Richard Williamson: The horror of forest fires

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How lucky we are to live in a safe country. I have family and friends in USA, Australia, and Portugal. All have faced the horrors of forest fires.

A friend in Tasmania found herself surrounded by bush fires of eucalyptus while on the road and had no option but to put her foot down and charge through the inferno and hope to high heaven that that the petrol tank would not explode and blow her into Kingdom Come. My uncle lived there too, and experienced an air explosion of eucalyptus oil evaporating from the forest all around him. He said all he could do was ‘stand upright in the privy and hope for the best.’ He had inherited all the family silver at some point in his life and when he came out of the closet into the charred remains of his garden, found it all in a molten heap on the ground. He was phlegmatic old lad and had all those spoons, forks and milk jugs made into a rose bowl.

In California my sister watches the ignition and destruction of whole towns a hundred miles south of where she lives and realises that never again will all those lovely hills on the Pacific seaboard with their pine forests and glades of open grassland and aromatic shrubs be allowed to thrive. The monterery pines now exploding into pillars of fire have no future alongside the human race. Such a pity.

I had first-hand experience of them as a child on the Devon coast at my father’s small property high above the Atlantic Ocean and much enjoyed their murmurations in the ocean gales and their shade in summer’s heat as the big old cones cracked open like alligators’ teeth. He had planted them in 1927 and now they are ‘ancient trees’ and have tree preservation orders on them above the village of Georgeham. In Portugal my son and his family escaped in the nick of time when the scrub and grass of the Alentejan Forest surrounding him exploded in sky-reaching flames but somehow did not torch his house. A large Calor-gas cylinder exploded on the patio and was found split open half a mile away. Now he has to remove all the fragrant cistus bushes and wild flowers that grow naturally in this rich landscape for they are too dangerous to live with anymore. But here in Sussex this autumn the fire is just the colour of the trees.

Has there ever been such a cloth of gold? The oaks were burnished brown, and glowed throughout St. Martin’s Little Summer, as a fine spell in autumn was once called. Beeches on the downs were massive pillars of flame, and the field maples in the hedgerows primrose yellow. The chestnuts threw down spears of bronze, and hazel bushes cast a vast confetti of gold.