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The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 5

The Rescue

Dawn crept over Oliver's Ark slowly that morning. The smoke filled sky shrouded the daylight early on, until a southerly wind picked up and blew much of the choking pollution away. The Campbell brothers were awake around 7:30AM. They didn't deliberately wake Jack, but they made considerable noise talking, running around the boat with the dogs, and checking on the koalas. Jarrah had taken over from Jack on guard duty at around 4:30. As far as the teen was concerned, that hardly counted as enough sleep for a growing boy, but as temporary parent he did feel some responsibility for the younger kids. However, Jack definitely looked forward to the time he could hand them back to their rightful owners.

There had been no further incidents during the hours of darkness.

Jack dragged himself out of bed and went out to check all was okay.

"G'day mate," he said when he almost bumped into Jarrah outside their cabin. "Happy New Year again. Any problems?"

"Nupe! No more sparks or bits of flying anything. I think we're right now. But you've got to see the mess on shore."

Jack had slept in his boxers, it was too hot for anything else. He was suddenly self-conscious and felt rediculous. He couldn't help but remember what Jarrah had told him last night. Did he have his normal morning stiffie? He didn't dare look. "Stop thinking like this," he told himself. "Jarrah's the same kid he was yesterday and such thoughts are crazy." He made his way to the bathroom for a much needed leak. When he emerged a few minutes later, he was relieved to see the Campbell brothers were also dressed in boxers. They immediately attacked him with questions, comments, and suggestions.

"Did you see the land?" asked Oliver. "Everywhere is destroyed. Where will we park the houseboat? What about more leaves for the koalas?"

James had his own concerns. "When do you think they'll rescue us? That was amazing last night. Will the fire come back? What's for breakfast? Can I have toast and honey? Can I open the UHT milk and some of those little boxes of cereal we stole from the shop? I don't mind staying on the houseboat. It's more fun here than at Nana and Pop's."

"Give me a minute guys. I need to check things out." All four boys made their way to the back of the boat deck. Jack picked up his dad's binoculars and looked out. The dark brown and light greens of the bush from yesterday were replaced by a gloomy, still smoldering apocalypse of devastation. Black ash and the remains of some larger tree branches covered the bush floor, but the scrub, so evident yesterday, and that provided a hiding place for the dingoes, was gone. It was now easy to see the grey topsoil that covered so much of the land in the Australian bush. Amazingly, most of the older, stronger eucalyptus trees were still standing, completely blackened near the ground, but lighter in color as you looked higher up the trunk. Some even had leaves still present in the highest branches, darker than normal clearly, but still evident. It was true eucalypts had evolved over thousands of years to withstand the worst of bushfires. However, the human structures had not fared as well. All the holiday cabins and shops from yesterday were gone. Twisted pieces of tin, corrugated roofing, and concrete foundations were all that remained. The stone and concrete jetty was blackened but had survived up to the point where the petrol pumps once stood. Now there was a gaping hole in that place that reminded Jack of a smiling face with a missing front tooth. No doubt this explained several of the biggest explosions they heard last night. The good news was that the section closer to the shore was still standing and meant they could bring the houseboat in there. Unlike the sea, there were few swells and no tides on a weir and that meant, "The Good Ship Oliver's Ark" could be safely tied to the bollard closest to land. As Jack did a slow 360 degree turn, the scene was repeated all around. The efforts of man were decimated, and the bush was blackened and burnt, but that would grow back quickly enough. Jack had seen places devastated by bushfires before. Within 7 years, all traces of this one would be gone too. But the carcasses of dead wombats, koalas, and wallabies he saw was a different issue.

"Okay, I've seen enough," Jack said. "Breakfast time. I'm starved. I could eat anything. Oliver, what should I eat?"

"Horse!" replied the 10-year-old with a giggle. "But I think you ate it all yesterday." Everyone laughed.

"Fine!" Jack said huffily. "I'll have to settle for cereal, UHT milk, and toast and jam. Anyone care to join me?"

They all did.

The boys were just finishing breakfast when they heard a steady engine noise approaching. Jack assumed it must be the Fireboss Bombers back again to collect water for the start of another day fighting the bushfires.

"Jarrah, we'll need to move in closer to the shore so we're not in the way of the Air Tractors," said Jack. The Campbell brothers had already raced out and climbed to the top deck to wave at the pilots, but they came running back in to the kitchen area.

"There's a helicopter coming," yelled Oliver excitedly.

"Yes, I think it's the people from the TV," confirmed James. "Do you think they'll put us on the news?"

