Smell. Acrid. It was the smell which was always the first sign that a veld fire had broken out beyond our street, the last one before our newly developed suburb gave way to long wild grass and thorn scrub. Fires were not uncommon in winter, when the rain stayed away and the grass became dry tinder for the slightest spark. I remember that smell so well. It was the signal that instantly brought the whole neighbourhood – man, women, child and a good number of dogs – into the street, searching for the first smoke wisps that would tell us which houses stood in immediate danger. Then all was action – part purposeful, part chaotic. The men rushed for hoses, shovels and sacks. The women tried unsuccessfully to shoo the younger children in the direction furthest from the oncoming smoke, while simultaneously throwing on grubby fire-fighting outer coverings, changing into stout shoes and grabbing all the available household buckets. Children, generally in shorts, with bare feet and dogs at their ankles, milled among the adults. By then, the fire was visible. The men formed the forefront, a battle line armed with hoses, wet sacks and shovels of sand to hold the back the flames. The women ran around with more wet sacks, extinguishing burning embers which blew into gardens and threatened to ignite the dry grass there. Children ran to fill buckets with water in which to resoak sacks, or battled to hold back the more adventurous dogs which ran barking at the flames, as though they were intruders to be chased away. The older boys swarmed up ladders, the older girls passing up hoses and buckets of water to wet roofs as protection against the far-flung embers. The sense of fear among the adults was an unspoken undercurrent, almost as tangibly acrid as the smell of the smoke. After all, it was all their homes that they were fighting to protect. Children, less aware of the possibility of loss of houses and treasured possessions, and of the spectre of endless insurance claims, swung wildly and loudly between fear and fascination at the crackling soaring flames which were so tantalisingly close, so alive, so thrilling to watch. As dangerous, exhilarating and frightening as those fires were, they stand out in my memories of childhood as my first, and possibly most powerful, lessons in the meaning of community.