Of all the devastating and frightening occurrences of the Outback, the worst would be the fire. Even on the plains, the “Red Steer” rampages across the land with no favour. It can jump fire breaks, water courses, main roads and any other barrier put in its way.
In full fury, the grass fires create their own wind. It rises in swirls of fierce heat that sends embers floating on to areas that were thought protected.
Fire, one of the greatest discoveries by man, can and will turn on him in a frenzy of destruction causing death, to stock and humans alike, to fences, homes, or any combustible matter that is in its path. Fire has no conscience.
In the coastal Tee Tree areas I have seen the blue haze of gas build up ahead of a fire, and then the tops of these trees just explode some hundred meters ahead of the flame.
Floods and drought are at natures whim but fires can, and sometimes are, in the hands of some arsonist, who after the death count is taken into consideration, in the more urban areas of cities, should be charged with murder with a lethal weapon, one single flick of a cigarette out the window of a moving vehicle. One flick of a cigarette lighter or match. And that is the usual emotional thoughts of those that have been the victim of a rampaging fire.
The grass fire of the plains country is, most times, easier to control if it is caught in time, or if properties had carried out fire prevention methods before the fire season arrived. The fire season is usually after good rains, strong grass growth and a hot dry summer has filled the earth with tussocks of grass and leafed up the few trees and scrubs. It is these times that one looks to the sky for the thunder storm, lightening being one arsonist that cannot be caught.
Glass is another fire lighter, the careless bottle or container left around yards, and along side roads, acts as a hot house underneath where it lays, when the time is right it will cause ignition and the “Red Steer” runs again.
Fire breaks are an expense but it was, in my time, only an expense calculated against what the expense was in losses. If it was felt that losing one or two paddocks to fire was not a big problem, then little or no fire prevention or protection took place.
One property where I worked, they had experienced a fire that ran for two weeks, and covered an eighty-mile front at one stage, this was out from Aramac in Queensland. The next year prevention or protection was applied vigorously.
The fire break, in the plains country, if given the full treatment, consists of two tracks around the fence line in a paddock. The tracks had the scarifier plough dragged over them maybe twice. The tracks would then be dragged with metal wagon tyres, tied together and weighted down with logs, or forty-four gallon drums with Gidgee stones in them.
The cleared tracks, which would be about eight feet apart have an strip of grass between them, which is burnt off if fire is threatening. There is no point in burning good grass when unnecessary.
This allows a twenty-four foot fire break from which to back burn from, in the face of an oncoming fire; however with the unpredictable wind created by the fire, even these fire breaks can be jumped by the grass fires.
Man has little control over floods, rain, or drought. He cannot even predict the heat of summer to come, but fires, being a tool of man is often used foolishly.
Sheep will run around in a circle if they are frightened, and fires frightens all beasts. If these poor dumb animals cannot escape, they will run into the fire and perish.
There are stories of men and women being off fighting fires on a neighbours property only the hear that their own home has been burnt to the ground.
Of all the harshness of the Outback, the “Red Steer” is the worst. In times gone by it was used as a threat by some disgruntled traveller or station worker, who would rattle a box of matches in the face of the one he was threatening. No word had to be said, the threat was well indicated.