Mr Smith goes to . . . A Bush Fire

Mr Smith goes to . . . A Bush Fire

Under a sky full of ash, a young man moves at a crouching jog through the dry undergrowth, touching a naked flame to the brush. A wall of fire has ringed his town for a fortnight, there is an absolute ban on domestic burning, and two dozen suspected arsonists - graffiti artists who sign their tags in flame - are helping the police with their inquiries. But the jinking firebug attracts the quiescent, not to say admiring, gaze of men who are slackening their chinstraps and handkerchiefing the sweat from their faces. Like them, he is rigged out in a yellow flameproof suit, a sou'wester for infernos. And his incendiary antics are licensed by the government. This is back-burning, the rustic Australian craft of burning down the bush before a bushfire does it first. It is literally a scorched-earth policy, denying fuel to the onrushing blaze. The work is undertaken by the soot-streaked volunteers of the Rural Fire Service, the "Bushies".

As the scrub catches alight, with a noise like bunched Cellophane unfolding, it's time to reflect that the gallery of Australia's mythic images, which already honours the swagman's billycan, the winning run and the Bondi earstud, must in all accuracy include the many-tongued decal that symbolises fire. This is famously an outdoor country, a place where the workers come home from the Sydney office blocks to an hour's sailing before dinner. Here, the four elements are more intimately experienced. To set a fire is as natural for a disaffected youngster in New South Wales as it is for his London coeval to twoc a Subaru.

But, in a landscape of flame-ready gum trees, fire is a communal experience, a levelling process of almost bubonic proportions. During the summer down under - or the burning season, as they call it in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney - Chris Kempster and his family have packed and unpacked the car three times in a week while the conflagration has waxed and waned.

The Kempsters' neighbour, a new bride, looks on with misgiving as the yellow-jacketed Bushies torch the marital smallholding. Some of the firefighters will tell you that back-burning is as much an art as a science, as contingent on the caprices of the wind as the Molotov cocktail with which the arsonist hopes to start off his own private party.

Fire has been the birthright of every Australian since the days of the first settlers. The cattle stations were just too remote to be attended by professional firefighters. Even today, as you drive through the burning Blue Mountains in the curious beige light, you are astounded to see the mainstream brigade on the forecourts of their stations, turtle-waxing tenders and playing cards. They are held in reserve, in case the Bushies get into trouble. There are stories of mutual antagonism between professionals and part-timers.

Greg Frulliani, a captain with the Bushies, defends their contribution. "It's in the best tradition of Australia, a volunteer society," he says. Indeed, it is not taking anything away from the dedication of these amateurs to note that starting their civic-minded fires gives them a caveman rush.