The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 1

Are the Fires Alive?

Special thanks goes to Pietar, Sam the Ham, and John Smith who provided suggestions and editing advice for this story. Thanks guys. Writers need feedback and without your help, this tale would have been all the poorer. ~ Charles

For those who find metric units a challenge, unit translators exist. With the numbers in alternate units in parentheses the story juddered, so Charles as agreed that they may go. I've also deleted translations to words US folk ought to be able to understand, like jam/jelly. I've left in translations of slang! You'll cope. ~ Webmaster

New Year's Eve 2019

For some, the Australian bush is magic. A natural place, largely untouched by human hands. The tall indigenous trees - the Coastal and Mugg Ironbarks, and the Blue, Ghost and the Large-fruited Yellow Gums and so many more. The smaller bushes and thin-leaf Rough, Drummond's and the Gold-dust Wattles and other native grasses spreading as ground cover are the backdrop you see. The smell is a clean, welcoming combination of eucalyptus trees and other plants that cover the odors of everyday life, death, and decay you will find overpowering in other forests in the world. Then there is the melodious rich, fluty caroling of the Magpies, and the chuckling of Kookaburras, all intermixed within the cacophony of the other indistinguishable birdsong. And as a further backdrop to this striking scene, there is the constant thrum of the over 200 different types of cicadas, and the estimated 225,000 species of other insects in Australia that all find their place within the magnificent tapestry of the bush. But wait, there is more to the package without extra charge. The added bonus of strange, weird, and wonderful animals found nowhere else in the world. They have roamed this wide brown land for untold thousands of years. Less widespread than they had once been perhaps, but still present, and sightings are common. However, there is danger lurking here as well. Of the 100 species of venomous snakes, a dozen or so are considered toxic enough to be fatal to humans. Then there are the handful of highly venomous spiders, whose bites can be extremely painful and are linked with deaths in medical records. But the greatest danger, responsible for more death, injury and destruction of property than anything else, is seasonal and erratic in appearance, but is as old and ancient as the bush itself. It is an intrinsic part of Australia's environment. The natural ecosystem and biological diversity are inexorably linked, and totally dependent on, this greatest of all hazards - bushfires.

Jack Harrison revved hard on the throttle of his Australian made Big Wheel DHZ Outlaw Dirt Bike as he crested a small rise. Beside him rode is best mate Jarrah Hunter on an American Pitster Pro. The boys knew these tracks well and still thought they could outrun the fire and make it back to town safely. The problem was, this bushfire wasn't following the rules. The maximum speed of a blaze in the Australian outback was supposed to be limited to about 20 kph, but this one was ignoring that standard and appearing in places it had no right being, over a dozen kilometers away from the main fire front.

"Don't slow down!" yelled Jack. "We need to get to the highway. It's our only chance."

Jarrah nodded. "Crikey mate! I've got the throttle to the max already."

Each boy knew the consequences of taking the only option they now had. If he had the time, Jack would have stopped and kicked himself. No doubt his father would agree and propose a similar, if not more severe punishment. But this time he deserved it. Talk about a hair-brained idea he'd had that morning to go and watch the CFA (Country Fire Authority) guys at work as they battled the Christmas Day fire that had been burning out of control on the west side of town for the past week. Jarrah was a good mate, but he needed to stand up for himself more. Sure he complained that this was "one crazy-assed idea," but he got talked into it as he always did. The two 13-year-olds had been friends forever, and Jack knew exactly what buttons to press to get his less assertive pal to do stuff.

The boys had never intended to get close to the action of course, and assumed they could safely watch the proceedings from Cockatoo Ridge which occupied a rocky bluff at least 3 kilometers away from the main fire front. Jack had brought his dad's old binoculars and expensive digital zoom-lens video camera and they'd spent three hours that morning filming the trucks, tankers, pumpers, and the Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules and the huge old CFA's DC-10 fire bomber planes dumping water or their red colored fire retardant. He had been hoping to get video of the recently arrived MD-87 from the USA or the Japanese Government two C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft all sent to help fight the bushfires. Such footage would certainly be a coup for his YouTube site and might generate international interest.