"I doubt it. They'll be here to cover the fire damage to the tourist stuff at the weir. King George Lake Reservoir is a major attraction in this part of the state," said Jarrah.

The two 13-year-olds and Red Dog and True Blue rushed up to the top as well. Sure enough, it was the "Channel 6 Chopper," owned by the local major regional television and newspaper company. The teens had seen this machine many times before when it covered surfing and dirt bike racing events or reported shark sightings in Bligh's Point, the expansive white sandy beach close to East Coast famous for its surf. Jack had even featured in his own 1:45 second segment when they did a story titled, "Local Boy Makes Good," when he qualified for the Australian Junior Surfing Titles which were due to be held at Jan Juc in 27 days from now.

The helicopter circled overhead as all the kids waved. They could see one pilot in the cockpit and in the rear cabin a cameraman and a woman beside him pointing at different things. The chopper made several more passes over the houseboat and then headed towards the shore where the tourist cabins and shops had once stood. It made a low circuit of the shoreline around this part of the weir, obviously taking in the rest of the bushfire damage. The boys assumed that would be the last they'd see of the news crew, but unexpectedly it headed back to the houseboat and the woman and the cameraman seemed to be indicating to the boys they should head for land.

Jack recognized the woman. It was Karen Tur, one of the anchors on the local 6 o'clock evening news. She was the one who had interviewed him last month for the surfing story. Only in her mid-twenties, with long blond hair, and beautiful olive complexion, he thought she was cute. Way out of his league of course, but a boy can dream.

"I think they want us to drive to the shore," said Oliver unnecessarily.

"Pretty sure he's right'" said Jack winking at Jarrah. "Why don't we go and see what Karen Tur has to tell us. Maybe she's seen sharks in the weir. Maybe she has news? You guys put on some shorts and a shirt. Jarrah and I'll do the same and then we can head off to meet up with them. We can't be talking to a lady in our boxers. But help us pull up the anchor first."

"Are there sharks in the water?" asked Oliver.

"No of course not..," responded James. Jack knew he was going to add, "you idiot." But Jack cut him off.

"Sorry Oliver. I was only kidding. There are no sharks here. This is fresh water. All sharks in Australia live in the ocean."

The helicopter made another circuit of this part of the lake and then flew off to the old tourist center and started searching for a suitable landing zone.

Ten minutes later Jarrah drew the houseboat up to what remained of the jetty. Jack attached the mooring rope to the bollard and the boys and dogs all jumped ashore. They didn't bother with the gang-plank as all four were anxious for news.

The reporter, Karen Tur, smiled broadly and clapped her hands as they walked down the jetty towards where she and the cameraman were standing.

"Welcome home heroes of East Coast. You boys saved the town and possibly hundreds of lives. Do you mind answering a few questions for our viewers?"

"We'll answer some questions, but turn the camera off first and tell us what's happening. We haven't heard any news since yesterday," insisted Jack.

Karen made a cut-throat gesture to the cameraman to indicate he should stop filming. "Gary go and take some B roll of the damage around here and the general bushfire destruction while I speak to the boys."

She started walking towards the houseboat and spoke as she went.

"My name's Karen and the cameraman there is Gary. I know who you are. Jack Harrison (13), Jarrah Hunter (13), and James (11) and Oliver Campell (10), right?

"Yes Miss," answered James.

"Boys, call me Karen. No need to be formal. The story, as I understand it, is that Jack and Jarrah were out riding their dirk-bikes when they spotted a new bushfire outbreak heading towards the town of East Coast. The phones were out so the boys went to the Campbell farm where they thought there was an old police radio. That's where they found you two," she said pointing at James and Oliver. "Jack made a call to the CFA and they were able to send sufficient resources over there to stop the fire before it got anywhere close to the town. So basically, you guys are being hailed as heroes for saving East Coast and possibly hundreds of lives."

"We saved the koalas too," added Oliver. "Don't forget about them."

"What's this about koalas?" she asked.

So Oliver explained about finding the dead koala, the dingoes, and the koalas that were still waiting in the third cabin in the houseboat. Jack saw the reporter's eyes light up.

"You mean you not only saved the town and hundreds of lives, but you saved a bunch of koalas as well? And they are still in the boat over there?"

"We could only catch 6. The rest went way up to the top of the trees and we couldn't rescue them," explained the youngest boy.

"We also saved the dogs too," said James. "They were chained up at my Nana and Pop's house."

