Siren Call to Community

Mark Seymour reflects on the 2009 bushfires in rural Victoria.

Author: Mark Seymour, Brisbane Times.

Date: 15 February 2009.

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The road to Jeremal Creek runs out across the valley to where the forest starts at the foot of Mount Mittamatite. In January ’62 we moved into the last house in the street, just before the bush started.

Mum and Dad were teachers who’d been posted to Corryong High School where the kids were bused in from the mountains. Their dads were building the Snowy Hydro.

The mountains were all around us. They loomed on the horizon, great blue walls of towering mountain ash, capped with snow in winter when the water froze on the ground, and the fire in the slow-combustion stove was all we had to keep the house warm. In summer the forest was brown dry, so dry you could smell the eucalyptus evaporate on the air when the hot wind blew in from the north, straight down the face of the mountain, across the valley and over the town.

Corryong was just a village then but it was growing. The high school was new, built for all the migrant workers who were living up on the plains. There was a town hall, too. We went there on Saturdays to watch Tarzan. And there were the shops, Bacash’s Emporium, the Court House Hotel, the police station, the tennis courts, the footy oval and the fire station on Main Street.

In January the heat was cruel. We played under the hose. I sat in the dust in the late afternoon on the edge of the road and watched the CFA tankers belt down to the creek to fill up. Being there, high up on the edge of the alps, near the source of the great Murray River, it was like another country. Alien and wild. We were city people.

The first time I heard the town siren I ran inside. It was a deep mournful roar that swept over the valley. There was no escaping it.

There was a fire, Mum said. A bushfire. What was that? The siren brought cars flying into the middle of town, dads rushing out of front doors, yelling at their kids.

One night after dinner Dad called to us from out on the street. Come and see this. We rushed outside. He was pointing up at the mountain.

The sky should have been ablaze with stars but, instead, from above the long peak of Mount Mittamatite there was a flickering glow of orange light spreading out across the night sky. It’s the fire, Dad said, still burning. The same fire as before. That was days ago.

It was exciting. Spectacular. We stood there gazing at this strange moving light but, as the scale of the glow began to sink in, stretching almost the entire length of the range, it began to dawn on me that what we were looking at was a lot bigger than what we could see.

I looked at Mum and then Dad. There were the six of us, my two sisters, and Nick on Mum’s hip, all of us gazing up at the flickering light. How long had it been burning? The siren started last Tuesday.

Was it Tuesday? Wasn’t it Monday? Could’ve been. Gradually the talking stopped. I looked up at Dad. He was frowning, silent. What did that mean? There was fear in that silence and the faint smell of smoke, too, as the wind picked up. We were looking at something we didn’t understand. Dad sent us inside then.

I went to bed wondering why there was a fire. Did someone light it? Was it meant to be there? Was it normal? At 3am the siren started again. I heard the trucks go past heading down to the creek and then back. Mum and Dad were up. They were talking quietly in the kitchen.

I went to school the next day. My first day. Mum walked me up the hill with my sisters. There was smoke up behind the town hall at the other end of the town. Later they said Mount Elliot had caught fire, from ash that had blown across the valley. It had stayed airborne until it met the hills on the other side, five kilometres away, where it ignited the trees and brought the firefighters rushing home to defend the town.

We moved to Healesville a year later. While we waited for the removal van to catch up, Dad rang the insurance company. There was fire glowing to the north-east and the sirens were going off again.

We kept moving. That’s what teachers did then. Beaufort, Yarra Junction, Boort, Benalla. We got used to the sirens. When we arrived it was always at the height of the fire season. The fires were always there. Every year.

And as we moved from town to town we came to realise country people understood something very basic about their relationship with the land. It was about respect. Bushfires commanded it. They were nature in its purest form and they were as natural as the dawn itself. Every town knew how to defend itself. Fire defence was as much a part of the community as the local football team. Hell, half the team were in it.

The threat of bushfires is fundamental to life in country Australia. They threaten and they destroy life, sometimes even human life, but they also unite people. There is something strangely comforting about the siren in the country town.

Even though it warns us of danger, it is also the sound of the community preparing itself for the worst; that underlying all of the day-to-day routine of life there is an understanding that we are ready to help each other when catastrophe strikes.

Mark Seymour was the singer-songwriter with Hunters & Collectors and now has a solo career. Born in Benalla, he grew up in areas affected by bushfires.