No need to panic: this photograph was taken a year ago not far from where we live, so all is well. Nonetheless, when I came across it this morning, it brought to the fore all sorts of sensations ‘built into’ me from my childhood on our farm. There is the memory of heat, the special smell tinder-dry grass has, the faint movement of warm air on one’s skin, the wariness that pricks up when the conditions are right, and the knowledge that the fire season has begun.
We get veld fires here too, but none of them evoke quite the same feeling of a fire encroaching on a farm where livestock and people are at high risk. The acrid smell of smoke – there is no other smell like that of a veld fire; the sight of tiny black curls of burnt grass being blown by the wind; the thick grey smoke billowing up from the grasslands; a quick look to pinpoint where the flames might be – on our farm or that of a neighbour. The party line ringing – seemingly more loudly and more urgently than usual. No need to wait for the niceties of answering your own ring (ours was two long rings and two short ones) because everyone on the line would lift their receivers at once – there was work to be done, wherever it was needed, and the faster the farmers could muster their vehicles and their workers the better – no fire brigades to do the job out there.
Animals must be moved, crops must be saved, grazing must be saved, people must be saved – and quickly! I recall a particularly large fire fanned by strong wind that swept through the bottom section of our farm. Even from the farm house I could see vehicles like toys gathering near the bottom camp as flames roared up the tall Eucalyptus trees that seemed to explode as the sap heated up. I can feel the fear. I can still sense the urgency with which everything was done – and the hurried efficiency of getting water ready for the men who were beating out the flames.
Fire: a farmer’s nightmare.
What would camping be without a braai fire? The early evenings in a campsite spawn a number of fires in various stages of completion, and the air is soon filled with the aroma of burning wood / charcoal / cooking meat. Faces are lit up by the flames, laughter abounds … later some fires are damped down as people turn in for the night, while more wood is added to others to fuel an evening of shared stories.
All begin with something small, perhaps some kindling.
This brings with it the anticipation later of coals just ready for cooking.
Sometimes, campfires also serve the purpose of thawing a beer left in the freezer for too long!
There is something magical about sitting outside in the dark, replete after a fine meal, watching the flames licking round a log and the glow of the embers in the dark.
A strong Berg wind has blown today, shaking trees, creating eddies of dry leaves on the ground – and fanning a veld fire, funnelling the thick smoke down into the valley to smother our town.
The smoke grew thicker as the wind strengthened and the fire spread across the hills, threatening the hospital, a retirement centre and other buildings. A local school evacuated their scholars when the fire came too close.
It does not take long for a fire to eat its way through tinder dry grass and drought-stricken vegetation when there is a strong wind to egg it on. In no time at all the flames crossed the disused railway line and the smoke billowed upward.
The extent of the fire and the smoke attracted dozens of onlookers – we haven’t experienced such a veld fire so close at hand for a season or so.
Even though all the municipal fire trucks had been fully deployed they couldn’t fill the gaps. This is where the community pulled together. The university bowser came to assist.
Other assistance came from schools, the army base, a neighbouring municipality and even a nearby game reserve.
So much water has been used to fight a blaze when there is already so little to spare.
A veld fire burned at the top of the hill behind where we live – an all too common feature when the grass becomes tinder dry as a result of a combination of drought and winter.
Small flames creating a lot of smoke
Flames are whipped by the wind
Smoke soon filled the valley
The sunset was all the more spectacular as a result
Leaving a glowing sky in its wake