Australians, like Southern Californians, live in one of the world's most combustible landscapes. Their native tree, the eucalyptus, litters the ground with kindling. Its oil-drenched leaves and bark ignite easily.
The Bakers moved to the country 11 years ago from Geelong, a city of 240,000 near Melbourne. John, 45, who makes dental prosthetics, and Carlene, 43, who runs his office, had long dreamed of living in the bush. In Anakie, an hour's drive west of Melbourne, they built a home in a deep valley surrounded by rocky hills and a forest of eucalyptus and wattle trees.
Soon after they arrived, the captain of the local fire brigade paid a visit and explained the philosophy of fire protection in these parts.
"He told us not to expect them to bring trucks up the drive and that we would be on our own," Carlene recalled. "Then he asked us for a donation."
The Bakers armed themselves against the danger. They stocked up on fire-resistant clothing. They bought a small pumper truck with regulation fire hoses and a generator to run water pumps. They set aside a 6,000-gallon water tank for fighting fires. They learned to clear brush regularly to create defensible space around the house. The entire family joined the volunteer fire brigade and received training through the state of Victoria's rural fire service.
Their preparations were put to the test in early 2006, when bushfires marched across the region. The Bakers anxiously tracked the plumes of smoke. By Sunday, Jan. 22, they knew they were in for it. John's parents took the family's three horses to safety on their property near Melbourne. The children, Isaac, then 15, and Molly, 13, were given the option of leaving with them. They chose to stay. After securing the horses, the grandparents returned to help defend Foxford.
John moved tractors, two water trailers and other vehicles close to the house. Carlene, who takes in orphaned animals, made sure her charges were also within the family's defensive perimeter, the rough circle of land they were determined to protect.
She shooed the hen and her newly hatched chicks into the house, where they shared a bathroom with two dogs. The cat, Midnight, spent the firestorm locked in a bedroom. An alpaca, five cows and 22 sheep remained in the barn, which Carlene declared must be defended at all costs.
Everyone was given a job. John and his father, Rodney, 69, repeatedly doused the house and outbuildings with water. Carlene and Isaac helped.
Inside, Molly and her grandmother, Pam, 66, filled the bathtub and sinks with water and soaked mops, towels and washcloths. They stuffed the towels under doors to keep out embers and smoke. They gave the washcloths to those outside to cover their mouths and wash ash and grime from their faces.
At 2 p.m., the Bakers got a call from neighbor Vaughan Stephens, a professional firefighter. Get ready, he told them. The fire is headed your way.
Embers the size of golf balls began to rain down. Each was a bomb that exploded on landing. "Within a minute, the flames were climbing up trees," Carlene said. "We were completely surrounded by fire."
For the next few hours, each family member protected an assigned area, extinguishing small fires with a hose or mop. Molly stuffed aluminum foil in the cracks between the stacked railroad ties that formed the front wall of the house. Carlene moved the pig from his frontyard pen onto the veranda to protect the animal from swirling embers.
By early evening, the ember attack had subsided. The house, barn and other buildings had survived -- so far. In the lull, Carlene noticed wildlife coming in from the bush. Wallabies and kangaroos crawled under the cars and farm equipment. Possums joined the pig on the veranda. The animals were taking shelter. The fire front was about to arrive.
'A continent of fire'
Like those in Southern California, Australian bushfires are driven by wind. Hot, arid blasts out of the northwest rake the nation's desert interior, hurtling toward Victoria's eucalyptus forests and grasslands.
"Here reside the fires that give Australia its special notoriety, not merely as a continent of fire but as a place of vicious, unquenchable conflagrations," American fire historian Stephen J. Pyne has written. "In the fire flume lurk the great, the irresistible fires of Australia."
One of the worst blazes in the country's recorded history occurred in February 1983. One hundred fires started on what came to be known as Ash Wednesday. Eighty-three people were killed, 2,600 injured and more than 2,500 homes destroyed in Victoria and South Australia.