The boys had shared the work of taking the video. It was a good camera and easy to use. It had five different levels of digital zoom which they needed where they were.

"I see your Uncle Mike down there," said Jarrah at one point. "I'm sure it's him. He's bossing everyone around. And I reckon that must be your dad arguing with him."

"Let me see," demanded Jack taking the camera from his friend.

Uncle Mike was the regional Group Officer of the CFA and his dad the local brigade Captain. However, it was difficult to identify individuals from this distance. Every one of the volunteer fire fighters were dressed identically in the yellow, synthetic-fabric firefighter's tunic and pants, protective flash hood, helmet, and boots. Those in close to the conflagration also wore breathing apparatus masks on their faces and tanks on their backs.

"I think you're right," said Jack after checking the screen on the camera several times. "And that'll be your mom and dad down there standing next to the MCV. (Mobile Communications Vehicle)

The Reverend Sam Hunter, Jarrah's dad, his mom and almost every other able-bodied adult, man and woman, he knew from town was down there. In rural Australia, being a volunteer fire fighter in the summer was practically considered a community obligation. They all had regular jobs of course. Jack's dad was manager of the local branch of the Commercial Bank, the biggest in town, Uncle Mike was the Senior Sergeant in charge at the local cop-shop and one of the only two full time police officers in town, and Jarrah's dad was the vicar at the Church. (Church of England or Episcopal Church). Jack knew he would have been down there too, but you had to be at least 16 to join the CFA and he still had just under three years to wait. Still, he and Jarrah were members of the Junior Volunteer Development Program for the 11 to 15-year-olds and thought they already knew a thing or two about bushfires.

It was Jarrah who raised the alarm first. "Jack!"

"Shut up. The DC10's making another pass. I need to get this one properly. We messed up the drop last time."

"Jack! You need to look."

"What? What is it?" asked the bleached blond headed boy in frustration. His mate had messed up another opportunity for some amazing video. Jarrah was pointing behind them.

Jack looked around and did a double take. "How?" What? How did the fire get over there? Impossible!"

Cockatoo Ridge was a high point. It looked down into the Middleton Valley where the CFA had been fighting the fire for days. Behind them was more bottom land and the loggers track they had used to get there. But now that part of the bush was also ablaze. This new front wasn't anything like they had seen on the other side, but it was building steadily and it was clear there was no escape that way. Somehow flying embers from the main blaze down in the Middleton Valley had flown over the ridge and created a new outbreak.

The boys had assumed their escape route back home was safe. But they ignored what was being reported in the news every day. An extended drought dating back to 2017, the fact that 2019 was the hottest year ever recorded in Australian history with temperatures well above normal. Then there were the specific local conditions that combined to make this one of the worst bushfire seasons ever. Extreme temperatures, over 45°C becoming common, low humidity and strong winds. To make matters worse, the huge fire fronts had created their own weather conditions with enormous updrafts of heat, flames and flammable materials, creating lightning strikes kilometers away. The strong winds carried burning embers considerable distances, starting further spot fires. In addition, there was the endless supply of tinder-dry parched fuel to feed the inferno. The boys lived in East Coast, a small town (population 3,252 in the off season) on the coast of East Gippsland in the state of Victoria. The national parks alone in just this part of the state covered 2,680 square kilometers, or the size of the US state of Rhode Island. On top of that, undeveloped public land (owned by the government, but open to logging, grazing and light forestry use) comprised a land area three times bigger than that. This was a vast country, and the boys only knew and scarcely understood their own small section of it.

"Jack, what do we do?" asked Jarrah. "With the new fire behind us, we're cut off from the track."

"Shit! I can see. No way are we gonna get through that. So it's the highway! No other choice."

