The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 3

A Ring of Fire

Ten minutes later, the renamed "Oliver's Ark" moved away from the jetty and headed out into the lake. It was dark now, and visibility was restricted and getting worse. Smoke filled the air and blocked the moon and starlight. The N95 face masks were out and ready, but not needed yet. What light they saw was a bright blood-red aura reflected from the fire that seemed to be burning in the bush just on the other side of the spillway. Each boy wore a life-vest and carried a pocket knife and small torch (flashlight) in their pockets. The land all around them was in darkness, but every light on their little craft had been turned on.

Jack, James and Oliver stood next to the helm as Jarrah steered the houseboat forward. While he was searching other watercraft for fire extinguishers and things to help them, Jack had found an old sea captain's hat and insisted Jarrah wear it when he was operating the ship. The two Campbell brothers agreed and "the captain" had no choice but to don the symbol of his office. Meantime, Red Dog and True Blue were racing around on the top deck chasing sparrows, dragon flies, burning embers and whatever else came their way. They had been hyper all day and appeared to sense that being on the boat was better than the alternative. The six koalas were in their cabin and were quiet for now. The boys had opened all the windows in there to enable the animals to breathe properly and reduce the smell. The windows were covered by fly-wire screens and they hoped the bigger koalas didn't break through those to make an escape. On the other side of the window from them was the water.

"I'm heading for the middle," said Jarrah. "Hopefully, there are no underwater rocks, logs, or sandbanks, we don't know about."

That was one thing Jack hadn't even considered, but he guessed they be okay. With all the boats and other water activities on the lake, he assumed the National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers would be on the lookout for such problems. Besides, houseboats on a landlocked lake probably had shallow drafts. But he had noticed that the weir was less than half full earlier in the day. No doubt the extended drought, and the scooping of water by the Fireboss Bombers was playing havoc with the water volume. He put it out of his mind for now.

"Yep," Jack responded, "Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."

Everyone laughed. "Star Trek, I saw that movie," said James.

"Right on! Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, James T. Kirk. Your namesake James! But they stole the line from J. M. Barrie's character Peter Pan. He was another James. Hopefully, we don't end up as the Lost Boys," said Jack.

Everyone laughed again.

When they reached what they all agreed was about as far away from the shore as they were likely to get, Jarrah ordered the anchor dropped. They would stay here for now. They could see the bushfire hadn't reached their side of the spillway yet.

"Okay guys, it could be a long busy night. We will need lookouts on each deck of the ship to make sure nothing catches fire. Our biggest risk is from ash or embers setting things like curtains, bed sheets or anything else alight. We'll all be on guard duty and I suggest 15 minutes shifts. Jarrah on top and James on the bottom. Oliver and I will be roving guards, walking around and looking everywhere on both decks. There are three fire extinguishers on each level and there are buckets and pots and pans of water everywhere. If you see something burning, first yell for help, and second, throw one of the pots of water over the problem. If that doesn't work, grab one of the fire extinguishers. I showed you how to use those earlier in the day. Hopefully, Red Dog and True Blue, with their better sense of smell, can ferret out any problems. I suggest they accompany the roaming guards. Then after each 15 minute shift we rotate. Jarrah goes downstairs, Oliver sits up top, and James and I are roving. Get it?"

As nobody spoke, Jack assumed they did. If there was any uncertainty, he would sort it out as they went along.

"In the meantime, while the fire is still on the other side of the spillway, let's get something to eat. Sorry, the same meal as before, but I don't care. I'm hungry enough to eat anything just now. Horses included!"

The others agreed, and all the boys happily wolfed down a late dinner of sandwiches and more fried corned beef. At least this time the soft drinks were cold and so was the bread and canned fruit. The food had all been stored in the refrigerator since Jarrah had turned on the power.

Jack kept the conversation light this time.

"You guys play any sports?

"We both play footy in the winter and cricket in the summer," answered James. "Playing sport is compulsory at our school. What 'bout you?"

