with her. She knows some of the old lady’s family and will call them to let them know what happened and to find out if they think the lady is mentally fit to care for herself (I was ready to report her to anybody who would listen!).

We also offered to pay for replacement pants for the guy who split his, and offered our heartfelt thanks. My husband had thanked the boys earlier, but it seems they took off pretty soon after saving our house and potentially our lives and that of our elderly neighbour.

There were so many ways this could have been much worse — only last week while I was overseas, our gardening guys came through and finished clearing all the overhanging branches from our side of that fence, including some very large dead and dry branches from the eucalypt tree that caught alight briefly. Also, where the embers came on to our property is where there was a lot of wild undergrowth and bushes that they cleaned out last week. Had that not happened, this fire may not have been so easy to put out.

The lads just happened to have finished working across road at the time of this incident — if they’d still been whipper-snipping, they wouldn’t have heard the fire, or perhaps even smelled the smoke until too late. With the slight wind blowing in the direction it was going, my husband, who has a VERY good sense of smell, hadn’t smelt a thing. The first he knew something was up was when he realised someone was fiddling with our hose out the back!

I think my guardian angel will get an extra big hug tonight!