The boys packed the camera away quickly, got onto their dirt bikes and headed in the direction of the highway. The original plan had been to sneak back home over the old logger's bridge across the river. It was a circuitous route and added another 25km to their trip. But only the dirt bike kids ever used it, and you could suddenly appear back in town without anyone knowing you'd left. The only other way to enter East Coast was straight down the main highway. He and Jarrah were riding dirt bikes, only legal for off-road use. They didn't have the lights, horns or registration to make them street legal. But fear of arrest wasn't the issue. Policing was much more "flexible" in the countryside. Besides, Jack's uncle was in charge of local law enforcement. No, the problem was East Coast was a small place where everyone knew everyone. Someone would definitely see them riding into town down High Street and guess where they'd been. No doubt one of his sisters, Emily or Jessica, would get to hear of it and dob them in. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" Jack muttered to himself as they rode along the dirt tracks to the highway. There was no other option now. His father would descend into one of his "moods" when he heard. There had always been a tense relationship between the two, and "this irresponsible stunt," as the man would call it, was sure to create a five alarm reaction.

Twenty minutes later, Jack and Jarrah reached the summit of Wheeler's Point, the second of four moderate sized hills on the main road to town, when things only got worse.

"Okay, this is officially 'serious'" yelled Jarrah after they had come to a screeching halt at the top of the hill. He removed his helmet, goggles, and the blue, white, and red kerchief he wore across his face.

"We're stuffed!" he groaned.

"Yep," replied Jack. "Well and truly. Stuffed!"

In front of them lay a third, as yet unrecorded, fire front that was quickly developing in front of their eyes. Flames were racing up the next rise on both sides of the road. The fire was spreading through grass and ground cover, the scrub, and was well into the tree canopy level already. It would be suicide to attempt to ride through that. So Burke's Bridge, the only official way across the Tipalong River, and the main road into town, was now also cut off. Jack guessed they were the only ones who knew it at present.

Both boys grinned at each other to cover the apprehension they really felt. They had been in tight places before, but there was now no way they could cover up their little video making outing. They were in big trouble indeed. Every kid under 16 had been officially confined to the town precincts today by joint order of the mayor and police department. "Uncle Sarge" as Jack called him sometimes, had made a specific point of mentioning it to him after the town meeting last night when the adults had discussed plans for fighting the fires today. Had the Senior Sergeant of police in East Coast read his mind? Perhaps, Sarge was no fool and as his uncle, he'd known Jack forever.

The two teens remained quiet for several minutes as they watched the flames quickly spread further away from the road in both directions. There were no cars here today. All the summer tourists had been evacuated days before. Everyone else was across the river in town or out fighting the bushfires over 14km away in the Middleton Valley.

"How could the fire get way over here?" demanded Jarrah. "Are these fires alive? Are they following us around and out to get us?"

Jack removed his head gear and took out one of the bottles of water from his backpack. He drank half the contents in several gulps. The boys understood the importance of remaining hydrated in these conditions. It was an extremely hot day. Between swallows, he looked over at his friend. Jarrah was 6cm shorter than him at 162cm and weighed 48kg to his 52kg. His thick longish black curly hair was parted in the middle, and contrasted sharply with Jack's light brown, almost straw-colored tousled hair, naturally bleached from long exposure to the sun and salt water. Jarrah liked to boast that he was a member of the Gunaikurnai people. They were the traditional owners of Gippsland before the white man made his appearance. He certainly had darker skin than anyone of Northern European descent, but even he had to admit his aboriginal features had been diluted through the generations. His mom, originally Sally McDonald before marrying the Reverend Sam Hunter, had ancestors from Scotland. And although his father had greater claim to indigenous heritage, as the local Church of England vicar, he presented himself as more mainstream than practically anyone else in town. Jack had the deep full body tan of Australian boys that spent their lives outdoors or at the beach and from a distance it was difficult to distinguish the two by skin color alone. But of course, it was his beach blond hair and azure blue eyes that set him apart.