"Compulsory?" Responded Jack. He had never heard of that before. "Yes, I guess Jarrah and me play a little footy and we like to get out on our surf boards when we can."

"Jeez, you're such a bullshitter Harrison," said Jarrah. "Jack here was captain of the town's Under 13s footy team last year, and I guarantee he'll be captain again next winter. He kicked 6 goals and 3 points in the regional Grand Final of our age group, we won the cup, and he was awarded Best and Fairest Medal on the day. And as for surfing, he's one of 10 boys in the entire country in the Under 14s category invited to the Australian Junior Surfing Titles at Jan Juc in three weeks time."

James and Oliver looked at the teen with new respect. Australian Rules football (footy) was practically a state religion in Victoria, as it was the historic home of the AFL (Australian Football League) that had spread across the country since the 1850s. And the Australian Junior Surfing Titles as well?

"Jarrah's being modest as always. He got 3 goals himself in that match."

"Yeah, but I was full-forward. I was supposed to score goals. Jack was ruck-rover."

"So what about video games? You guys play?" asked Jack changing the subject. He didn't like talking about his achievements. None of that was success that in any way impressed his father, Mr. Ian Hamilton.

"The boy is wasting his life on all those frivolous activities, when he should be studying. His grades are appalling," was the often heard complaint when his parents talked. Jack could hear them from his bedroom if he left the door open.

"Of course!" said Oliver making it sound like it was a stupid question. "We both have our own Nintendo Switches and a ton of games. Damn! We left them at Nana and Pop's. We have a new PlayStation 4 Pro at Toorak.

"We only get to play them at home," James explained. "At school, they're real strict with game time..."

He was about to say more when a huge explosion ripped through the night.

"Bloody hell!" someone yelled. The dogs whined and ran about barking even though they were happily eating cans of dog food seconds before.

The boys raced out to the back deck and watched in awe as the fire started destroying the holiday tourist cabins. It had progressed to their side of the spillway and raced along the foreshore at a breathtaking pace. Jack had left his father's binoculars on the table out there and grabbed them to witness the carnage. He shared them with the others after a few minutes of watching.

"What's blowing up?" asked Oliver. "Are there bombs in there?"

"No bombs. I'm guessing the propane or liquefied petroleum gas in the BBQ grills."

There was another explosion almost immediately. Again the dogs whined. They obviously didn't like the noise.

Jack looked over at the gas bottle attached to the BBQ on the back lower deck on the houseboat where they were all standing.

"I assume this will also blow up if it gets hot enough," he said indicating the gas bottle with his eyes. "We need to pay special attention to this during the night. If a fire gets close for any reason, we have to dump the gas bottle overboard. It's time to start guard duty and…"

Jack never finished the thought and nobody moved. Every eye was fixed on the distant shore. There was a third detonation and then a fourth. But even these seemed mere disruptions in the inferno that exploded up the eucalyptus trees on their side of the spillway. A vast wall of fire filled the horizon. Flames shot 20 meters (22 yards) into the sky and the entire heavens seemed to be burning. Had they entered the gates of hell? What the boys witnessed was a whole-body experience. The sight of the flames, the smell of the smoke, and the howl of the wind, were overwhelming and kept them standing fixed in place at the rear boat deck. And the fire roared - a constant threatening sound that spoke of the overwhelming power of nature unleashed. All four boys understood in that instant, no human could defeat that force. Nature unhinged was the ultimate super hero, or was it villain, no mere mortal could defeat. Seconds later, a strange orange mist filled the air as the reflected heat from the fire, even a kilometer away (six-tenths of a mile), suddenly became oppressive. The air felt damp and the atmosphere took on a tropical feel. Jack realized water from the King George Lake Reservoir was actually evaporating before their eyes. They were all sweating profusely, like sitting in the hottest sauna, and agreed to dump their rubber life vests on the floor, at least for now.

