Maria and Graham had laid on a feast fit for a king: in Australia, more and more, Christmas dinner is a salad affair. Prawns, cold meats and lots of good things from our combined vegetable gardens went down superbly with a couple of beers each for Graham and I, and some bubbly for the girls. A warm westerly breeze was blowing.
We were all preparing to come back to my place, and as Graham and I were loading his kids' brand-new bikes in the back of his ute, he asked "Do you smell that, Loz?"
The breeze had become a fairly stiff wind, and on it I could detect the unmistakeable, and quite pleasant, aroma of eucalyptus burning. We wandered around to his gate, and, looking westward, saw a haze of blue-grey smoke drifting over the escarpment, the series of hills that identify the most easterly throes of the Great Divide, about ten kilometres away.
"Not good, Graham. I think we'd better go for a drive."
Heading out along the ridge, into a clearer vantage point, we could see that a fire was burning way off on the top of the escarpment. We decided to go to the fire shed, and, when we arrived, a flurry of activity was happening. I could see a neighbour, Eric, who was captain of the volunteer service, barking orders at groups of guys busy with their fire-trucks, reels of hose and a few water-tankers that had just driven in. I jumped out of the ute.
"What do you reckon, Eric?", I asked.
"Could be crook, Laurie - we've got a real bad weather report comin' in - forty degrees and 100k westerlies. We're going out along Cedar Ridge, cause it looks like if that fire comes over the hill, it'll blow straight through here. I'd get home and start gettin' ready, if I were you."
"OK mate - what about your place?" He just looked at me with the glum determination of a bloke who knows that, while he's out saving other people's homes, his own might just be burning down.
"If you get a chance, you know what to do, Loz."
"Sure thing." But we both knew that, if it did get bad, it could get very bad for all of us.
We got back to Graham's and decided to get his place as ready as possible, then head down to mine. Graham was in the reasonably fortunate position that there was plenty of cleared area around his house - especially towards the west from where the fire would inevitably come. The idea would be that we would get my place secure, wait for the fire and deal with it, then get back up to his to do the same. (As things turned out, our plans were totally demolished by the speed and severity of the fire when it did come.)
The lot of us drove to my place. Chris got on the phone to another mate, Greg, to get him to bring his pump and hoses over. (Out here, everyone has this sort of gear - you're mad if you don't.) Greg's place was in a relatively safe suburban area, and he was under no threat, really, so he got some things together and was on his way.
Now, my place is in a lovely little valley surrounded by ridges on three sides and about two hundred acres of virgin bushland. Tall eucalypts are abundant, and our house is in the middle of this green oasis of forest. Idyllic, except on a forty degree day with huge, hot winds. And they were really starting to blow.
From the house we could now see, beyond the western ridge, a massive and growing pall of smoke, extending about two thousand metres into the sky. It was action time.
The kids got every bucket and container they could find and filled them, placing them around the outside of the house. The bath was filled; I plugged the gutters and ran the sprinkler on top of the roof to fill them. Graham and Miles, my son, ran firehoses to various points, and made sure that they were all working from the five thousand gallon tank on top of the hill. Greg and his eighteen year old son Matt arrived, and immediately got his pump on the swimming pool, trailing hoses along the front side of the house. Izzy, my daughter, insisted that her horse be led up from the paddock to the shelter of the house.
The plan was to meet the fire at the interface of the clearing with the bush, about forty metres from the house, and divert it around the house and yard. In a previous fire, we'd done just that pretty successfully. But we had no idea that what we were about to face was going to make that blaze look like a sparkler at a kid's birthday party.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and by this stage the wind was beginning to blow ferociously. Graham took off back up the ridge to get some bearings, and arrived back, breathlessly, a few minutes later.
"It's comin', mate - and it's real fast. We ought to get things wetted down."
We began throwing great quantities of water all over everything we could. The house was drenched, as were the gardens and the shed that holds our generators and solar-electricity set-up. But the wind was so hot and strong that the water was evaporating nearly as quickly as it was delivered.
I heard a noise, and looked up. The fire was coming over the ridge-line, directly towards us, and it was in the crowns of the trees. I shuddered.
Crown-fire: the worst kind of bushfire. The last fire had, more or less, gently come down over the hill at scrub level, and, even though there was some fairly energetic activity for an hour or so, it had been reasonably easy to draw it away from the house, and pretty safe, as well.