Jarrah had asked a good question. How had the bushfire skipped over a dozen kilometers of yet unburnt bushland in the Tatungalung National Park and created a new outbreak here? Jack looked towards the sky and then at the tops of the tall gum trees all around. He knew from his classes with the CFA Juniors that the leaves of Eucalyptus trees produced a volatile highly combustible oil, and the ground beneath the trees was always covered with large amounts of litter that wasn't easily broken-down by the fungi that consumed normal dead plant matter. Wildfires burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. But that wasn't what held his attention. It was a 42 degree day and wind gusts of 40kph had been forecast. Jack guessed the wind speed must be blowing at least double or triple that just now. The trees were being severely buffeted by intense wind. The maelstrom of dark grey smoke that filled the sky was alive with orange colored flying ash and embers spreading the fire in every direction.

A blast of searing hot air struck the boys from ahead as the wind suddenly shifted their way. Almost as quickly, it reversed itself, swirled about for several minutes, and then morphed into a fire tornado lasting half-a-minute that headed up the next hill towards East Coast, less than 8 km away. Jack knew fires traveled faster up hills than going down or on flat land. For every 10° slope, a fire will double its speed. Flames rise upwards, so they'll ignite things above them sooner than things below. Heat also rises, making a wind that fans the flames upwards. This was now a brand new front in the deadly bushfires that had been consuming large chunks of Eastern Australia over the past two months.

There is something about witnessing nature out of control that touches a primal terror in us all. For modern man, perhaps it is worse. We are so used to directing the planet to suit our purposes, that when Mother Nature insists on her own way, we feel emasculated. The sense of powerlessness is profound. The most primitive part of our brains tell us there are always two choices – fight or flight. But fight wasn't an option here. And flight… What might that achieve?

"The whole town could go up. We need to warn them," yelled Jack over the roar of the fire. The more it grew, the louder it got. It was like the sound of a huge unstoppable freight train bearing down on them. Black smoke drifted into their mouths and eyes that smelled of burned eucalyptus oil.

"What?" shouted Jarrah turning his attention back to his friend. "How? Did you forget that the two cell towers were destroyed yesterday? There ain't gonna be no phone signal around here for maybe months."

It was true. They hadn't even bothered to bring their phones. You had to know things were serious when young teens deliberately left home without their mobiles.

Jack looked around as he considered the options. There was going to be one hell of a row with his father when he found out about the little video-making trip. But he couldn't do anything about that now. The town was in danger and all the CFA firefighters were way over on the other side of the valley. Sure, there were spotter-planes which would discover this new outbreak eventually, but with bushfires, every second counted. The blaze was heading straight up the main road to East Coast and no one else knew it was coming. The boys needed to act. Running away and hiding now wouldn't save their asses and might cause the death and destruction of everything in life they had ever known. The Black Saturday fires of 2009 had killed 173 people and more or less completely destroyed the Victorian towns of Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen, and Flowerdale. Jack was determined that East Coast wouldn't be added to that list. He was now pumped with adrenalin and needed to act.

"Old man Campbell," he yelled, drawing Jarrah's vacant stare away from the fire. "I remember my Uncle Mike saying Mr. Campbell kept his RM (Regional Mobile) radio after he retired from the police force. Uncle Mike got a new one at the station."

Both boys looked toward the south in the direction of the Campbell place.

"Shit Jack!" exclaimed a worried Jarrah. "The fire's heading fast in that direction too."

"Yeah well! We can ride faster. We're the East Coast Bandits after all."

Without another word, he turned his bike and took off towards the south. Jarrah reluctantly followed. As his best mate kept telling him, he needed to stand up for himself more. But maybe now was not the time.

Less than 4 minutes later Jack and Jarrah came roaring up the dirt path to the old Campbell farm. It was one of the oldest properties in the district and had been in the same family since the 1870s, although it hadn't really been used as a farm for some time now. It was a classic Australian style homestead from the era. Built on stone stumps raised 60cm off the ground, the single-story wooden structure had the wrap-around wide verandah, corrugated iron roof, and almost floor to ceiling wide open windows designed to collect whatever cool breezes were available. People in this part of the country rarely locked their doors or closed windows. Burglaries were extremely rare. Next to the house was the ubiquitous rusty old water pumping windmill and a raised metal water tower which was where the two teens stopped their bikes in a cloud of dust.

