The Man Who Writes Lists: A Fire Story

He rang me in a panic, remembering that he hadn’t got around to raking under the two giants. He had raked around almost all the oldest trees, the ones he so loved in his 50 acres of bush named Riverbend, in a place called Wangarabell in the far east corner of Victoria. He raked to remove the built-up bark and knee-high leaf litter in the hope it might help them survive if, or when, the fire reached his place.

One of the two giants still stands today. She’s over 60 meters high, poking her head right up out of the canopy. But there’s now a gap where her equally enormous sibling stood. The second tree seemed to be the stronger and healthier of the two, Dad told me, but she couldn’t hold up against the firestorm that ripped through the bush.

My dad Max is a gentle person. He’s a lover of trees, classical music, poetry and Australian rules football. Dad plays the flute, laughs loud and eats almost anything with enthusiasm. He is a writer of lists and a listener of birds. Before the fires, he had well over 150 birds on his running list. He notices tiny orchids and remembers their Latin names. His memory for knowledge makes me jealous. He knows all the dates of geological times, the distances between planets and he can sing the periodic table. But he can’t remember the day, or most birthdays, or other boring things.

At Riverbend, Dad has planted hundreds of trees. Tree of all shapes, sizes and origins. There are over 50 heirloom apples, 30-odd pears, many plums, nashis and figs and other delicious fruits growing in his orchard, which he spent four years to enclose to protect from wallabies and wombats. He planted his own two-acre arboretum, which holds hundreds of ornamental species including 40 different magnolias, 60 camellias, Californian redwoods, ginkgoes, birch and cedar, black walnuts and maples and many trees that he just had to have. He is man unafraid of starting, and completing, big projects. 

The garden at Riverbend before the fire
One of Max James’ 50 apple species in the garden at Riverbend
The Genoa river at Riverbend

Over the past twenty years, Dad has walked slowly around every corner of his property, learning the names of the tiniest of plants to the biggest, including the 22 different eucalyptus species. If you grew up with a parent who is either a keen bird watcher or botanist, or both, you’ll know how excruciating walking with them can be. Stop, start, stop, stop, stop, start, reverse, stop (as kids, my sister Kate and I found this incredibly annoying!)

Max James, retired botanist, bird watcher and maker of lists.

In summer Dad loves to go ‘dragon-flying’, which is to stand in the Genoa river, with a paparazzi sized lens, photographing dragonflies. He sometimes sets up rock ‘islands’ for them to land on to get better pictures. His daily walk to the riverbend, after which he named his property, gives him the heavenly delight of a gentle swim around the island a couple of times. This place is his paradise. 

The rainfall was always generous. But then it didn’t rain as much. And then it didn’t rain at all. And then the creek stopped flowing. And then the river stopped flowing. For the last year, the forest was tinder dry.  It didn’t look like it was supposed to – the green colours dulled and leaves parched. Everything was crisp, it crackled wherever he walked. He was extremely worried about fire. In mid-winter he backburned some areas, but it was so dry that even these cold weather burns were unusually fast and hot.

But, as I’m sure you know, this summer was a summer unlike others before. Not only did the dry weather continue, but the days were roasting hot, sometimes over 45 degrees, day after day. There was no moisture left, not even in the gullies. He knew, in his gut, that Riverbend was in great danger. 

Dad could hear Mallacoota burning, 50km away. The sky was blood red. The wind was wild and lashed the trees and the air was too hot. At first, he thought it best not to leave his place, worrying about the 20km drive to the highway on winding bush tracks. After all, he’d built a bunker. He could shelter there with his partner Elvyne and her 17yr old dog Cassie if need be. Dad spent days preparing the property – blocking the windows and skylights in his sheds with corrugated iron, ripping out the long grass around the house and removing everything off his deep veranda. I could tell from his voice, when speaking on the phone, that he was totally exhausted and scared.

It was difficult for Dad and Elvyne to get enough information about how far the fire had reached. The sound, smell, colour and air quality made them think it was right on their doorstep. They took shelter in the bunker at 2am, locking the door behind them. El slept, because she is a champion sleeper, but Dad’s head and heart were racing. He got up in the dark and headed back out. The fire wasn’t as close as they thought, so began pumping his precious tank water around and over his small concrete brick house. This is it, he thought. He hosed 10 thousand litres of water into the surrounding gardens and around his shed and workshop. 

It would be the writing of lists and the highly tuned ears of this 71 year old bird watcher that would herald the start of the healing process.

Clare James

But that night the fire didn’t arrive. Nor next, or the next. They waited. Dad didn’t stop prepping. He did everything he could. He heard the horror stories from his friends in Mallacoota. The fire was heading in their direction, but was crawling slowly. The weather forecast for the coming days was horrific. He was told that Wangarabell would ‘vaporise’. But by now, he and Elvyne couldn’t leave. There were too many trees down and the roads were blocked in every direction. The police thought they could send in a helicopter to evacuate them but the smoke was too thick for it to take off. 

In the end, a brave and helpful neighbour, along with another man, convoyed their way in to help Dad and El out. It took them several attempts and many hours of chain-sawing. They left the property and Dad cried. He didn’t know what would survive, if anything. He had left the gate open for his 35 beloved chooks with buckets of water and food. They’d need more than good luck to get through the inevitable. As they drove along the bush tracks, fire on either side, everything was black. Black and white. No green for the entire 50 kilometer drive into Mallacoota. Dad’s heart broke as he watched two lyrebirds trying to outrun the fire along the track, knowing that they had nowhere safe to go. This image still haunts him weeks later.

Dad and El spent a few days in Mallacoota. El and Cassie soon left Mallacoota aboard the HMAS Choulle, the Navy ship that evacuated over 1,000 people back to Melbourne. Dad waited for news that he could return home. When he could finally head back, he went with his old mate Pete. They agreed to visit each other’s properties together, for support.  Neither knew what they were in for.

