Remembering Ash Wednesday

Tomorrow, 16 February 2013, marks the 30 year anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires, which tore through the Adelaide Hills, killing 28 people and destroying numerous homes.

I was only five years old at the time, but I so clearly remember that day. We lived on a small property in Bull Creek, an area 10 minutes from the township of Meadows, with few close neighbours and a forest a few kilometres up the road.

I remember how hot the wind was, and I remember looking up into the red sky in the afternoon and seeing the moon, tinged with pink. A bushfire moon. I remember standing out on the dirt road that we lived on with my family, just watching the sky and talking to the neighbours that lived across the road. No one knew what to do.

I remember the whoof! as a small fire ignited in the paddock next to the neighbour’s house, and I remember asking my parents who started the fire, and how confused I was by their answer. I didn’t understand how a fire could just start on its own like that. Of course it must have been a spark or an ember that flew on the wind, but it didn’t make any sense to my five-year-old brain.

For some reason I don’t remember the fire being put out, but I guess it was, and that must have been the point at which the decision was made that Mum would take us and the neighbour’s daughter into Meadows and away from immediate danger while Dad stayed home with the neighbours to protect our houses.

I remember hurriedly packing our two dogs and the cat and the three of us kids into the car, and I remember saying ‘This is fun!’ as we drove out of the driveway. I was too young to understand the danger we were in, and especially what leaving Dad behind might have meant. I remember the neighbours’ kid, who was a few years older, telling me off for saying it. I remember the realisation as we hit the main road that we’d forgotten our bird, and wondering about our horse still in the paddock.

Mum drove straight to the Meadows oval, and I remember how surprised we were to see the entire oval covered with other people from the town. The next few hours were loads of fun for Amy and I as we found our friends and ran around madly. I can’t imagine now how frightening it must have been for my mum, and for others who had left partners at home to fight the fires, but for us it was one big exciting adventure.

At some stage I think Dad joined us and eventually, once it seemed the danger had passed, we drove home. I think the forest along the main road was still burning when we went past, and it was at that point that I started getting scared. That night, I couldn’t sleep because on the hill opposite our house, I could see tree stumps glowing red in the dark.

I remember the following day we went for a walk up the dirt road towards the forest, and I remember the blackened banks on the side of the road, barely a kilometre from our house. I remember seeing movement on one of the banks, and realising it was a black snake, camouflaged against the scorched earth.

We were so lucky to have escaped the fires. Such is nature and its random choices. And Amy and I were so lucky to have been largely protected from the fear that could’ve engulfed us. I know there have been far worse fires in the years since Ash Wednesday, most notably the recent and tragic Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 414 people, but any major disaster in which lives are lost and property destroyed deserves to be remembered and reflected on.

Now, 30 years later, I’m looking at moving my own family to the Adelaide Hills, to a dead-end street overlooking a national park. A crazy proposition, perhaps, considering the potential danger every summer. But despite the risks, my memories of living in the Hills are overwhelmingly positive. I want to make memories like that for my son, like walking in a forest at sunset, the trees bathed red in the soft light, and seeing kangaroos, koalas and echidnas on a daily basis.

Despite the risks, I think it’s worth it.

On the short story

After having my suspicions for some time, I think it is finally time to accept that I cannot write short stories. I’ve toyed with them on and off over the years, but have rarely written one I’ve been happy with. The most recent (that I completed) was a couple of years ago now and, while it did end up getting published, it was a memoir rather than fiction.

I have a lot of trouble devising a satisfying plot arc within the confines of a short story, especially if for one reason or another I am limited to 3000 words. I usually end up with a rambling fragment of a story that never really gets to the point and then fades off to an unsatisfying conclusion.

I also, for some reason, struggle to create solid characters in a short story. This may be because over the course of writing a novel length manuscript, I’m getting to know my characters as I write, and then I go back and give them more dimension on the second draft. Short stories are just too – well, short – for me to do this. Perhaps if I were more disciplined, I could plan better before I start writing and come up with those characters that really leap off the page.

Recently, entries were open for the Josephine Ulrick short story prize, one of the richest short story prizes in the world. First prize is $10,000. This is quite possibly more than I am likely to get as an advance if my first novel is ever published, so I decided it was time to try my hand at the short story once again.

I came up with a plot and everything. Well, kind of. A loose plot. Which is kind of how I roll (which in turn is kind of the excuse I make for not being a planner). I thought about it for a little while, I opened up a blank document and I typed.

One paragraph.

I determined to go back to it the next day and bang out a first draft, then hone hone hone.

I never even opened the document again.


I admire people who can write short stories, I really do. Even more so, I admire those who can do both, and do them well. But I am not one of those people.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a novelist, not a short story writer. At least, that’s what I’m telling everyone.