"Shit mate! I wouldn't go climb'n in there. You're gonna boil like the frog in the pot when the fire comes through here. I reckon 15 or 20 minutes at most," yelled Jack.

Jarrah laughed out loud at the image. He always laughed at his friend's jokes.

Jack and Jarrah had spotted the two younger boys as they rode down the driveway to the farmhouse. The kids had been climbing up the ladder on the side of the water tower and attempting to get inside. The strange thing was, they didn't recognize them, even though they knew every kid in town.

The two younger boys stared boldly down at the teens, perhaps feeling safe in their lofty perch. Jack guessed these two were brothers. They certainly looked similar. Dressed in shorts, tee-shirts, thongs (flip-flops), green camouflage bushmaster (Boonie) hats on their heads and a thick layer of white sun block across their noses and cheeks, they looked like every other preteen country boy.

"Where's Mrs. Campbell? And who are you guys? We know everyone in town and you're not from 'round here."

"We could see the smoke and smell the bushfire coming," said the older boy by way of explanation. "I thought with the water in there…" the boy looked at the two teens seeking support for his escape plan. When the older blond headed boy just grinned and shook his head, he did what his father always told him. Attack. "Who are you?" he demanded.

Jack guessed the boy was about 10 or 11 years old, and the smaller one, a year younger. He laughed out loud. It was rare for a younger boy to challenge Jack Harrison like this. The kid definitely had spunk.

"Sorry, we got no time for pecker games. I'm Jack Harrison and this here is my mate Jarrah Hunter." Jack explained pointing at the boy on the other motor bike. "You see, there's one hell of a monster bushfire coming this way and another front heading to town. We need to use Mr. Campbell's RM radio to warn the CFA. I ain't joking!"

"I'm James Campbell, and this is my brother Oliver. He's only 10." said the taller boy, indicating they should climb down. The younger kid scowled, clearly not happy at being called "only 10."

When they reached the ground, Oliver was ready with a little payback for his brother.

"I'm almost 10 and a half and James is only 11 you know. Our nana and pop aren't here just now. Pop has been fighting the fires every day. But he got hurt somehow and Nana went into town to bring him back home. James and I were down at the creek, so she left a note saying she'd be back soon. But she hasn't got back yet."

"So you're Mr. and Mrs. Campbell's grandkids then? You live in Melbourne, right?" asked Jack who knew the family had relatives in the capital.

"Yes," responded James. "We live in Toorak and our dad's a barrister, an SC (Senior Counsel)." He said this as if it was meant to impress the two country boys. It didn't. Neither Jack nor Jarrah really knew Melbourne well enough to distinguish suburbs and had only the vaguest idea of what a barrister did.

"So how come you kids are still here? I thought all the tourists were evacuated days ago."

Oliver answered. "Pops was supposed to take us home on Boxing Day last Thursday, but then the bushfires came and he went to help stop them. Then Nana was s'possed to take us, but she said she didn't want to drive all the way back to Melbourne. She said she gets lost in that 'big old city with all those people and cars. And the traffic is real bad.' And that bit is true. One time my family got stuck in our car at one place for over 45 minutes because of an accident with some cars and a big truck. And James needed to pee real bad, and he had to get out of the car and piss in some bushes…"

"Shut-up you little…" yelled the older brother. James looked at the two teens attempting to decide whether he could get away with saying what he planned, but Jack cut him off.

"Enough already! We need to use the RM radio right away," said Jack, and he strode off towards the house, shaking his head.

"Nana says we're not allowed to touch that radio," yelled Oliver after him.

Jack ignored the 10-year-old. But as he entered the front door he added, "You kids can't stay here. The fire's coming this way."

He found the radio in a side cabinet in the living-room. It was turned on already, but set to a low volume. Jack had been shown how to use this equipment by his Uncle Mike one day at the cop shop. He picked up the microphone to speak, but hesitated.

"After I make the call, we bug-out to the weir. Okay? It's the only safe place within 20 km. We can get in one of the tourist boats and row out to the middle of the lake if the fire gets close. Even better, maybe some of the houseboats 'll still be there."

