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I WILL never forget that August afternoon in Ashburton, outside Pietermaritzburg. The day that a potentially catastrophic event made me re-evaluate my priorities in life.
An unusually warm day for that time of the year found me lounging on my veranda, doing what lizards and dassies are renowned for, soaking up the warmth of the sun, when my wife announced: “There’s smoke across the river.”
“Really?” I called back, slightly impatiently (for months now she had become a self-appointed firewatcher).
“Yee—esss,” The exaggerated word told me my tone had not gone unnoticed. “I can see it.”
On reluctant legs, I ambled upstairs.
“Mmmm?” I queried, eyebrows raised innocently.
“There. We’d better go and put it out.”
I looked in the direction she pointed.
Sure enough a veldfire burned on the far side of the nearby Mpushini River.
“It won’t cross over,” I assured her, with more confidence than I felt, before returning to the sunlit veranda.
I had barely made myself comfortable when another call alerted me, this one more insistent. A slight anxiety stirred within me.
“It has crossed the river,” the implied “I told you so” unmistakable in her voice.
This time I leapt to my feet, ran up the stairs and stared incredulously out the window. Impossibly the fire had somehow jumped the river.
Before I could draw breath to issue instructions, my wife was already tearing down the stairs, informing our girls of what was happening as she did so.
I grabbed two fire beaters and headed to our firebreak (cut by my wife) that now, with the prospect of facing a wind-driven veldfire, seemed scanty protection for our home. Nevertheless, using hoses that had been laid out in readiness a while ago (also by my wife) we sprayed water over the uncut grass at the far side of it.
We heard angry crackling sounds and then ash, like black snow, began falling about us. The noise was not unlike bacon sizzling in a pan.
I looked in the direction it was coming from and my stomach twisted into a knot.
Rolling across the blue sky, as bold as graffiti, were clouds of black smoke that were being rent apart by tongues of flame.
“Where’re the girls?” I shouted.
“I’ll fetch them.”
My wife’s voice was shrill with emotion, but moments later, when she returned with our three daughters, I was relieved to see that her lips were compressed in determination: “What must they do?”
“Here,” I instructed the youngest two, their eyes round and expectant, “spray water. Joanne, you grab that beater. Watch for sparks.”
I grabbed the other one and winced. It felt as though I had gripped a porcupine as splinters from its handle pricked my palm. “I’m going to tackle it down there. Phone the fire department.”
My wife, without pausing as she hauled in some slack on the hoses, said matter-of-factly:“I have ... they’re busy ... the other side of the N3.”
My stillness was question enough so she added: “They don’t know when they’ll get here.”
By then the smoke was already beginning to swirl around us, making the light seem as if there was an eclipse, and I could only gape in dismay before rushing off towards the approaching bushfire.
I was met by a restless column of flame that danced and contorted in a confusion of red, yellow and black.
The wind, its general, urged his troops forward and stirred the flames up into a fury that raced liquidly across the top of the veld grass straight for me.
They only faltered when it eased off, giving me the opportunity to approach one end of the line and to begin swinging my fire beater.
In the eerie half-light everything descended into pandemonium. My mouth tasted of soot, it got up my nose and in my ears, while the intense heat caused my skin to tighten and my heart to beat violently against my ribs.
I established a rhythm — one step forward, slap the beater downwards, another step forward, slap the beater down again — all the while gasping for air. When I had beaten out about half the burning line the wind came to its aid once more and the revived flames forced me to retreat back beyond our firebreak.
I began to think our efforts were in vain, that the fire would destroy my home and everything in it.
That I would be reduced to penury.
I sprinted to my eldest daughter, took the hose from her, and yelled: “You go phone the fire department again. Ask them where they are.”
She nodded mutely.
The wind mercifully abated, allowing me to leap into the attack again as the flames began lapping at the edge of the firebreak.
