The Big Issue : Edition 502
20 THE BIG ISSUE 8 – 21 JANUARY 2016 EVERY SUMMER, WHEN the first really hot, blustery day arrives, heralding the terrifying potential of the bushfire season, I’m reminded of an incident in my childhood when I was accused of lighting a fire. I was about 10, and let me say it up front: I am innocent. The house I grew up in backed onto a nature reserve with the dubious name of Rocky Knob. It wasn’t huge, covering (I guess) about two square kilometres. Rocky Knob was my playground, an extension of our backyard, an arena for all manner of childhood activities from hide-and-seek to billycart riding, fort building and crab apple fights. Some winters, we could even toboggan down the steeper slopes of frosted grass. My bedroom looked up to “Rocky”, and once in a while I would wake up to the hum of a tractor mowing the long, dry grass of the accessible parts. Once in a greater while, when the grass had risen above the more sizeable boulders, the authorities would do a controlled burn of the inaccessible rocky patches. These burns would probably have happened more often but for the fact that Rocky would often mysteriously go up in flames of its own accord. It’s yelled from his fielding position close to the back fence. There were no trucks up there; this wasn’t a controlled burn. Someone would think to call the rightful authority – probably Mum in the kitchen – but as for us, we rushed to the storeroom under the house to grab our empty sacks, and trooped off up the hill like a regular army of Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns to tackle the blaze. Now, we knew fire was bad. But it was also exciting. Most kids I knew had a touch of the pyromaniac in them. I used to love flying paper planes – sometimes carrying a doomed plastic soldier – into the inferno that was our fireplace on a cold Canberra night. At other times, I would look deep into the hot coals and test the combustibility of various household materials. Styrofoam produced a stunning turquoise-green flame. Rocky Knob itself was the site for a bonfire every year on the Queen’s birthday, or “Cracker Night” as it was known. Which kid didn’t love skyrockets and Roman candles, or blowing up bull ant mines with a carefully arranged detonation of Tom Thumbs or Pohas? Fire is one of nature’s four classical elements, and arguably the most possible that this happened due to dry lightning or a glass beer bottle magnifying sunlight onto a patch of natural kindling. But I suspect it had more to do with a certain local boy with a fondness for fire, who had casually declared to me on the bus home from school one day, “Think I might light up Rocky this weekend.” Freddie would later become a purveyor of fireworks, back when people were allowed to have fun with minor explosives. Rocky “going up” was always a cause for some excitement in the neighbourhood. It was serious, I suppose, but in those days we never truly believed that a fire up there could get big or out of control enough to threaten our homes. It was with overacted bravery that, even as kids, we took to the hill with hessian sacks and swatted ineffectually at the gentle flames until the fire trucks arrived. So it was, one summer, that Rocky went up while we were playing cricket in our backyard. I don’t remember what alerted us first – perhaps the smell of smoke or the barely audible crackling of the flames, or maybe a slow- dawning recognition arising from the combination of the two. “I think Rocky’s on fire!” my brother Fire at Rocky Knob SUMMER MEANS HEAT. AND THE THREAT OF FIRES. RICHARD CASTLES RECALLS A CHILDHOOD INCIDENT WHEN THINGS WENT WRONG – AND HE CARRIED THE CAN.