Jack was looking at Jarrah when he said this. They both understood he was referring to the King George Lake Reservoir which was fed by runoff from the Snowy Mountains. Even with the drought this year, it was still several kilometers across and a tourist attraction for water sports enthusiasts. Water skiing competitions and motor boat races were held there each summer. (All canceled this year because of the fires). And there were about 20 small row-boats they hired out to tourist at an hourly rate. They would still be there in the boat-shed. There were also a few large house boats available for longer term rental, but these might have been moved down river.

His friend nodded agreement.

Then Jack looked at the two Campbell brothers. "We gonna have to take the kids with us. They can't stay here."

He saw James was about to argue, so he turned up the volume nob on the RM radio. Immediately they could hear conversation from the pilot of one of the fire-bomber planes describing the next run he planned to make. Jack waited until there was a lull in the conversation and then depressed the speak button.

"Er… um…This is an emergency. My name is Jack Harrison. Er… I need to speak to CFA Regional Group Officer, Mike Harrison… Um, um! If he's not available, Local Brigade Captain, Ian Harrison. Over."

"Hold!" came the one-word response. A minute later, Uncle Mike spoke.

"This better be good Jack. You're breaking about 10 laws speaking on this radio. Over."

The boy felt relief wash over him. He found it much easier to talk with his uncle than his own dad. He could tell his story with confidence and this man would listen.

"Sorry Uncle Mike, but this is an emergency. About 6 or 7 minutes ago, Jarrah Hunter and me saw a new fire front start just on the other side of the summit of Wheeler's Point. The fire was getting big, fast, and heading straight up the highway towards town. There are strong winds up there and I reckon it won't take long to reach the river. If it crosses that… well you know… Over."

"Okay thanks for the warning. I have Katie directing a spotter plane over that way as we speak. Over." First Constable Katie Meadows, was the only other full-time police officer in East Coast and in the surrounding 50 kilometer radius. The police in rural districts wore many hats and chasing bad guys was often the least of their duties.

"Where are you now? Over" came back Uncle Mike a few seconds later.

"At the Campbell farm, but the fire is heading this way too, and I don't think we can do anything to save the house. Over."

"Don't you try! That's an order. Campbell knew this was coming and moved out all the family keepsakes last week. He was injured this morning by falling branches and was evacuated to the clinic in town. Over."

"Is he okay? asked James and Oliver almost simultaneously. Jack glared at them for interrupting, but quickly softened. He could understand their concern.

"At the house we found Mr. and Mrs. Campbell's grandkids – James and Oliver. They want to know if their grandfather is okay. Over."

"He has some relatively minor 3rd degree burns and a broken scapula, but is otherwise okay. He'll make a full recovery. Over."

"Good news," said Jack as he saw the two brothers smiling for the first time. "We can't get back to town. Jarrah and I are planning to bug out to the King George Lake Reservoir. We'll take one of the row-boats, or a houseboat if there is one, and get away from the shore if the fire heads in that direction. We'll take the Campbell brothers with us. Over."

"Okay. A good plan. But I can't get any assets over that way just now. The spotter plane has just confirmed your report about the new fire front at Wheeler's Point. I need to send everything that way for now. You might need to hang on until tomorrow morning. Over."

"No problem Uncle Mike. We'll be fine. Over."

"Take food, water, and blankets or whatever else you need from the Campbell house. Jerry in the spotter plane can see your bikes. He says the branch of the fire heading your way got side tracked in a gully, but could reach you in about 15 or 20 minutes. Jack, tell Jarrah I'm very proud of both of you. Very adult behavior. Your warning might have saved the town. We can leave the discussion of your reasons for being out there for another day. Look after the Campbell grandkids. And take care of yourselves too. You're the only nephew I've got. Over and out."

Jack smiled as he put the microphone down. It felt good to be appreciated and learn they'd made the right decision to make the call. They had done everything they could to help the community. It was time now to look after themselves. So Jack took charge as he always did.

