what a night
Early this morning the house behind ours burnt to the ground.
We woke just before 3am to the sound of an explosion. A ‘whump’ like a great displacement of air. Fireworks had been going off somewhere in the neighbourhood earlier last night and we thought they were at it again. In fact the flicker of light coming through the tops of our bedroom curtains made me sure of it.
I asked my husband to check. He did and what he saw was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen.
At the end of our yard, just beyond our back fence, a three-story blaze was alight silhouetting a massive tree against a backdrop of flame, meaning the dozens of other trees usually in view were on the other side of the fire.
Shaking like I was in the middle of my own private earthquake, fumbling for the phone, I called the fire service, to discover I wasn’t the first. Thank God. They were on their way.
Then past the seven longest minutes of my life waiting for sirens to split the night.
Once help was there, my husband – and half the neighbourhood - went to look see. To see if it was the back shed ablaze, or worse. To see if the family of the house needed help.
While I stuck to our second-storey bedroom window, my eyes glued to the blaze as my three kids, amazingly, slept through it all.
Smoke pilled high into the sky, collecting and disappearing in a ghostly fog against the black of the night. Watching the eerie unpredictable shift and sway of the smoke as it was sucked into the sky was the only moment the writer in me nudged her way into the foreground. Remember this, she said, before smartly tucking herself back away again.
I felt like my eyes were twenty times the size of my head, like I had 360 degree vision as my mind whirred with what was happening, and what I might need to do. I stared so hard as if I could push the fire back from sheer willpower alone.
Then the tree between our yard and theirs began to sizzle. One skinny branch way up high lit up in a bolt of bright light, and that was that. I was downstairs packing to leave.
Dressing gowns and slippers for the girls. A blanket and spare dummies for the baby. My laptop. A hard drive filled with our family photos (it turned out I’d grabbed the wrong hard drive in the end!) My handbag with my husband’s wallet and phone and mine as well.
Upstairs, phone in hand ready to call my mum to say we were descending upon her, the fire continued to crackle and spit and shatter glass. Was the spread wider than earlier? Closer to my back neighbor Mike’s place? Was it already at Nick’s house next door? His lights weren’t on. Did he even know what was happening?
It seemed to take forever for anything to happen.
Then like a great blanket had been thrown over the house the fire eased. Behind the silhouette of the trees, vibrant reds and violent oranges dampened to a dull dusty grey. And with it I found my breath.
We now know that nobody was home at the time of the fire. A family with young kids were out that night of all nights. The police, who have sealed the place off and are investigating today, have said that if they were home they would have died instantly in the gas explosion that gutted the house in seconds.
That family had missed having their house inundated during the January floods that devastated our suburb by an inch. One inch. Then this. Maybe everyone was looking the wrong way when the rapture was meant to come. Maybe it’s gonna happen any day, in our backyard.
You know that conversation we’ve all had – what three things would you take with you if your house was on fire? Running around my house this morning I had a moment to think about it and realized nothing mattered. Not one thing. Not even the photos I would have accidentally left behind.
I would have had the three kids in my two arms and felt lucky.
Hug your families. Keep the stuff you love most close. And wish my street an incident free remainder of 2011!