The pager's distinctive tone and buzz jolted Murray as if he'd touched an electric fence. He plunged his hand into his shorts' pocket and fished it out.
"Grass fire, spreading. Yurrangamete." He instinctively jerked his head up from the message to stare at the azul sky in the direction indicated. Beyond the golden grass and knotted eucalypts the sky was blue and clear. No smoke yet. Yurrangamete was twenty kilometers away, and he had a lot of work he meant to do today, but the hot wind was blowing straight in his face when he faced Yurrangamete. He wiped the sweat from under his battered felt brimmed hat. On a day like this any fire could be disastrous. He glanced at the sheep around him, their coats the same golden yellow of the surrounding grass. The gates were closed, nothing he needed to do before leaving. He jumped on the ATV, calling out "Come on Scomo!" to his dog, and gunned it for the house.
"There's the smoke" said Graeme from the driver's seat as the firetruck hurtled down the country roads under its wailing siren. Sitting behind him, Murray leaned forward to see out the front window. In the distance beyond the dry trees a plume of white billowing smoke was rising like a mushroom cloud.
"It's a goer!" commented Baz in the passenger seat.
"Hell of a day for it" commented Muzz, behind Baz, as they all braced themselves for the momentary washboard jolting of the truck going partially off the road to pass a car which had pulled off on the other side of the narrow road.
Most of the ride there wasn't much talking in the truck cab, the men alone with their thoughts, aware that the ride was the calm before the storm. The radio traffic constantly announced trucks arriving on scene and getting dispatched.
"Yurrangamete control this is Warree Tanker Two we're one minute out where do you want us?" Baz queried the radio as the truck entered the shadow of the wall of smoke that loomed in front of them like a tidal wave.
"Warree Tanker Two go to the west flank on Rickett's Outlet road," the radio instructed them.
"Warree Two roger that" Baz said into the radio as he panned around the map on the GPS screen mounted on the dashboard. Muzz was simultaneously paging through the map book. Muzz and Baz then had some sharp disagreements about the correct route to take, but Graeme, with his young honest farmer's face under straw blonde hair, unflappably sparsed a route. Murray fitted his goggles on, pulled the bandanna up over his mouth and nose, and pulled the gloves on. Soon, around a corner, the leaping orange flames could be seen dancing behind half a dozen busy firetrucks in a field. Graeme brought the truck to a lurching stop just inside the gap that had been cut in the fence, calling out "alright boys mount up!!"
Murray pulled the helmet onto his head as he swung open the door. The oven heat of the day took him by surprise after the air conditioning of the truck cab, and the acrid smell of brushfire filled his nostrils as he quickly descended backwards down the steps from the cab, followed closely by Reece, the young firefighter who had been in the middle of the back. Then both leapt up the steps to the platform on the back.
"Go go go" Muzz said into the intercom handset mounted to the back of the cab, and all three on the back fell against the tank as the truck lurched back into motion. On the back they picked up the hoses from where they were stowed in readiness, pushed the valve levers into the "on" position, and as the pump rumbled into life they all gave test shots over the side to ensure everything was in order.
On the back Murray couldn't hear the directions being given by the strike team leader for this flank, but he was glad to just concentrate on the job at hand. A large fire like this, one doesn't get in front of, so the trucks were working on the flanks, in this case the west side of a fire moving south with the wind, or "on the black" in the burned area behind the fire head. The truck came in behind another firetruck on the flank and the three on the back let loose with their hoses. As the pump throttle --controlled from inside-- ramped up, Murray was almost pushed over backwards by the force of the hose and had to brace himself and put all his weight against the push of the hose. As they got close to the raging flames the heat was so intense all three kneeled down as far behind the sidewall of the truck as they could while still keeping their hose on the fire.
Later, in the surreal orange light of the smoke the crew rested their tired arms while the truck sucked water from a cattle-pond to refill its tank.
"It doesn't feel like we're making any headway on the fire" said Reece, who looked a bit like a rockstar or pirate with his gold earrings.
"It would be a lot worse if we weren't here I'll tell you that" put in Muzz, eating a fruit-bar.
"It's okay as long as we keep it channeled south it'll hit the firebreak along the Canterbury highway" remarked Graeme.
"Good thing too, you live right in the path otherwise doncha Murray" commented Baz, between drags on his cigarette.
