Monday, January 7, 2013


Yesterday we were driving home after some time away when we saw this:

This fire was under control, and (I suspect) part of a preventative burn off given current climatic conditions. It was mesmerising.

As I type this, in Australia today there are hundreds of bushfires blazing (mostly) out of control. And by that I mean that they were not part of an organised burn off like the one above. Tasmania is bearing the brunt of it at the moment, with many homes completely destroyed, though thankfully no lives have been taken at this point. Several years ago in Victoria we were not so lucky.

When I was 14 or 15 years of age, I experienced a bushfire myself, and have had a severe phobia of bushfires ever since.

My family lived on a small property that was surrounded on two sides by thick, dry rainforest. On most days it was magnificent - lush and green and visually spectacular. But when there was a fire it became a terrifying location to live. Our nearest neighbours lived on the ridge opposite us, so that they could see our property and house, with only a deep gully separating us.

On this one day I happened to be home alone. My parents were at work or shopping and my siblings were staying with friends. Mobile phones weren't readily available back then. The local fire brigade were doing a 'back burn' (which is supposed to reduce the likelihood of an 'out of control' fire jumping that line), however a wind picked up in the process, sending the fire out of the control of the fire brigade.

I was in my room when I heard the first crackling sounds approaching. It's hard to explain, but if you can imagine someone stepping on a large pile of dried leaves and sticks, and magnify that sound, then that's what I could hear. I hadn't heard anything like it before, so I ran outside to have a look. At the bottom of one of the gullys, fire ripped through the top of the trees, literally jumping tens of trees at a time and raced up the hill towards our timber house. I was numb.

This is not my photo - it was taken from the Black Saturday page.

It took a few seconds to realise that that fire was going much faster than I could ever hope to move, so I ducked back into the house and dialled 000. Having never had to dial 000 before I didn't know what to expect, and the call went something like this:

"Hello you've reached Emergency Services, how can I assist you?"

"Yes, um, I'm home on my own and there is a massive bushfire coming up the hill to my house! We live at (address) and please hurry! It's moving so quickly!"

"So would you like me to put you through to Fire?"

*and I hung up, realising there was no more time to spend on the phone.*
I had to get out quickly.

I raced out of the house and started screaming down our driveway. The fire was already so close to our yard fence and I hoped and prayed that my neighbours would see or hear me! I was literally screaming 'HELP ME! FIRE!' over and over, and thankfully, the neighbours heard me. I saw them all jump into their cars and speed towards our house. They had seen the fire and heard me screaming, and they were at our house in minutes. The wife of one neighbour took me quickly into the house and rushed around finding suitcases and clothes and personal items to pack. We grabbed photo albums, jewellery and clothes. We took whatever we could grab and threw it into her car, as the men all grabbed garden hoses and held the fire at bay as best they could. Another neighbour had called 000 again and I was told that emergency services were on their way. I was driven to a house nearby where I sat and waited for something. I didn't know if I was waiting for news about the house, or for my parents, or just to be moved again. I cried. A lot. For all I knew, my house had burned to the ground and we had lost everything that I hadn't packed.

I don't remember much after that. I do remember that I couldn't go home. The house was saved, but stumps and trees burned out for days and even weeks. The smell of smoke permeated everything and I just couldn't go back to the house the way it was. In my head, every crackle was another fire, and the smoke terrified me. I spent about a week with neighbours who were several kilometres down the road.

After that I spent a week with family in Brisbane. And when it finally came time for me to go home, I had trouble sleeping. I had to see a psychiatrist. It helped, but the fear of bushfire remains. As a post script, 000 have now improved their advertising campaign about what to do should you ever need to call them, but make sure your kids know what to do too. They had a record of my call, but were unable to act on it as I failed to request the fire department. A miscommunication.

More recently, when I moved to the farm, I remember asking CP what we did in case of a fire emergency. I needed to know who the 'local' fire department was, and where they were. He smiled proudly and announced that it was him and his dad. I couldn't believe it at first, but ten years later and several close call fire emergencies have taught me that given our isolated location, fire departments usually arrive to do a cleanup, not a 'house save'. Which leaves us and our neighbours as the first port of call. In event of a scrub/fire the local fire brigade should be called first, but it will be you and your neighbours who will come to help each other out, and we fight fires with machinery (making breaks and clearing etc), more so than water.

My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by bushfire, or who is still threatened by the possibility of bushfire. Although we all love the warmer months in Australia, the fire season is our summer's 'dark passenger'. The clothes, the house, the possessions: they can all be replaced. Take the warnings seriously and look after yourselves and your families first and foremost.

And remember to be 'fire safe', by keeping your roof and gutters clear of debris, and your yard tidy. Heed all warnings, and keep hoses and a supply of water handy. Plan your escape if it gets to that and do it well ahead of time. And send your love and support to those people who have already been affected. xxx

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow, I could imagine how horrifying it must have been for you. It is such a terrible thing to encounter and I hope that everyone stays safe during this Summer's heatwave.x


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