The road into Riverbend, after the fire.

The track in towards Riverbend didn’t make any sense. Never before had Dad been able to see beyond the first layers of trees. In some places, the track had been a beautiful green tunnel of foliage. Now, he could see all the way to the horizon, pitch black ‘poles’ and white ash line drawings criss-crossing the baked earth. Smoke filled in the gaps. His front gate stood in a foreign landscape. He was home. 

The 20 tonnes of carefully chain-sawed, collected, split and stacked firewood that dad had spent hundreds of hours stock-piling was erased,  a pile of white ash. His garden was beige where it wasn’t burnt black. The force of the heat wiped the colour from the landscape. The shed, workshop and tractor shed were still smouldering. Inside was every tool Dad owned. As well as camping gear, canoes, machines and all of the things that a 71yr old ‘collector’ has in his sheds. Gone. 

The three 30,000 litre water tanks had melted and collapsed like Dali-esque objects. Dripping plastic had bubbled and set like giant candles. The header tanks, way up high on steel stands were blistered, but one still held a little water. The orchard netting had melted and many of the hand-cut box timber poles were burnt. 

28 of his 35 chooks were waiting to see him. How did they survive? 

We don’t know how or why the house survived. The fire had burnt up to it in several directions but hadn’t caught any of the wooden veranda posts! It sat there, proving again that it could withstand massive bushfires, having survived the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires that last ravished the land.

In the coming days and weeks, Dad had to take in the biggest losses of all, that of the wildlife and the flora. Where were the birds? How could anything survive such a violent firestorm, he wondered? What would they eat if they did manage survive? If they took shelter in the small sections of the river bed that were left green, or the lower half of his arboretum, they’d need food.

Dad walked around in circles for the first two weeks after the fire. Kate, Elvyne and I called him several times a day, as did his friends. The highway would remain closed for another four weeks. None of us could get to him and all of us wanted to, more than anything.

The bushland at Riverbend after the fire.
New shoots.

As Dad started to feel his way around a desolate landscape in a daze, he began to leave food out for the wildlife. A team of vets from Malacoota came out to check on a kangaroo that he was worried about and they left around 100kg of bird seeds, molasses chaff and lucerne hay for him to leave out. At first, nothing came out to touch the little piles of glossy seeds on the blackened bare earth. 

Dad sounded so sad on the phone. He was in shock. He didn’t even seem glad that his little house made it at first. He didn’t want the bush to be gone. He wanted everything the way it was. He wanted to find “just a bloody spanner or a hammer and nail!” 

It would be the writing of lists and the highly tuned ears of this 71 year old bird watcher that would herald the start of the healing process. Dad started a new bird list called ‘Birds, after fires, Jan 2020’. At the beginning he only had 12 species. But each day he would eat his breakfast on the veranda and begin that days list. He’d add to it over the day, with numbers written beside ‘new’ species to be seen. Because the orchard was now open to the sky, the hungry birds entered and ate every last one of the thousands of fruits that hung on the shell-shocked trees. As the days passed, the seeds and chaff began to disappear too. Not like at our house where the parrots and pigeons literally yell at us for food – no, these animals were truly wild. They didn’t expect food. But when they came across it, they ate, and they told their family and friends!

Choughs, king parrots, satin bower birds and galahs arrived at first. Red browed finches and willy-wag-tails pecked at the seed alongside tiny blue fairy wrens and mudlarks. There were then the birds of prey looking down at these smaller birds with delight, because they too were hungry. 

Max James’ ‘Birds after Fires, Jan 2020’ list.

Dad ventured further and further into the burnt forest. He could now walk up the creek beds, following the twists and turns where he’d never been able to penetrate the thick vegetation. He saw the landscape’s form; its rise and fall. And looking down, he witnessed the earth being turned inside out by millions of ants doing their thing. Miracles were happening everywhere. Slowly but surely life was beginning to return.

In the week before we arrived it finally rained. It rained a lot, so we got to see the splendid sight of epicormic shoots pushing out of pitch-black charcoal trunks and exploding into leaves of amazing colours. We saw tiny green shoots and xanthorrhoea re-sprouting out of the ground. There were water ribbons and milfoil swaying in the flowing creek and the little leaves of creek-side vegetation just starting to grow.

We too left food out for the wildlife and were able to see it get eaten. We too got to see the bird list at 77 species. But we also witnessed a much emptier and quieter place. The once noisy nocturnal world almost silent. The windows at night time were not being pounded by the hundreds of insects who wanted to come inside, and the three tree frogs hanging on the glass looked skinnier. The morning birdsong was barely audible. Previously it woke you up.

Kate and I have just returned from our first visit to Riverbend since the fire. We took El and Cassie, and left them there with Dad. We took more chook food, a new lawn mower, wildlife seeds and some groceries. I picked an enormous bucket of flowers from my garden for the insects, because I knew they’d be starving too.

I’m not sure what Riverbend will look like in a year or two. It will not be the same, probably ever, or at least not for a very long time. How does an ecosystem so complex recover without all of its elements? I cry for the gliders and other beautiful marsupials, the birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects who have disappeared. I can’t bear knowing how much is lost and I can’t bear how much my dad hurts. 

Picture now Dad and El, hand in hand, heading down to the creek with their towels draped over their shoulders. They bath in the fresh creek water and, as always, take notice of the world around them. When they get back to the house, and over a pot of tea, Dad will add to his daily bird list, job list, burnt things list and shopping list. Step by step, bird by bird, leaf by leaf, day by day things will change from black and white to colour.

Flowers from Clare James’ garden for the insects at Riverbend.