"You heard the police sergeant. We need to get out of here fast…"

He looked over at the Campbell brothers. "James and Oliver, you'll need protective clothing for both the dirt-bike ride and for the fire. Go put on long dacks (pants) – jeans if you've got them, long sleeved shirts and proper shoes, like boots. If you don't have boots, your runners (sneakers) will do. Do you have backpacks?"

"We don't have boots, but we have backpacks," answered Oliver. "Do I call you Jack?"

"Of course, that's my name and he's Jarrah and you're James and Oliver. Right?

The two younger boys smiled in answer.

It was clear before that the Campbell brothers weren't happy being called "kids," by a boy just a few years older. Jack had done it as a power play to show who was boss, but now he needed them to feel part of his team if this was going to work. So he changed his tone. He recalled the words of his football coach from last year.

"You build a team by ensuring everyone feels included in the group. If you have potential whingers (people who complain a lot), they're the most important to welcome with open arms. It's better to have them on the inside pissing out, than on the outside pissing in."

"Okay, you guys go change and pack a few things – a spare tee-shirt, shorts, jocks (underwear), thongs, and toothbrush. You have 3 minutes."

"Jarrah you get whatever food you can find. Enough for a full day, but nothing we need to cook. Stuff like fruit, biscuits, bread, jam, honey, energy bars, lollies, or any canned stuff like roast-beef, spam, tuna. Don't forget a can opener. I'll collect a few small blankets, a first aid kit if I can find one, and empty water bottles. There are filtered water-taps out at the weir for the tourists, so we should be okay for drinking water. If any of you think of other stuff, let me know. But we can't bring too much. Everything has to fit into the 4 backpacks."

"Pops has a big old camping backpack," said James.

"Okay, smart thinking. Show me. Get going everybody. We need to be out of here soon. Chop! Chop!" yelled Jack clapping his hands together.

It took longer than they'd planned, but 10 minutes later there were 4 stuffed backpacks by the door ready to go. Jack was a little concerned about whether they could actually carry all this stuff with 4 boys on two bikes, but they could dump things if it became an issue.

The smell and noise from the oncoming bushfire had been getting more noticeable by the minute. The house had been slowly filling with smoke. It was clear their time was up. Jack picked up the largest bag and said,

"Okay, let's go!"

"What about the dogs?" asked Oliver. "Red Dog and True Blue. There're chained up outback."

Jack had heard the barking and the more and more desperate howls of the dogs as the fire approached, but in his rush to collect all their provisions, he had somehow put them out of his mind.

"Okay, we can't put them on the bikes. No room. But if I remember, they're Australian Kelpies right? They don't mind a bit of exercise. They can run beside us. They'll prefer that. James, show Jarrah where you keep the dog food. You two get a day's supply, a bowl for water and meet us out at the bikes. Oliver and I'll collect the dogs and meet you there."

When they arrived out the back of the farm house, it was clear to see the dogs were pleased to learn they hadn't been abandoned to the fire. Red Dog and True Blue jumped all over Oliver as if they hadn't seen him for weeks. Jack extended a hand for the dogs to sniff and when they seemed comfortable, he reached under their chins and gave each animal a scratch on the chest. As a country boy, he dealt with dogs all the time and avoided reaching over their heads. No dog, or human, likes a stranger patting their head! He released the chains, but left the leather collars in place. They had rope in one of the bags if they needed to restraint the kelpies again.

A few minutes later all four boys were loaded up and ready to go. The dogs, feeling both the danger and excitement of the moment, were running around in circles anxious to get started. Jack had James as his pillion passenger and Oliver rode with Jarrah.

"Put your arms around my waist and hang on. We need to move fast and dirt bikes aren't exactly designed for passengers."

With that, they took off down the road leaving a boiling cloud of dust and small stones behind in their wake. The two dogs seemed to sense where they were heading and ran along in front for now. It was about 10km to King George Lake Reservoir and it would take about 15 minutes or so to get there as they were using the old logging and the CFA fire-tracks that ran through the National Park at the back of the Campbell farm. These were not well maintained, and were dusty, rutted in places, and had potholes around every corner. That limited their maximum speed to about 40 KM per hour (25 MPH), which was faster than bushfires were supposed to travel, and Jack assumed they'd be okay.