"Can we strip to our boxers?" asked James. It's too hot!"

"No. Not unless you want to cook. I know it's hot," answered Jack. "But try and put up with it for now. We need to be real careful with exposed skin. In these conditions, third-degree burns are a real possibility, I reckon."

"What if we get water from the weir and pour it all over each other? That will cool us down and stop us catching fire," said Oliver.

Not a good idea," responded Jack. "That's one of the things we learned with the CFA Juniors. Wet clothes absorb heat, hold it longer, and turn to steam faster and burn your skin. Skin burns at 48° C (120° F), far lower than the temperature where water turns to steam."

"To prove this, they made us try an experiment," explained Jarrah. "One of the kids had to hold his bare hand over a gas stove on high. Not close to the flame, and not to cause injury. He didn't make it three seconds before he said it was uncomfortable. We were timing it on our phones. Then another guy had to hold his hand over the same flame wearing a dry oven mitt. He lasted a few seconds longer. Finally, they got Jack to hold his hand over the same flame with a wet oven mitt. He lasted a few seconds longer…"

"But then it really started to hurt, explained Jack, cutting in. "And taking the oven mitt away from the flame didn't stop the pain like it did when it was dry. It only got worse until I took it right off. No, wet clothes are a bad idea."

Besides," added Jarrah, "there's always a benefit in wearing lots of clothes. The air spaces in between layers gives you some insulation from the heat. Wet clothes totally negate that insulation and creates a steam threat. Sorry, we'll all need to put up with the heat for now."

Jack took the large pump-bottle of SPF 50+ sunscreen, they found at the shop, and covered his hands, neck, and face with the white goo.

"Make sure you use plenty of sunblock and drink lots of water. Our highest risks are burns and dehydration."

Before the others could fully apply the cream to their exposed skin, the dogs started yelping and almost immediately raced up the stairs to the top deck.

"Guys, to your posts," yelled Jack and he tore off up the stairs following Red Dog and True Blue.

The dogs were barking wildly. A large chunk of wood that looked like a piece of one of the cabins had somehow been blown all the way out here and landed on the houseboat top deck. Jack and Jarrah picked up nearby water pots and doused the flames. James and Oliver turned up seconds later with fire extinguishers and completed the job.

"Okay, it's out," yelled Jack. He kicked the 2 X 4 inch piece of wood off the side of the boat and into the weir. It landed with a noticeable hiss.

"Good work everyone and thanks to the dogs. They saved us this time," said Jack puffing slightly with the excitement of the moment. "Okay, we need to start guarding the boat. Jarrah, get downstairs and check everywhere. James and Oliver, get our hats and face masks. The small particles of airborne pollution can be dangerous as well, and we need to protect our heads and ears as much as possible. Then finish spreading sunblock on your faces, the back of your hands, ears and neck. After that we're all on guard duty 'til I say stop. Jarrah, check on the koalas when you're down there and get the dogs a treat. I think they just saved our lives."

For the next hour the boys raced around checking for sparks and embers. Several times they needed to act and put out dangerous small spot fires. They tried not to become distracted as the bushfire moved along the shoreline of the King George Lake Reservoir. At one point they all came together again on the back open deck. It was a combination of exhaustion and fear perhaps. Somehow the fire had crossed the concrete spillway and was making its way along the other shore.

"It's like we're in a pot of water on a gas stove. Flames all around us," said James.

"Yep, but hopefully the water we're in is not overheating too much. There's still a lot in here and the evaporation mist has cleared somewhat," Jack responded. It was hot and difficult to talk in the masks and voices sounded muffled.

"No," said Jarrah. "But we are surrounded by a ring of fire and no one is getting in or out of this area until it burns itself out. I assume they are all still battling the blazes around East Coast and that's why they're leaving this outbreak to its own devices. Three days ago the CFA volunteers in this region were dead on their feet. How are they coping now?"

No one answered. It was clear to them all, there would be no rescue tonight.

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