The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 2

At the Reservoir

Over an hour later, the little group arrived at the King George Lake Reservoir. The weir was a rock and earth-fill embankment dam with a controlled spillway across the upper reaches of the Tipalong River fed by runoff from the Snowy Mountain Ranges. Originally built in the 1930s, it was designed to meet the growing demand for water in the Wilson Valley and to protect farmers during drought years. The embankment dam wall was constructed with an earth core and rock fill, rising to a height of 45 meters (148 ft.). It was smaller than many of the other Victorian dams, but could still boast 87km (54 miles) of shoreline and stored, when at full capacity, almost half as much water as Sydney Harbor. The surrounding national park provided a habitat for wildlife including kangaroos, koalas, wombats, two dozen other marsupial species and a myriad of bird life. It was also an important center for a variety of water sports and even had a small, but thriving houseboat culture.

The boys drove along the road at the top of the spillway towards the shops and the boat rental concession. The dogs had fallen behind again, so they stopped. As local kids, Jack and Jarrah had been here many times. But it was amazing for them to see the place so deserted. Usually during the summer holiday months, the place was over-run with tourists. There were two major caravan parks and over 20 water-side bungalows for rent. The weir itself would be festooned with boats of all sorts and on a typical hot New Year's Eve like today, there would be hundreds of people swimming on the man made sandy beach that ran along the shoreline here for over a kilometer. But today the place was eerily quiet. There was not another human being in sight.

"This is creepy," said Jarrah sensing a feeling of unease. "I've never seen the place this quiet – even in winter."

"Yep," Jack agreed. "It reminds me of an old black and white film I saw on late night TV once. It was a science fiction show about after a nuclear war. The northern hemisphere had been blown to bits, but the citizens in Oz were slowly being killed off by radiation sickness. At the Beach or On the Beach or something like that. It showed the city in Melbourne. All the buildings were still there, but there were no people."

Suddenly, the eerie silence was broken by the sound of a distant whine that got steadily louder and closer.

"What's that noise?" James asked.

"Wait and see," Jack responded smiling and looking towards the sky. "Wave at them as they come by."

Within seconds an airplane was upon them. It came flying in low, as if about to land, and it seemed to the boys it only missed heading their heads by mere meters as it crossed over the spillway wall and down into the weir.

"Is it landing to rescue us?" yelled Oliver, anticipation in his voice.

No one answered as the noise was almost deafening. The aircraft skimmed across the reservoir barely slowing as it scooped up water from the lake into a huge tank it carried below the fuselage. Then the engine roared again, the plane rose heavenward, gained altitude and made a wide turn before heading back in the direction from which it came.

The boys on the spillway jumped up and down and waved their arms in excitement. It was an amazing scene to witness. The two dogs ran around in circles barking as loud as they could. The pilot had obviously spotted the group and wiggled his wings as he flew passed.

"You've got to admire the skill of those pilots to skim the water like that and not accidentally land into it," said Jarrah.

"Too right!" answered his mate.

Almost immediately, a second plane, same type as the first, came down and repeated the process, and then a third, a minute later.

When the drone of the airplane engines finally died away, Oliver spoke.

"I don't understand. Why didn't they stop and pick us up? What were they doing?"

Jack smiled. "Sorry guys, they weren't here to rescue us. Those were Air Tractor AT802F Fireboss Bombers. Their role is fighting the bushfires by dropping water on the blaze. They are amphibious, single engine turbo prop air tankers with 3,200 liter (850 gallons) capacity, if I remember correctly. They scoop water from a lake or even rivers sometimes. Then they add foam or gel before dropping their load on the fire front. The good news is that I have no doubt the pilots will be reporting back to my Uncle Mike that we were spotted. My uncle is the Regional Group Officer of the CFA, so he's the boss around this part of the state."

"I thought you said he was a Senior Sergeant in the police?" asked James suspiciously.

"He's that too. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) is mostly a volunteer force and so they have other jobs. They're not fighting fires all year round. In a small country town like East Coast, it's sort of expected that people like cops join. Anyway, he'll know we are here and arrived safely. He'll tell your nana and pop. Come on guys. We need to keep moving."