This was different. I had to make a split-second decision. I ran into the house, and screamed at Chris and Maria to get the three little kids and take off out the back way and get back to the ridge and relative safety. They scrambled, and within a minute were gone, with hugs and some frightened tears all round. They knew we were putting ourselves in some real danger by staying, but Graham, Greg and I were buggered if we were going to lay down without a fight. I'm not saying this out of bravado; I and my mates were just too obstinate to see twenty years' work (Greg and Graham had had a big hand in building my place) go up in flames.
I told Izzy to get her horse "inside the house - now!". For months afterwards the story of her putting a horse in the downstairs lounge-room was told, with great hilarity, all over the neighbourhood.
We all lined up on the perimeter with our hoses going full-pelt. The huge gums along the hillside glowed white, and then, one by one, exploded into flame. Limbs of trees as thick as an arm came hurling through the air like incendiary bombs, often crashing onto the roof of the house. I hoped like hell the sprinkler up there was still working, but we had no time to go back as the fire came storming back up the rise towards the house with the most unforgettable sound I've ever heard: a roar like a hundred express-trains.
Miles and I were standing beside each other when the sound of an enormous explosion came from the top of the hill. The concrete water tank had simply exploded from the heat of the fire. Suddenly, the pressure in our hoses dropped to nothing. Graham and Greg were still pumping from the swimming pool, but we were left with no defence at all.
"Run," I screamed at Miles. We got around to the eastern, lee-side of the house and lay on the ground as the fireball exploded over and around us. Sheets of blue flame whistled past us where the vapor-laden air was igniting. We jumped inside through Miles' bed-room window, and raced up the stairs, where we were greeted with the sight of huge flames belting down both verandahs, melting the fly screens, frames and all, on the windows. The heat was intense and suffocating, but the adrenalin was coursing through us so voluminously that we were both shaking with energy. It was time to do some bucket work.
For the next half an hour we ran around with buckets, re-filling from the pool and throwing them on the parts of the house that had caught alight. Greg and Graham continued to blast away at the northern side of the house, standing in the middle of the yard with flames singeing their overalls. I've never seen anything as brave.
At one stage I was running down the stairs into the lounge room. There was Izzy, holding the bridle of her horse, which was unconcernedly chomping away at its nose-bag. Tears were streaming down her face.
"Are we going to be all right, Dad?" she cried, with a look of abject terror.
At that point I should have stopped, given her a cuddle, and reassured her.
Instead, I yelled (you had to; the noise of the fire was still deafening) "We might be if you let that fucking horse go and grab a bucket!"
She and Matt took the upstairs south verandah; by this time the firefront was past, and it was a little safer to venture out. I don't know who, if anyone, could have been given the most credit for saving the house. One thing I'm fairly sure of is that if we'd been only five, instead of six, we might have lost the house, and possibly our lives, as well.
After about an hour's more work, I was assured that the house was in no danger. (Well, technically, it was, because the air was still full of burning embers.) But Greg and the kids could look after that, so Graham and I jumped in his ute (it and Greg's car were the only vehicles that hadn't been burnt to the ground) and left for his place.
We couldn't get out the top road, as several trees had come down over it, so we doubled back and fought our way through the bottom track with the aid of a chain-saw onto the ridge road. Even so, it took a good half an hour to navigate our way to his place.
We drove in, under some power lines that were swinging precariously on burnt-out poles, looked at the house, and both cracked up. It was absolutely untouched. It must have been the adrenalin come-down, but we sat their for a few minutes just giggling. Then reality hit. Graham looked over at his tool-shed - a forty foot shipping container that held all the tools of his trade - tools that were not only valuable in money terms, but that had acquired a significance in the life of this professional tradesman; any tradesperson will understand what I'm saying. There was smoke coming from it. By the time we ran over to it, we could tell that the inside was not going to be pretty.
Graham got the door open; a huge cloud of black, toxic smoke billowed from the container. It was obvious that everything inside was gone. We hung our heads.
Then Graham said something that I'm not likely to forget in a hurry. He smiled at me and said "Loz - it's just stuff. Just things. Our homes are here; we're here. That's all I need."
The fire claimed twenty homes in our area, countless sheds, out-buildings, fences, tractors and other vehicles. Everyone in the community pitched in and fought it for a week. Eric's house was safe. I got a wonderful Christmas present: one of the best friends a bloke could ever have.