"Hope to god it holds!" remarked Murray looking south.
"You were there when we burned it in, of course it will" chided Muzz. Murray recalled the day earlier in the season they had carefully burned a thirty meter swath along the north side of the highway. He couldn't help but feel a bit anxious though. At the time the grass had been barely flammable and it hadn't felt like a serious precaution, more a community service they went through the motions of because they had to. "Did we ever come back and burn off the grass in the gulley under the wombat creek bridge?"
"Yeah of course we did" retorted Muzz, with a dont-be-an-idiot look on his grizzled face. YOUR house isn't just on the other side Murray thought to himself.
Back on the fireground, the fire steadily moved south, what should have been a sunny afternoon was spent bathed in surreal hellish twilight. They fought the flank, and then they spent some time "blacking out" hotspots on the edge of the burned swath to prevent new fire outbreaks. This was a nice break from the intimidating fury of the main head of the fire, the hotspots giving a satisfying hiss when hit with the hose, and then they were were rushed to a "spot fire" where some embers had started a new fire in a neighboring field but were quickly able to get it out before returning to the main fire. Hours went by, almost too busy to think, but Murray couldn't get the thought of the gap in the firebreak out of his mind. It had been too difficult to get the trucks into the gully under the bridge, and he hadn't thought about it too hard at the time, but now it haunted him, he imagined it like a fuse through the firebreak. Somewhere outside the smoke, real twilight came and the fireground was quickly enveloped in true darkness canopied by the red glow overhead against the low smoke ceiling, and glowing brightly in the direction of the fire.
Draughting water again through a thick hose from a cattle pond in "the black" behind the fire wall, Murray found it an unnerving moonscape, the ground all smoking ash, with the red glare of fire in almost every direction, as trees and sheds in the fire's path continued to burn after the main fire had passed by.
"What do you reckon caused it?" asked Murray, leaning tiredly against the truck.
"Probably a cigarette" remarked Reece, his face lit up by the greenish blue glow of his cell phone.
"Cigarettes rarely start fires" commented Baz, the orange glow of his cigarette hovering in front of his face. "Probably arson"
"Firebugs will tie a bunch of matches to a cigarette and toss it in the grass" explained Muzz, his face starkly lit from the side with the orange glow of fire, "then, when the cigarette burns down it ignites the matches and THEN it starts a fire and the bastard is long gone"
"There's a special place in hell for people who start fires I reckon" commented Graeme in the darkness.
"Still though," remarked Murray, "I smoke from time to time but I wouldn't light up on a total fire ban day like today was."
"It's perfectly legal," responded Baz, "hardly any fires are started by cigarettes."
Water began spilling from the underside of the truck. Murray threw the lever to shut down the pump, followed a second later by Baz decoupling the intake hose. Reece's phone glow blinked out and Baz's orange cigarette glow fell to the ground and disappeared underfoot.
The clock said 2:07 by the time they pulled the truck into the Blerang firestation and descended the steps. They were all dog tired, Murray still felt like he was constantly being pushed backwards by the hose. The fire was an orange glowing line in the dark on the horizon. The truck seemed undomesticated and out of place here far from the fire, smelling strongly of fire and dripping water. The exhausted soot-covered crew shook hands with the oncoming crew who would takeover the truck. No rest of the truck. They all got into the Warree command vehicle to go back to their home station, and didn't talk much during the ride. Beside Murray, Reece fell asleep during the ten minute journey. Muzz drove to give Graeme a break. Murray couldn't sleep, he was worried about his home and family, they were right in the path of the fire.
2:37am -- Murray stood in the high brush under the Wombat Creek bridge. Framed beyond it the wall of orange was alarmingly close. He could even faintly make out the alternating red and blue of emergency lights by the edges. He had laid down a alarmingly thin barrier with a foam fire extinguisher he'd grabbed from his shed. He wrapped the matches around a cigarette, twisting a rubber band around them. Graeme with his honest innocent face, saying "there's a special place in hell for people start fires" played back in Murray's mind over and over again. Would this work or would he lose control of it? Even if it worked would people understand? He reached into his pocket and fished out the cold plastic cigarette lighter...
Because this livejournal was subject to subpoena last big brushfire I feel I should state explicitly this is entirely a work of fiction and all people, places, and events are entirely made up.