Like Stan, I was fortunate to be able to spend some time over the Christmas break in the African bush, and, like him, I found it helped me put things in perspective and even unblocked a badly blocked chapter. After that I traveled to Australia for a trip to Tasmania guided by two great friends who were born there and shared my enthusiasm for food and wine and birds. Tasmania was separated from the mainland ten thousand years ago and developed some unique bird and animal life, including the Tasmanian Devil and the so called Tasmanian Tiger. The Devil is endangered as a result of infectious facial tumors that first appeared in the nineties and have devastated the wild population. The Tiger was hunted to extinction with the last individual dying in captivity in the 1936. The human history is sad also, with the aboriginal people suffering the same fate as the Tigers and the early European settlements being the cruel Van Diemen’s land penal colonies. But it is a wonderful island with gorgeous vistas and friendly people. Last year Tasmania had a good winter followed by a hot, dry summer.
And that was the problem.
The day before we arrived, Friday January 4th, the temperatures soared across all of southern Australia as hot winds circulated over the central interior. Hobart (the largest city in Tasmania) hit an all-time high recorded temperature of 105 degrees. And high winds gusted through the country areas where dry grass and dead wood waited for any spark.
That day fires raged through the Tasman peninsular in the South, around Freycinet on the East coast, and also in the North. With the fire fighters stretched thin, and no hope of reinforcements of equipment and men from the mainland, the fire services battled to exhaustion. More than a hundred homes were lost to the flames with damage estimated at over $50 million, but miraculously no one died. Veterans of the previous Tasmanian fires agreed that a remarkable job had been done with the resources available. Now the high temperatures and fires have spread to Victoria and New South Wales, where one fire front stretches around fifty miles. Shockingly, many of the fires are set by arsonists.
We were not in any of the immediately affected areas but we heard stories from people who had been evacuated and didn’t know whether they had still had homes. As we drove up the coast, my South African cell phone beeped and announced: “EMERGENCY WARNING – Residents of Kellevie and Bream Creek are to evacuate NOW to the Marion Beach.” It may seem as though having a nearby beach at least will save your life, but it’s not that easy. You have to get far enough from the flames to avoid the heat, poisonous gasses, and smoke. One family clung to a pier with just their heads above the water until the flames had passed.
Did we have a good trip? It was excellent. The locals called for visitors not to cancel their travel plans. Tasmainia needs the tourists; my friend colorfully describes the Tasmanian economy as "cactus". But there is a feeling of guilt when one is having a good time and other people nearby are escaping with only their lives.
Michael – Thursdays
PS Congratulations to the OTHER Michael Sears whose excellent debut novel BLACK FRIDAYS has just been short listed for an Edgar award. (Nothing to do with bush fires, by the way!)