Without hesitation my wife joined me, calmly squirting the flames with water, quenching them with defiant hisses, while I boisterously cursed them with each swing of my beater.
The row of flame seemed to be shrinking.
In this brief respite, I realised that the veld was covered with a dirty blanket of ash that was quite ornate where it glowed in patches. The din had also died down enough for me to hear the excited screeching of drongo’s, impossibly blacker than the charred landscape, as they dive-bombed disturbed insects.
When it seemed we might triumph after all, I couldn’t help myself: “Die, you swine,” I shouted excitedly. “Challenge me! Come on.”
“Stop messing about,” my wife cautioned. “Just put it out before it picks up again!”
My daughters giggled uncertainly at my foolishness, and at that precise moment the fire’s ally returned with a vengeance. Its arrival announced by whirlwinds of soot and ash that hurtled towards us.
In the split second that I took this in, it reached us and fanned the flames into another frenzy that strained greedily for our side of the firebreak.
“Where’s the fire department?”
“On their way.” I heard a stifled reply above the roar of flames and I glanced to one side.
Seeing my wife and daughters, standing shoulder to shoulder, calmly facing the raging bushfire, blackened faces streaked with zebra-like stripes where sweat poured down them, still wielding their now ineffective hoses.
My eyes burned.
The fire was then within 100 metres of our house.
My wife, her face a haunted mask, shouted above the inferno: “I’m going to load up our valuables.”
I simply nodded.
My daughters exchanged telling looks.
Still they held their ground and continued to spray water onto the flames whenever the wind allowed them.
I believed it was over, that the fire had won.
But I was still unsure of what to do. Did I stay and continue fighting, right back to my thatched roof? Did I get everyone away, immediately?
“No!” I shouted in frustration, causing my girls to look at me, fear written all over their faces.
“Go help your mother,” I shouted at them. “Now!”
I watched them take off like deer before the flames.
Then another unrecognised voice penetrated my tired and numbed mind.
“Hello, sir. Stand back or you’ll get wet.”
Confused, I turned towards the voice and saw a fireman, or rather woman, with a beaming smile glowing beneath her yellow helmet. I saw others looming through the smoke, unfolding coils of hose that ran like umbilical cords back to their tender.
I felt rejuvenated as I joined them in their assault on the fire.
Before long, apart from a few soft thuds as the last flames received the coup de grace, the mayhem stopped.
I watched vacantly as the fire crew coolly and professionally returned their gear back to their vehicle and waved them off, before tilting my tired neck back, blinking hard at a now innocent-looking sky, surprised to see that the sun had waned and that the air had turned cold.
Exhausted, mentally and physically, on wobbly knees and with lungs burning from smoke inhalation I trudged down to my family.
For the second time that day a spasm of pride squeezed my insides.
They were chatting and laughing now, the air heavy with relief, as they unloaded the car.
We had stood our ground, side by side, confronting a potentially life-threatening calamity that I knew had somehow tempered their inner fires.
I wagged my head with wonder when I saw that my wife had not loaded our vehicle with the stuff that takes up most of our time in pursuit of them, the wants of life — the flat-screen TV and other electronic baubles.
Instead, she had loaded a change of clothes for today, a box containing insurance policies and the like for tomorrow and our Bibles and songbooks for the longer term.
I discovered many things that day. My spouse is an astute and diligent woman, my daughters can steadfastly face the curve balls life throws at them and that adversity can confront us at any time.
But the most important thing I learnt was a simple truth. Our greatest needs are actually always with us — our lives and the ability to share them with our loved ones.
About the writer
Ken Farnsworth resides on a smallholding in Ashburton with his wife, Tracy. At the time of the incident in this story his three daughters were still living at home. Ken is a horticulturist/landscaper, enjoys creative writing and is an avid outdoorsman who spends most of his spare time in the bush pursuing his other interests of carving walking sticks, bird-watching, and generally going “rustic” (sleeping under the stars and practising bush survival skills).