This can’t be spring.

There's fire in the air.

I walk to the clothesline, full basket propped on my hip. My baby daughter is wriggling in her carrier, impatient for her dinner and I work quickly. Clothes, peg, line. Clothes, peg, line. Clothes, peg…smoke. Is that someone having a pre-grandfinal-public-holiday barbecue? Burning rubbish? No, it’s the earthy, acrid smell of native grasses and eucalyptus, mingled with burning dust. Energy pulses through my body, starting at my chest and racing out my toes. My baby girl stops wriggling and looks up at me. I recall the buzz of my phone from earlier in the day. CFA planned burn. Planned burn. Clothes, peg, line. Clothes, peg, line.

The next morning the shire news arrives in the mail exclaiming “Spring has Sprung!” next to a picture of the blooming tulips in the local botanical gardens. The shire news is mostly good news. Free vaccinations for your children. Battle of the Bands. The agricultural show coming up. But on the front page of this edition is “Time to plan for the fire danger period,” giving terse instructions: “Mow or slash grass below 75mm,” “Remove leaves from gutters and stacks of wood from near your home, along with any other flammable materials,” “Download the FireReady app onto your phone for access to timely, relevant and tailored warnings for your area.” I stick it on the fridge and think about the pile of wood chips next to the house from when the landlord cut down a tree last summer. Must call him about that.

This can’t be spring. It feels like summer. Our mothers group decides to meet in the local park in the early morning instead of brunch at the usual cafe, so that the babies can crawl around on picnic blankets in the shade, before the heat of the day sets in. It’s forecast to be 33 degrees and windy. The hottest October yet. The babies crawl and wriggle in the dappled shade, chewing on each other’s toys. Their plump legs and arms overflow from short sleeved jumpsuits and we chat about the how many times our babies woke, thirsty in the overnight heat, while replacing hats and fishing twigs out of curious mouths.

The wind starts to pick up, blowing dust and ‘helicopter’ seeds from the trees into dirty clouds across the park. We pack up quickly, re-claiming strewn toys and chewed rusks. We scuttle off in different directions, eyes squinting against the gusts of dirt and seeds. I feel the faint vibration of my phone through the handle of the pram as I walk the ten minutes home but I don’t stop to check it, I just want to get out of the hot, dirty, wind.

By the time I step onto the cool tiled floor inside the house, there are four notifications: New Fire - Harcourt, New Fire - Campbells Creek, New Fire - Big Hill, New Fire - Maldon. Not too close. Not today. The phone buzzes all afternoon. Five vehicles attending. Not yet under control. Isn’t that just another way of saying out of control? Seven vehicles attending. Fire now safe. New fire. Last week’s planned burn being patrolled. It’s tempting to turn off the notifications. I’m trying to work.

Mid-afternoon I start browsing the CFA website and discover that the day’s fire danger rating is ‘Extreme.’ According to the brochure I’m supposed to have left early in the day if I live in a high risk area. I don’t know if I live in a high risk area. I’m trying to work it out when the baby wakes from her nap.

“Geez, Lancefield’s copping it,” my partner calls out from the other room.
“Really? Fire?”
“Yep. They just issued an emergency warning.”
“Anything here?”

I remember seeing a man on the television during coverage of the 2003 fires in Canberra. He was running down the road dressed in thongs and shorts, wielding a garden hose. But that was before Black Saturday. Surely no-one could be so unprepared now? I’m at the kitchen bench, chopping pumpkin in a summer dress, no shoes. My partner joins me in the kitchen and we hold each other’s gaze for a moment in silence. “We need a fire plan,” he says. I nod slowly. He wanders back to his study. Finished in the kitchen, I lie on the playmat with the baby and hope the cool change comes early.

21 October, 2015

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