When they got to the top of another rise overlooking the main tourist part of the weir, they stopped again while the two teens surveyed the options.

"Can we stay in one of the cabins?" asked James. "They look cool."

"Well we could, but it's not a good idea," replied Jack. "See how close they are to the trees and the bush over there? No, our best bet is one of the houseboats. I see three of the budget end houseboats are still there moored at the marina. Let's go and check them out."

"I like the houseboats," put in Oliver. "Can we drive one around the lake? Maybe we can stay here for a week. I think the houseboat will be cool. Better than a cabin." He stuck his tongue out at his brother.

"Okay, listen you two," ordered Jack fed up with the brothers sniping at each other, "I'll say this just once. I don't care what you two have against each other, but the fighting stops now. No more put downs. We all get along. I want you both to look over there." He pointed down the hill in the direction they had come.

The sky had been black and smoky when they left the farm, but now it was turning blood-red as the fire inexorably closed in on the King George Lake Reservoir. But it must have slowed. At the moment, there was hardly any wind.

"The bushfire is coming this way and we are all in a life and death situation. Surviving the next 24 hours depends on us working together as one team. So we're gonna do that, even if we have to beat you two up to get it done. Jarrah and I are just kids like you. A bit older maybe, but not adults. No one is gonna care too much if we need to slap you around a bit to save your lives. And don't think we won't. Got it?"

"I've got it," said James immediately. Oliver looked around, perhaps hoping for divine intervention, but eventually, "Okay, I got it too. No fighting with James… Until after the fire," he added hurriedly. Then he smiled at his smart qualification to the promise and looked to the others for approval.

Jack scowled, but decided he could live with that. He had no intention of actually harming either brother. He hated bullies and especially one's that picked on younger kids. However, at that moment he was quite prepared to give Oliver a very painful punch in the arm, or kick up the bum (ass), if he didn't behave.

"You ever driven a houseboat before? Jack asked his mate as they waited for the dogs to catch their breath. They were puffing like old freight trains, but at least their journey was just about done.

"Well, sort of" Jarrah replied. "I went on one during the ecumenical church picnic last Easter. Mr. Thanos drove. He was with the Greek Orthodox lot. Said he used to drive them back in Greece. I sat with him a while because the party was boring and he told me all about boats and he let me drive it a bit. The one we were on was huge and had 2 helms where you could steer on both the cabin deck and boat deck. I remember it was a twin-engine boat with port and starboard engines."

Oliver got the water bowl out again and was giving the dogs another drink. Jarrah could see the other boys looked confused, and he explained.

"When you look forward in a boat toward the bow, the pointy end at the front, port and starboard are the left and right sides, respectively. There were port and starboard throttles, tachometers, and I remember you had to start each one separately."

Jack could sense Jarrah was about to talk on but he saluted and said, "We'll leave the steering to you captain. The rest of us will be the deck hands."

"We'll need the keys and I'll have to check the battery, fuel level, and water tanks. I think I know what to look for. But it's a good plan. There'll be a bathroom with shower and toilet, bunk beds, and kitchen area. How do we get the keys?"

"We need to break into the boat hire office. Hopefully, they'll understand," said Jack thoughtfully. "I guess we could leave them a note."

After allowing several minutes for the dogs to rest, the little group drove on towards the houseboats. They passed off the spillway wall and the paved road meandered through bush land that almost went up to the shoreline of the weir. Without warning Oliver yelled, "Stop!"

"What is it?" asked Jack, pulling to a halt.

The others all turned to see where Oliver was looking. There was something dead on the ground near one of the trees on the side of the road. An animal that died recently. It was still bleeding, and had been ripped apart at the head and lower torso.

"Oh, gross!" said James.

Oliver got off Jarrah's bike, dumped his backpack on the ground, and was walking in that direction, when Jack yelled.

"Don't touch it." The younger boy stood where he was, but heard a noise overhead, and looked up into the trees.

"There must be a dozen of them. Real live koala bears," yelled the 10-year-old in amazement. He had seen them at the zoo, but like the kangaroos earlier in the day, he never expected to meet them in the wild. The others saw them too and stared in awe.

A small joey (young koala) was desperately struggling to get a foothold at the bottom of a huge eucalyptus tree. Oliver went over to help it reach the lowest branch when it put its arms around the little boy and hung on.

It was only then the boys noticed the three dingoes. They slunk out from the undergrowth and took everyone by surprise. Two snarled and made a strange sounding swooshing noise while baring their teeth. They looked ready to attack. Their ears were pushed back, teeth exposed, and they were looking between the boys and koala joey, seeming to size up which was the most dangerous adversary. The third raised its head and howled as if to warn others in the pack of the presence of the boys. Red Dog and True Blue had finally caught up with the speeding dirt bikes. The teens hadn't realized they'd sped up on the paved road. The two kelpies took a stand three meters (10 feet) away from the dingoes and snarled back. They were outnumbered, and had enough sense not to attack immediately. Was this a stand-off? Jack had no idea what to do. Then he noticed a fourth dingo dragging the carcass of the dead koala, the one they had obviously already killed, back into the bush. How many of them were there? He had never been confronted by dingoes before.

Fortunately for the little group, Jarrah knew exactly what to do with dingoes. He had always been conflicted about where he truly belonged. Was he white or was he aboriginal? He had roots in both worlds. He lived in the town and went to school with all the others. For kids like his best mate, his ethnic origin was irrelevant. Indeed, Jack always said aboriginals and their traditions were cool. They had friends who were of Greek, Dutch, Vietnamese and even Chinese origin. But for others, that distinction did matter. There were bullies like Flouch who teased and made his life hell. But when Jarrah was 12 his grandfather, Jandamarra, and an uncle, Birrani, took him "walk-about". Walkabout is a rite of passage in Australian Aboriginal society, during which a boy undergoes a journey to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood. It takes place during adolescence, typically ages 10 to 16, and the boy is expected to live in the outback for a period of up to six months. Well, Jarrah hadn't lasted anything like six months. He hated it after the first day and demanded to be taken home after a week. But in that time, he had learned some useful things.

"Oliver, do exactly what I say," said Jarrah softly. "Slowly, put the joey on the branch near your head and then back away from the tree. Slowly and calmly. No hurry. Keep your eyes on the three dingoes. Ignore the other one. Don't turn and run, or you'll just encourage the dingoes to chase you. Believe me, they can run a lot faster than you."

It was clear that poor Oliver was ready to piss in his pants, but he did as he was told. The koala seemed reluctant to leave the protective arms of the boy at first, but eventually got pushed onto the tree.

"In one minute the rest of us will move closer to Oliver. We'll create something like a protective wall of armor to outnumber the dingoes. But nobody move until I say. Understand?"

All said they did.

"Jack, slowly get hold of Red Dog's collar and I'll do the same for True Blue. James you move between us. Pick up one of the rocks on the ground, be ready to throw, but don't raise your arms yet. While we are doing that, continue to stare at the three dingoes. Then we all move together with the dogs and stand next to Oliver. Any questions?"

Nobody asked anything so Jarrah said, "Okay, let's go."

Almost immediately, as the group came together, the three dingoes turned their bodies around, but kept their heads facing the boys and then disappeared back into the bush. When Jack looked about he saw the fourth dingo had also gone and so had the carcass of the dead koala. It seemed they didn't want to fight any more than the boys. Retrieving their kill was the obvious goal.

Oliver looked like he was about to cry, so Jack intervened. "You are one amazingly brave boy Oliver. Well done. You kept your cool and saved all our lives. You too James. I'm very proud of both of you. I've got two sisters pretty close to your ages, but if I had brothers, I'd want them to be just like you. Rather than stopping the water-works, the comment just brought it on. Oliver started bawling uncontrollably and even James got teary eyed. Jack went over and pulled both brothers into a three-way hug.

"I don't suppose you get many dingoes in Toorak?" said the 13-year-old, attempting to make light of what just happened, but no one laughed.

Several minutes later Oliver had got himself together enough to ask, "Would those dingoes really have eaten me?"

Jarrah smiled and said, "You, no! You are too big to drag off into the bush. But they were pissed at us. After all, you were holding their dinner!"

The two Campbell brothers looked horrified. So Jarrah explained.

"To you the koala joey was a cute cuddly defenseless animal. To the dingo pack, it was food for a day."

Jack guessed his best mate wasn't kidding. Your view of the world really did depend on whose shoes you wore. He had just never thought to wear dingo footwear. But this incident had wasted precious time and the bushfire was still heading their way.

"Okay, it's likely the fire is driving animals to the safety of the weir. I think we need to get onto the houseboat for our own protection. There'll be a lot of desperate critters around here before long."

"What about the koalas?" demanded Oliver still drying his eyes.

"We get ourselves set up first, and if we have time, we'll see what we can do for them. Let's go."

Gaining entry to the boat hire office was easier than expected. Jack assumed they might need to do some damage to get inside, but when they checked around the back of the building, they found a partly open window with enough of a gap for Oliver to crawl through. Rather than being nervous, the smallest boy happily took to his assignment and made his way around to the front door to allow the others in. The keys were neatly placed on hooks in an old wooden rack usefully named, "Houseboats." From there, it took only a few minutes to decide, "The Lady Ethel" was their best choice. She had her own electricity generator, and could sleep 8 adults comfortably in single and double beds in three cabins. There was a dining table, cutlery, plates, cooking pans, and sheets and blankets in the cupboards and a bathroom with a sink and hot water shower. And the small kitchen area included a fridge, stove and grill, and there was even a gas BBQ on the rear deck.

After a little more detective work from Jarrah, they discovered the water tanks were full, and the batteries charged. Unfortunately, the fuel had been drained from the houseboat. The boys had to fumble about for 30 minutes to get the electricity reconnected to start pumping the fuel. A full tank was sufficient for 4 days of cruising said a poster in the office, and after some argument, they went with half a tank. Best of all, The Lady Ethel was made from fiberglass and less likely to burn than wood. Jack and Jarrah had experience with the material when doing repairs to their surfboards. They knew the glass fibers were extremely difficult to light, but the resin did produce a very noxious smoke with sufficient heat.

While Jarrah familiarized himself with the helm and the twin engines, Jack found two fire extinguishers on the boat and took others from the houseboats they weren't using. Even in the middle of the weir, they would need to be prepared for flying ash and embers. The Campbell boys had been assigned to carry the backpacks on board, and set up two cabins as bedrooms. The teens would share one and the brothers another. They also found bottled water, snacks, a few bags of potatoes, and a load of canned goods in the little shop next to the boat hire office. They stocked The Lady Ethel's kitchen with supplies for several days, but kept a note of everything they took. Jack wrote the letter to the store owners as promised, explaining what they did and why. It was signed by each boy with a promise that their parents would cover the cost of whatever they "borrowed." The 13-year-old wasn't one hundred percent sure his old man would actually recognize that commitment, but he knew Jarrah's father, and the Campbell's assured him their own parents were very rich and they'd be happy to pay whatever to protect them.

As he left the office and headed to The Lady Ethel, Jack was pleased to hear the two engines fire up and he watched as Jarrah carefully maneuver the houseboat back and forth a few meters each way along the jetty. James and Oliver had obviously been asked to remove the mooring lines and both cheered enthusiastically with the success. He could see his mate in the wheel house and gave him a thumbs up.

"Well done Captain," he yelled. "I think the old Lady Ethel is ready for duty."

Jack had been keeping an eye on the horizon ever since they arrived. It was clear the bushfires were heading this way, but shifting wind had slowed the progress of the blaze for now and he guessed they still had several hours before the fires reached the King George Lake Reservoir, most likely after dark. He looked at his watch. It was 4:30 PM. Sunset wasn't until about 8:30 around these parts, and so there were still a few hours of daylight left. That was probably good. He knew the Air Tractor AT802F Fireboss Bombers would cease work once it got dark. The three planes had made another pass since the dingo incident. Jack didn't fancy driving a houseboat out into the middle of the weir when the firefighting planes were still scooping water. The pilots would be tired after a long day and wouldn't be expecting to confront moving water craft. But what else hadn't he thought of? He felt the weight of responsibility holding the lives of others in his hands. Still, it had been a long stressful day, and his head was ready to burst. He hadn't eaten since breakfast and he needed food.

"Time for dinner," he announced. "We all need a break. Everyone wash your hands and face and meet in the kitchen in 5 minutes."

They had 2 loaves of sliced brown bread, jam, honey, and tomatoes, brought from the Campbell farm. Jarrah started making sandwiches with the various condiments, while Jack fried up the contents of two cans of corned beef they had "borrowed" from the boat hire store. They opened cans of peaches and two-fruits for deserts and drank several cans of soft drink (soda) each. The bread was slightly stale and far too warm after sitting in the backpacks for hours, and the drinks weren't cold, but no one complained as it was clear they all needed an energy boost. Red Dog and True Blue made do with a can of dog food each and table scraps from everyone's plate.

"I think we've done a good job getting everything ready with the Lady Ethel. Can anyone think of stuff we still need to do – I mean before the bushfires get here? My plan is to sail to somewhere in the center of the lake and wait out the fires. Our only risk will be from sparks and blowing embers landing on the boat somewhere and catching fire. We'll probably need to have look-outs all night to guard against that.

"What if we tow one of the small dinghy boats behind us?" suggested James. "You know, just in case of emergencies. I saw the Titanic movie. They hit an iceberg. Not much chance of that round here." Everyone laughed. "But there could be floating burning things that run into Ethel."

Jack looked at him and smiled. "Good thinking James. There's an emergency inflatable boat on the top deck, but another escape option is always a brilliant idea. We'll do that straight after dinner."

"There is a small first aid kit in a cupboard near the helm. Hopefully, we never have to use it, but it's good to know it's there," said Jarrah.

"Good," that'll be the spare then. "I found a top notch one in the office while I was look'n in there before. There was rolled gauze, hemostatic (blood-stopping) gauze, a SAM splint, a dozen different type of fabric adhesive bandages, and a bunch of other stuff. I put it in our cabin. Do you guys know anything about first-aid?" he asked looking at the Campbell brothers.

They shook their heads, "No."

"Okay, Jarrah and me know a little, but we can't handle anything major. I wish the houseboats had short-wave radios or something, but they don't. So we're on our own for now."

Jack saw the two brothers looking concerned, so he added. "Don't worry. I figure we'll be okay and we get to hang out on this amazing houseboat. You know it cost $600 a day to rent this thing." But he sensed he'd killed the positive mood of a few minutes ago with all the talk of first-aid kits. "Any other ideas?"

No one spoke for a minute until James raised his head and looked at their leader.

"Do you think Nana and Pop's house burnt down?"

"Honestly," responded Jack, "it's impossible to say without actually going to see. Bushfires jump around a lot. On the news last night, they were talking about a town in NSW (New South Wales) where half the houses were destroyed and others hardly touched. You just never know."

"Will Mom and Dad know where we are?" asked Oliver.

"Of course they will," said Jarrah. "Jack's Uncle Mike is the Senior Sergeant of police in East Coast. That's who Jack was talking to before on your pop's radio. He knows what to do. He would have spoken to your grandparents as soon as he got off the blower with Jack. I guarantee it. He might be a cop, but he looks after kids."

"He didn't mean that," James responded. "He's talking about our mom and dad, not Nana and Pop. Oliver knows as well as I do, our parents are always too busy to worry about us. My dad had some big, really important conference with people from England, America, and I don' know where, this week – Christmas week, can you believe it? Mom had to entertain all the "Plus One's – the wives, girlfriends or whatever, and so we got packed off to the countryside. That's why we didn't get evacuated back to Melbourne with the rest of the tourists. Dad begged Nana and Pop to keep us another week."

"I thought you said…" Jack started saying, but stopped. When you're in a hole, stop digging he knew. But he didn't know what to say. It was clear the Campbell brothers had issues of their own. He shut up.

"Err… sorry!" Jarrah muttered eventually. "I didn't understand…"

"It's just business as usual," said James bitterly. "Mom and dad never want us about. In school term, we're both full-time boarders at Central Grammar, not 5 km from our house in Toorak. Most of our friends are day boys and go home each day on the train, some much further away than that."

Jack had heard of Central Grammar. It was the most famous of those very posh private schools they called "public schools" for some reason. He knew it cost a fortune to send your kids there. He was usually a confident kid, in spite of his own issues at home. Still, he wished he knew better how to deal with people who were hurting. He never knew what to do or say in these circumstances. Fortunately little Oliver changed the subject.

"We need to help the koalas," he demanded.

"Uh?" said Jack. Not unsure of what he meant.

"You promised before that if we had time, we'd help them. We can't let them burn alive."

Jack first thought the kid was as mad as a gum tree full of galahs (crazy), but he didn't say so after what he'd just heard. He tried reason instead.

"There's gonna be thousands of animals caught up in the bushfires. We can't save them all."

"No," Oliver agreed. "But we could try and save some. The ones we saw when the dingoes came at us. I don't want that joey to become a dingo's dinner."

Jack looked at James and then at Jarrah for help. He didn't get it.

"Koalas are perhaps the most vulnerable animals in a bushfire," Jarrah said. "They are slow-moving and will climb up to the top of a tree and curl into a ball where they become trapped."

"So what are we supposed to do with them? Bring them on the boat?" asked Jack. "Yes, they move slowly, but they can jump about. I've seen 'em jump from tree to tree over 2 meters (6 feet). They'll try and run away and end up in the weir and drown. Not sure if they can swim that far."

"We could put them in the spare cabin," James suggested.

"Jarrah?" asked Jack seeking his mate's backing.

"My grandfather taught me about Koalas. There's a load of stories about them in the Dreamtime and they're important symbols for my people. I also did a project about them in 7th grade, if you remember. They have one of the slowest metabolic rates of any animal in Australia and can stay stationary for about 16 – 18 hours in a day. They only spend about 4 or 5 hours feeding. But the downside is that most of the feeding takes place at night. So they might be noisy when we're trying to sleep. But I can live with that for one night. Koalas consume about 500 grams (18 oz.) of eucalyptus leaves each day. Their favorite eucalyptus leaves are Blue Gum, Swamp Gum, Grey Gum, and Tallowwood. The trees where we saw them were Blue Gums. So there's plenty of leaves there now. But we'd need to bring whole branches though. And this is only a one-night solution. They don't eat dead leaves."

Jack looked at his mate in amazement. This was a side of him he'd never seen before.

"So how do we catch them?"

"Very carefully," replied Jarrah. "Koalas are friendly animals and don't normally bite people. But they can use their sharp claws in defense. I saw some thick mechanics gloves in that tool box near the petrol pumps. I could use those. And I saw some small tea-chests in the back of the shop. We could carry them back to the houseboat in those. They won't like it, but as Oliver says, it's better than being fried to death."

"Okay," said Jack. "If we all agree. It'll be a big job and everyone needs to help. But we can try to save some. Just one thing though. We might need to change the name of the houseboat from the Lady Ethel to Oliver's Ark. You guys must have seen the signs saying "no pets." We already have the dogs, but now koalas as well?"

"Well, the good news on that is Koalas are not pets," laughed Jarrah. "So apart from the dogs…"

Jack punched his mate softly in the arm.

It was a much harder job than any of them guessed, but three hours later they had six koalas locked into the third cabin with eucalyptus branches with enough leaves for several days. They stripped the room of everything they could move out, but the two single beds and cupboard were built-in. James had found several canvas covers in the dinghy boat shed, and the boys placed these over the furniture, the floor, and covered as much of the walls as they could. The koalas had several pots of water to drink, although Jarrah told them that the animals don't actually need much.

"Koalas get enough water from eating eucalyptus leaves and don't need a lot of water, but in this heat, it's best we leave them some."

By this time the bushfire was getting too close for comfort and Jack insisted it was time to leave.

"Guys, we've got as many as we can. The other koalas are playing hard to get. I don't blame them, but we need to start looking after ourselves. The fire is getting awfully close."

The air was thick with smoke and Jack had seen the first flying embers in the sky overhead. For most of the late afternoon, the wind had been less evident than earlier in the day, but now it was whipping up once again.

"We need to drag the dirt bikes on board Oliver's Ark and follow through on James's suggestion about having the dinghy in tow. And I don't know about the koalas, but I'm starving again."

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