"These dogs here?" asked Karen pointing at the two Australian kelpies that had returned to the group after sniffing around for a while after they jumped off the boat.

"Yes, their names are Red Dog and True Blue," answered James.

"We renamed the houseboat 'Oliver's Ark'" said Jack. It was all Oliver's idea to rescue what koalas we could catch, so we named the boat for him. But Jarrah did most of the hard work of climbing the trees and catching them. He got a few scratches for his trouble."

"I climbed the trees too," complained Oliver.

"Yes you did," said a smiling Jack. "You were very brave. James and I carried the boxes with the koalas from the trees to the jetty. That was hard work until James found the little trolley behind the shop. So we all helped."

"This is an amazing story boys, and something we need to tell the world about. I understand the CFA is sending units up here to rescue you boys and to check on the dam. But first, they have to inspect several hotspots around East Coast and won't make it here until mid-morning. And James and Oliver, our pilot, Jerry, just got a message from a mate of his that your parents have hired their own chopper and are flying all the way from Melbourne to collect you guys. They were very worried, but Jerry has already reported you are both safe and well. We saw you waving to us on the houseboat. That was good thinking. …?"

"Mom and dad are coming here?" asked James cutting in. "What about Dad's conference?"

"I don't know anything about a conference, but yes, they just left Melbourne when Jerry spoke to his mate. They'll be here in about an hour. In the meantime, would you mind if we did a few interviews? Maybe get some of the koalas out here as well?"

The next hour flew by quickly as Karen organized everything with military precision. Cameraman Gary got more equipment out of the back of the helicopter and did videos and still shots. They did a group interview with all the boys, the dogs, and the koalas in the middle of the destroyed lakeshore area with the remains of the shops and tourist cabins in the background. Then she had them move onto the jetty while Karen asked more questions with Oliver's Ark as the backdrop. She produced a large piece of drawing paper and Magic Markers and got Oliver to write the new houseboat's name and got pictures of everyone pretending to cover the old 'Lady Ethel' sign. Then there were individual interviews with each boy about his role in the events of the last 24 hours and finally the release of the 6 koalas into a small copse of eucalyptus trees that had somehow survived the inferno the night before. Oliver became self-conscious as the tears rolled down his face and he realized Gary had the video camera squarely focused on him.

Jack thought Karen would spend the rest of the day filming, but shortly after the koalas were set free, pilot Jerry ran over and yelled.

"Karen, we need to get moving. The helicopter with the Campbell parents is only a few minutes out and we're occupying the only safe landing zone in the immediate area. My mate Phil will land here when we pull out. He's in a bigger bird than us and he is not used to landing in unofficial places, so it needs to be somewhere I've checked-out."

"Okay, I think we've got plenty," said the lady reporter.

Cameraman Gary promised to send each boy a copy of all the files if they gave him their email addresses. They wrote them out and gave them to Karen as Gary and the pilot loaded all the equipment away.

"Thanks so much boys for all your patience and agreeing to do the interviews. I wish you all the best for the future." She kissed each boy on the forehead as the second helicopter circled overhead. Before she boarded her own chopper, she yelled above the engine noise.

"Jack Harrison, I'll be seeing you at the Australian Junior Surfing Titles in a few weeks at Jan Juc. I wouldn't miss that for the world. Jarrah, James, and Oliver, it's been a real pleasure meeting you. You are all true Aussie heroes." She put her hand over her heart and tapped it several times. "I just know we'll meet again."

The boys were forced to move back as a huge amount of black ash and dust was swept up as the Channel 6 Chopper took to the air.

Three minutes later, a much larger helicopter, all the way from Melbourne, landed in the same place.

It was an extremely moving reunion between the Campbell parents and their two sons. The teens were both introduced, but mostly stood some distance away so as not to crowd the happy scene. It was clear the brothers were overwhelmed with the effort their parents had made to come and collect them. Jack hoped it went some way to reduce the cynical attitude James demonstrated about his folks yesterday.

After many minutes of hugs and kisses, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell came over to speak to the older boys.

"Thank you for everything you did for our sons. We owe you two a huge debt of gratitude and I never forget a debt. If you ever have legal issues, call me first," said the man. He handed Jack and Jarrah his business card. They accepted politely, but couldn't imagine ever needing legal advice.

"If the boys had stayed at the house, they would be dead now," continued the man. "My parent's farm was burnt to the ground."

"Nana and Pop's house is gone?" asked Oliver.

