West of the Sydney Basin, its huge natural harbour, its sprawling city and suburbs, the ranges of the Blue Mountains rise up and stretch for thousands of hectares. Densely forested with native trees, the peaks take their name from the distinctive haze generated by the interaction of intense heat with the evaporating oil droplets from the gum leaves.
It is a combustible compound. No road was built through these seemingly impenetrable passes until 1814, so recent in human history. Now, in quaint and pretty small communities scattered throughout the hills, many Australians live their rural dream, surrounded by the sights, sound and wonders of the bush. For the last five days, those sights and sounds have included the terror incipient in this region. The force and ferocity of bushfire. The NSW fire fighting crews, reinforced by their colleagues from other states, have been battling day and night to seek to corral the leaping flames, which race and rush across a parched and greedy land, whipped by hot winds and undeterred by any help from the heavens. A mere millimeter of rain has wetted the ground all spring.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has predicted a worsening of conditions for Wednesday October 23rd. Today, there is a slight respite, a cool change, a chance to carry on with the vital back-burning which seals a charred line between the encroaching fire front and the communities and homes it races to devour. Unable to access steep banks, fire crews have become resourceful, creative. They are setting alight the dry husks of banksia cones and throwing them down ravines as makeshift bombs. They are in a race against time. Many of them are volunteers.
A picture went viral of two young lads, brothers, aged 17 and 24, laying in the road for a two minute rest which a road verge they were working on smouldered in the distance. They epitomize the spirit of the Aussie Battler, an identity inimical to the Australian psyche. Fire Chief Shane Fitzsimmons struggled to hold back tears as he spoke of the bravery of his teams at a news conference on Monday. He lost his own father to a bushfire in 2000.
No one wants to see a repeat of the dreadful loss of life that occurred in the Victorian fires of 2009. So far there is only one reported death. The message is repeated forcibly and often, homes can be replaced, people cannot. An 18 year old schoolgirl embodies the nationwide mood of empathy by setting up a Facebook page; the firey formal gown exchange. Knowing how much a High School student will spend on her formal graduation dress, and how many have lost these, she proposed donations. Offers have flooded in, along with the matching shoes and accessories.
If the three biggest fires merge to form one almighty inferno, the situation may become catastrophic, leaping the Nepean River to broach the city itself. Australia, and the world, await with tension and terror to see what tomorrow will bring forth.
Written By: Kate Henderson