Australia’s merciless bushfires

One man tells of how his violin was saved from the flames as hundreds of houses are destroyed in New South Wales.

It was made in 1942, in Prague. It survived to the end of World War Two, and more than six decades beyond that.

Now Daniel Jagiello’s violin, his most precious belonging, has survived a bushfire, too.

He was having lunch at university last Thursday when he got the text message that his house was on fire.

His parents had a few seconds to charge in and grab a few items. But they’d forgotten the violin.

Standing outside where his house had stood Daniel showed me how the violin was finally rescued. For our camera, he kicked through an imaginary door reached through an imaginary hallway, and grabbed from on top of an imaginary piano his still-real violin.

A firefighter had kicked through the real door 72 hours earlier. He’d reached through the real hallway and taken from the real piano, the violin.

The door’s gone. So’s the hall. And the piano. All rubble and ash.

Apart from the clothes on his back, what was in his pockets last Thursday lunchtime, and the childhood football shirts Daniel’s mother had saved, the violin is the only physical object Daniel has got left.

He’s grateful for the firefighter’s initiative. But doesn’t want to sugarcoat what’s happened.

“I’d probably much rather the house was still standing, yes.” He told me, with understatement: “It would be much more convenient.”

There are hundreds of similar stories because there are now hundreds of people in the same situation as Daniel. More than 200 houses were destroyed in the fires which swept across southeastern Australia on Thursday.

The fear is that there may be more to come. As I type, in Lithgow, deep in the Blue Mountains, helicopeters circle overhead. Some are scouting – directing fire-crews on the ground to where they should focus their priorities. Others are on rapid shuttles: sucking up water from a lake to spray it over flames.

On the ground, crews are lighting fires, and then using water to dampen the ground around them, to direct them. The idea is to be one step ahead of the wildfire by creating controlled ones. By, before the wildfire hits, burning areas of “bush” – the tinder dry trees and scrubby foliage that lies across the ground – the wildfire is deprived of fuel when it does arrive.

Will it be enough? Listen to the New South Wales state premier, or the head of the Rural Fire Service, and it sounds doubtful. Their warnings of what could come as temperatures rise and wind speeds pick up are almost apocalyptic. A “mega-fire” – with a front-fire of hundreds of kilometres – is a phrase being thrown around that authorities are doing little to discourage.

As a journalist, it’s natural to be cynical of such warnings from the top. Those giving them have an incentive to talk up the danger: they’d rather people were over-prepared than under.

But I haven’t met a firefighter yet who thinks they are exaggerating. And in Lithgow it’s definitely hotter than yesterday. And the winds are picking up.