"I'm afraid so son. But the important thing is you are safe. That's all that matters. Houses can be rebuilt. I don't intend to let a little thing like a bushfire push us Campbells out. We'll help your grandparents rebuild. Something better than before. And one day the farm will go to you two."

The boys seemed pleased with that idea. That way they could always keep their connection to East Coast.

"When I spoke to my mother, and she told me James and Oliver were still at the farm, we went into a panic. Shortly after that, I managed to speak to your uncle, Senior Sergeant Michael Harrison, even though he was pretty busy at the time."

Jack and Jarrah both laughed. It must have been total chaos yesterday. How Mr. Campbell had managed to get hold of Uncle Mike in the middle of a bushfire was amazing.

"He assured me you two were responsible kids. Still, I thought, we couldn't expect much from a couple of 13-year-olds. How wrong I was. All the way down here on the trip from Melbourne, our pilot had us patched into the local news reports. You two are quite the heroes. Thank you once again Jack and Jarrah for saving our boys."

The teens smiled. The Campbells didn't know the half of it, thought Jack. Wait until they see the evening news tonight on channel 6.

He shook each teen by the hand. Mrs. Campbell bent over and kissed them on the cheek. She whispered another "thank you" into their ears as she did so.

"Come along boys. The helicopter is waiting and we need to get you home."

"We'll see you 'round," said James. He and his brother were standing next to their parents, but seemed reluctant to leave. There were tears in the eyes of both boys, and then without warning James ran up and embraced the two teens. "You two are the best big brothers I ever had." Oliver joined them in a four way hug.

"Yes, the best big brothers ever."

"I meant what I said yesterday," responded Jack. He had tears in his eyes as well. "I couldn't imagine ever meeting two kids I'd rather have in my family. But we don't have to be pretend brothers. We lived through something that has bound us together. We all sense that, I know. So the four of us will be 'bushfire brothers' forever. And that's stronger than family or anything else." They hugged again.

"Please come and visit us in Melbourne. Our house has a lot of spare rooms. Mom can Jack and Jarrah come and stay in Melbourne?"

"We'll arrange it," she said taking Oliver by the hand.

"Hang on Mom. What about the dogs? We can't leave them here."

"Don't worry. Sergeant Harrison told our pilot on the radio, he has CFA units on the way here. The dogs will go back with Nana and Pop in East Coast. Red Dog and True Blue are country dogs. They'd hate the city. You know that," said Mr. Campbell.

"Now come on. You have to tell us everything that happened," ordered Mrs. Campbell.

"Do you know that dingoes were going to eat Oliver," said James as the family boarded the helicopter.

Jack and Jarrah grinned at each other. The Campbell brothers certainly had some stories to tell. The engines on the aircraft revved into full power and blocked out any further conversation.

As the private helicopter disappeared into the sky, Jack thought about the idea of staying with the Campbells in the city. That could be cool as he had only ever visited the capital of the State of Victoria on a few day trips with his mother. But would the relationship between the four of them be the same if he and Jarrah did visit them in Melbourne? No of course not. Mostly it wasn't obvious as you lived life, but people changed all the time. Jarrah and him and the Campbell brothers would never again be the people they were right then. In the weeks ahead they would all grow up a little bit each day. There were the physical changes that were obvious. You just had to look at his school photos from last year to see that. But mental and emotional changes were happening too. These often occurred faster than most parents were ready to admit. Jack no longer wanted to play with Tonka Trucks, or chase butterflies like he did when he was 4. He had moved on from that. Jarrah had grown too and was now dealing with the issue of his sexuality. Neither were the same little boys they had been in the past. He guessed the Campbell brothers had a hero-worship respect for the teens just now. But that would change as they grew. Life had to move on. He had the Australian Junior Surfing Titles coming up soon and he'd already missed two days of practice. He needed to get back to the beach at Bligh's Point.

Just as the Campbell family disappeared over the horizon, Jack and Jarrah saw a small convoy of CFA vehicles making their way slowly down the concrete spillway road. In front was a Mobile Communications Vehicle (MCV), followed by two 4-wheel drive tankers designed to carry a large water tank as well as a pump, hoses, nozzles, standpipes, breathing apparatus, axes and other hand tools which were stowed in lockers on the vehicle. The two boys smiled at each other. Their own rescue party had arrived and their 24 hour nightmare in the bushfires was finally coming to an end.

