Tom the Wonder Horse Sounds the Alarm
Copyright © Judith Shaw
November in Australia’s Blue Mountains, 1994. Stinking hot. Bushfire weather.
Ron wiped the sweat from his head and continued to point the hose at the tiles and gutters on the roof. It was hard to see what good it would do if fires came up the valley, but anything was better than sitting around worrying.
I was doing enough of that for both of us.
I couldn’t stand it. The mountains were on fire, and we had no way to get out. Correction: We could leave any time we wanted. But we couldn’t take Tom.
There was only one road to the small mountain town where we lived: the Great Western Highway that cuts a path west from Sydney over the mountains to the plains beyond.
Bushfires threatened Blackheath from both sides. To the east, Springwood and Glenbrook were on fire; to the west, Lithgow was at risk. There was no safe place to take a horse.
Because of the volatile oils in their bark and leaves, the gum trees all around us were especially vulnerable to fire. I had read up on all this while we were waiting to move to Australia. “Why are the Blue Mountains blue?” I asked Ron. He told me to look it up. So I did.
The bark and leaves of all kinds of eucalypts, from the ancient Blue Gums to the bushy Banksia, exude tiny drops of oil that fill the air around them with an invisible oily mist. When sunlight shines through the mist, it looks blue. Since the Blue Mountains are covered in gum trees and the gum trees are covered with mist, the mountains look blue. QED.
There’s a whole long scientific explanation but, honestly, who cares?
The downside of this beautiful blue is that eucalyptus oil, especially in a gaseous state, is highly flammable. In conditions of extreme heat, such as a bush fire, gum trees have a tendency to explode. And fire from exploding gum trees moves very, very fast.
Theoretically, fire is the gum trees’ friend. Their seeds need fire to crack open and sprout. But this was not an ordinary bush fire. It was too hot, and trees were being charred. These seeds were doomed.
I looked out the window. The air was smoky and full of grit, but the horses were calm. Tom was grazing near the boundary fence, keeping company with Stan’s mares. He looked oblivious.
What would I do if the fires came our way? I tried some relaxing pranayama to keep hysterics at bay. One good thing (breathe in): The four acres of paddocks made a firebreak between the National Park and the house (breathe out). The grass was pretty well eaten down, so if the fire came that way there wouldn’t be much for it to burn (breathe in).
The trees across the road were the real problem. A fire coming up from the Grose Valley could jump the road and engulf the house in a heartbeat (breathe out. I don’t think this is working.).
Pressure from the Greens had halted the annual burnback of leaf litter and undergrowth, and there hadn’t been a controlled burn in three years. The amount of fuel lying on the ground was, in the circumstances, terrifying.
The fire might burn itself out if it came from the woods behind the house, but it would terrify the horses next door. Tom was sensible, but the mares were not. He might pick up their panic and get hurt.
I thought about options. I could move Tom into the house if the fires looked to be coming across the road. Soaking the roof might cause the fire to jump the house and race over the paddocks to the park. If Tom were inside, he wouldn’t see the fire.
Yeah, but he would hear it. I’ve never heard a wildfire, but the noise would probably be bad. If Tom freaked out he could do a lot of damage in the house and might injure himself. Besides, Ron would never go for it.
I could hose down his hessian rug to keep him cool and damp, and leave him in the field. A wet rug shouldn’t catch fire.
Was “shouldn’t” good enough? The thought of Tom in a burning blanket made me want to vomit.
I ducked under the fence and buried my face in Tom’s mane. I couldn’t let anything happen to him.
Ron got sick of listening to my scenarios of doom and made a command decision. Tom would stay in the field, but we’d take down all the electric tape. If Tom felt like running, he could run. No rugs, no halters. No arguments. Thank you very much.
The smoke had gotten thicker by dinnertime, but there was nothing new about the fires on TV. Tom stood by the gate eating his hay and ignoring the smoke. Probably by now he was used to it.
The phone rang with a recorded message from the fire brigade: Back burn scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Residents advised to soak roof and sides of houses, including flammable vegetation. Have buckets of sand ready to put out collateral fires.
I harassed the children into manning the hoses—the little shits had done nothing to help—while Ron dug up dirt. We didn’t have any sand.
At eleven o’clock the family packed it in. There had been no back burn and no more recorded messages.
We were in bed when the phone rang. Back burn cancelled. Time to sleep. The dogs were already sacked out, exhausted from playing in the spray from the hoses.
The puppy’s barking woke us at 2:00 a.m. The other side of the road was on fire. Everyone was out watering, so we grabbed the hoses and followed suit.
It was weird. The fire was mild, consuming the bushes and leaf litter in the woods, but that was all. Nobody knew what was going on. After about half an hour the fire trucks came, checking that no flames had jumped the road. They had burned the firebreak without letting anyone know about the change in plan.
And through it all, Tom stolidly chewed whatever was on offer. Hay, grass, a carrot or two. It was all the same to him.
You probably want to know why I wrote this story. If it’s about the Wonder Horse, why doesn’t he do something wonderful?
The next day, aside from the ever-present smoke, life got back to normal. The fires seemed to have moved on, and there wasn’t much to do. The kids went back to school. Tom stood by the fence and hung out with the mares. Ron and I had an afternoon nap.
We were drinking tea on the verandah when Tom went nuts. He started galloping around the paddock screaming. Well, whinnying. We couldn’t work it out. Nothing was going on, so why was Tom so agitated?
Ron got a funny look on his face, jumped in the Nissan Patrol and drove to the house next door. It would have been easier to walk, but he took the 4-wheel drive. He came home about an hour later with a story to tell.
He’d picked up Roger and they’d driven about half a mile down the track to the creek, where a fire was just starting to spread into the nearby bush. Ron stayed to keep an eye on the fire, and Roger drove home to call the Fire Brigade. The firemen put out the fire and examined the scene.
He could have been home in ten minutes, but the firemen thought the whole thing was suspicious. The fire looked to have been set, and the man who called it in—like many arsonists—was right there at the scene.
How did he happen to be there? He acted on a feeling. Where did the feeling come from? He didn’t have an answer. What could he say? His wife’s horse told him that the woods were on fire?
Ron finally convinced the firemen that he was just a concerned citizen acting on a hunch, and they let him go home.
Tom settled down with an extra flake of hay, and dozed through the rest of the afternoon.
But you know, that fire? The way the wind was blowing, it would have taken no time at all before the flames were at our back gate.
So how did Tom know? Nobody else did. When I ask him, he just sighs and goes back to eating his hay.