For the first few minutes the trip was uneventful. Both teens could sense their passenger's nervousness about being on a dirt bike, but neither of the Campbell brothers complained. They didn't have helmets and goggles like the two drivers, but Jarrah had insisted they wear sunglasses, all they had, to keep some of the dust away from their eyes. All four boys wore bandanas across their faces. They had found a packet of N95 medical face masks back at the house and planned on using these if the fire got close.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear they needed to slow their pace to allow Red Dog and True Blue to keep up. Jack had dramatically underestimated their probable travel time as he quickly realized how unrealistic it was to expect the dogs to run anything like the pace he set initially. So the little group stopped every few minutes to allow the two Australian kelpies to catch their breath. James and Oliver were placed in charge of giving the animals water and feeding them Jerky Stick dog treats to restore energy. They were glad they had thought to bring the collapsible dog water bowl along. While that happened the two older boys climbed the nearest manageable tree and looked about for traces of the fire. They could still smell the blaze in the distance and the sky was choking in a black, smoky mist. But as far as they could see, there were no immediate hot spots around them.

Back on the road again, the dirt bikes sped around one particularly sharp bend on the track and almost ran straight into an old buck kangaroo standing in the middle of the path. It was big, the biggest Jack had ever seen. Males are always bigger than females and this one must have been near 2m tall and probably weighed close to 90kg. Jack slammed on the brakes and came to a dusty stop 5 meters away. Jarrah pulled up right next to him and they quickly formed a half triangle with the front wheels of the dirt bikes pointed at the buck. This was a technique they had used before and akin to circling the wagons against Indian attack in the old Wild West. Kangaroos are vegetarians, so they don't attack humans for food, but might assault people if they feel threatened or provoked in some way. And an alpha buck, like this one here, is the leader and protector of his mob as well as defender of his marked territory. He would always maintain the right to challenge any perceived intruder or possible predator that entered his domain. The older boys had been taught a healthy respect for these animals and would allow the old boomer to move off at his own pace when he was good and ready.

The two kelpies bared their teeth and gave low growls.

"Get behind me James. We need the dirt bikes between us and that roo," ordered Jack. He held firmly onto the collars of Red and True. Fortunately the dogs were smart enough to sense it wouldn't end well to take on such a big opponent and they just held their ground. But they would fight to protect the humans if it came to that. Jarrah got Oliver into the half-triangle as well.

The boomer stared defiantly at the two dogs, and then at the boys. It snorted, sounding almost like a pig, swiveled its ears to pick up sounds, and then bounced off across the track into the bush on the other side. Almost immediately, a deafening sound of tramping feet followed as undergrowth was crushed and dozens of kangaroos hopped across the track at full speed. They ignored the little group stuck on the road and just bounced around them. And the mob kept coming and coming – eventually several hundred of them. Both Jack and Jarrah had seen kangaroos before, but in their experience a typical mob consisted of just 10 or so individuals. This was nothing like that. It took several minutes for them all to pass. The boys stood there open-mouthed. When the last one had disappeared into the brush, Jack looked over at the others. The two Campbell brothers both had huge smiles on their faces. As well they might. This was a once in a lifetime experience.

"Where are they going? asked Oliver.

"Away from the fire," responded Jarrah. "Maybe to King George Lake Reservoir. That's where we're going. Maybe we'll see them again. But I've never seen that many kangaroos in one place before."

Jack agreed. "As my old granddad used to say, 'you just saw something to tell your grandchildren about.'" He smiled as well. He had no idea if he would ever have grandchildren, but he was pretty sure he'd remember this for a long time.

"Will they be safe – from the fire I mean?" asked James.

"I think so," Jack said. "Kangaroos survive bushfires by bounding away at high speed. They can maintain a fast speed for ages. While a bushfire can move fast, kangaroos can move faster, and in a different direction. Their real problem will be dealing with food shortages after the fire has ended."

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