The MCV raced ahead of the other vehicles when it saw the boys and soon came to a screeching halt in front of them. Jarrah's mom was driving and his dad was riding shotgun. They jumped out of the car, dressed in full protective gear, and without a single word, raced over and embraced their son. It was only seconds before all three were crying as Mrs. Hunter pulled Jarrah in close and then pushed him out at arm's length to examine him carefully and ensure he was unharmed. She fussed about the scratches on his arms from the koalas and lifted his shirt to ensure there were no life threatening injuries.

"We were so worried," sobbed Mrs. Hunter happily. "We really had no idea what happened to you. You were spotted by the Air Tractors before dark yesterday, and we knew the bushfire reached here last night. But we couldn't send anything over because all units were defending the town. We saved East Coast thanks to your quick thinking. But then the Beechcraft reconnaissance plane couldn't see any sign of life when it flew over at dawn this morning. So we thought the worst."

"Let the boy breathe Sally. I think you're killing him." But clearly the order to his wife was a ploy. As soon as Jarrah was released, the Reverend Sam Hunter grabbed his son hard and hugged and kissed him all over his head.

Jack felt somewhat embarrassed for what his friend was going through, but a little jealous as well. He wasn't sure if his own reception would be that affectionate.

The two tankers arrived shortly after and parked next to the MCV. Jack saw his own dad in the cab of the second vehicle. He wasn't driving, but before the tanker had even stopped he had open the passenger-side door, stood on the running-board and yelled.

"Thank God you're safe. Your mother and I were so worried."

Men and women got out of both vehicles and mobbed Jack enthusiastically. They left Jarrah alone for now as his parents were clearly not ready to relinquish hold of him. They shook Jack by the hand, slapped him on the back, messed his hair, and Mrs. Rachel O'Kelly even kissed him on the cheek. They kept repeating phrases like, "Thanks for saving the town. You're a hero. What a brave boy. You saved the Campbell grandkids as well."

Jack grinned, totally overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception. Was it true what Karen Tur had said? Did people really think they were heroes? What a crazy idea.

CFA Captain Ian Harrison, Jack's dad, wobbled slightly, but smiled and waved at his boy from his position on the running-board on Tanker 7.

"Let me get the crews going and we can catch up son."

"George, Marg and Harry, take Tanker Number 6 back up to the top of the spillway and check the entire dam wall for any breaks or possible cracks. The last thing we need now is a bursting dam. The spillway itself hasn't been opened for years, so take pictures of any possible leaks. We'll need to get the engineers up if you find anything. Tyler and Rachel leave Tanker 7 here. I need you down at the jetty and do the water testing. First check what remains of the petrol tanks attached to the boat hire shop. If any fuel is still leaking out into the reservoir, we need to stop it. Then test the water purity with the kits they gave us. We may need to cut irrigation to the whole Wilson Valley if the worst has happened. If the water is clear, we can fill both tankers and head back to town. There are still those hotspots we're concerned about."

At first everyone just stood there and continued slapping Jack on the back. Some of the adults then started yelling over to Jarrah.

"Well done Jarrah. An amazing effort from you two. The whole town is very proud. The mayor wants to have a special ceremony..."

Captain Ian Harrison looked on benignly at first but seemed to lose patience when his orders continued to be disregarded.

"Get moving!" he yelled menacingly. "After what we've all been through in the last week, I think I'm entitled to a few minutes alone time with my son. We don't have time for standing around. I'll come and check on the water testing shortly."

The other adults beamed towards Jack and Jarrah as they all moved off to carry out their assigned tasks.

Mr. Harrison got down from the truck, went over to Jack, and put his arm around the boy's shoulders as Tanker 6 drove off back up the spillway road. Tyler and Rachel got the water kits and headed off to the jetty. The Reverend and Mrs. Hunter had bundled Jarrah into the back of the MCV and his mother was bandaging a few of the more serious scratches he'd got in catching the koalas.

Jack smiled at the sight and looked up at his dad's face hoping to share the fun of the manhandling his best mate was suffering through. It was only then he noticed the strong smell of alcohol on his father's breath. The grin was gone from his face. The 13-year-old went into a panic. He needed to call for help. But the arm around his shoulders had turned into a chock-hold around his neck. He was steered behind Tanker Number 7 and out of sight. He had no choice but to comply. His father's grip was just too strong. The boy's bladder gave way and was the only action his body could take. Without warning, the man slammed his son's head into the side rear panel of the truck. With combined affects of the choke hold and the head concussion, Jack was losing consciousness.

"You ever pull a stunt like that again, I'll kill you. You little shit."

The man threw the boy onto the ground and strode off towards the weir.

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