That silence after a wildfire

THE utter silence that follows a wildfire is hard to countenance and harder still to understand.

As authorities in Arizona examine the area around Yarnell Hill to understand exactly how 19 hot-shot firefighters died last week - and to try to prevent it happening again - they will cope with that strange, all-encompassing silence that cloaks a barren landscape.

The first time you stand on scorched earth after a wildfire has swept through, you hear nothing. 

You catch yourself frowning, because you do not understand the complete absence of noise in a black-grey landscape devoid of any living thing.

You look left. You look right. You look behind you. Have you somehow lost your hearing entirely? Has some invisible being surreptitiously deprived you of every vestige of aural perception?

The total silence is so unnerving that you instinctively take a step backwards. Then you hear the first sound. It is the sound of the sole of your shoe, easily compressing the thick layer of powdery dark-grey ash that stretches everywhere, in every direction, as far as you can see.

So you can hear your own footfall, right? Then why is it that you cannot hear anything else?

There is a simple explanation. As wildfires voraciously consume all the oxygen in their path, the wind whips embers hundreds of metres ahead of the actual blaze. These embers consume not just the base of other trees, not just the tinder-dry underbrush, but the crowns of surrounding trees, rich with their green canopies.

To watch and document a wildfire is to be almost hypnotised as the tops of trees - several metres away from the actual fire - explode in a terrifying chain reaction.

Fire, gust, embers, explosion; fire, gust, embers, explosion. It is almost as if Dante’s Inferno has manifested itself in real life.

And when the fire has passed, taking a random path dictated purely by the wind, the silence envelops everything.

You see, wildfires strip every vestige of foliage from trees in their path. So when you walk across the desolation, you hear nothing because there are no leaves on the thousands of trees around you.

Think about it. Unless the breeze around you is a howling gale, your only perception of it when you’re out in open land away from urban areas is the rustling of leaves.

No leaves. No sound. It’s an unsettling experience, but it’s perfectly logical.

There is something else as well. A wild landscape always teems with its own myriad life forms. Insects, birds, rodents, small wild animals and - depending on the area - large animals as well.

But there is nothing left alive after a wildfire. The insects have perished. The rodents and wild animals of all sizes that are not quick enough to outrun the flames have been consumed as well.

And the birds? They flee, generally at the first hint of fire. But sometimes, in the most terrible wildfires, when the oxygen disappears above the treetops, sucked inexorably into the vortex of the rampaging blaze, the birds cannot breathe either, even though they are flying clear of the flames - so they fall to earth, dead before the hit the ground.

With no leaves to rustle and no living creatures of any description, your footfall is all you hear. You and you alone are the only sign of life.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg