Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Our home in the fire zone

It was almost two months ago but it's not easy to forget what happened that day. The day when almost 200 homes just down the road from me were destroyed in a ferocious and out of control bush fire.

It had been a big day already. I felt exhausted and decided to have a lay down in my room while my one-year-old son slept and my four-year-old daughter was at preschool. I went to shut the blinds when I noticed the plume of thick grey smoke swirling across the bright, blue sky. It looked like it was coming from behind the golf course, not far away from where I lived but still far enough not to freak out just yet. Then I heard sirens. Lots of them. They did not stop but echoed endlessly throughout the streets as they headed out towards Winmalee.

This is the view from a street in Winmalee during the fire that day. Terrifying.
Source: Rhys Pope
I plonked down on my bed, grabbed my phone and noticed a message from my pastor at church, asking people to pray for my husband's family who were evacuating from a bushfire.

I immediately tried to call my mother-in-law on her land line. No answer. The worry began to trickle through my body. I called my husband at work and this was the first he heard of the fire. He decided to quickly pack up from work and start heading for home. I then got a phone call from my sister-in-law who confirmed that her mum (my mother-in-law) and sister were evacuating.

"They said the whole backyard was on fire and the tree across the road," she said. "They don't think the house will survive."

With my house not being too far away I decided to dash around and pack things to evacuate. I had seen the Four Corners documentary on what happened in the Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria. I wasn't taking any chances.

I then got a text message from my daughter's preschool asking parents to come and pick up their children immediately. The preschool was another three minutes drive away in the opposite direction from where the fire was so I knew she would be safe. However, I started to panic.

I had to get to the preschool. I had to pack the important stuff in the house. What was the list of things again? I had a mental list, but I couldn't think! Where was our computer's external hard drive with all the photos?

I then received the RFS emergency SMS warning that made me realise just how serious the situation was.

"Seek shelter as the fire impacts," the text message said.

My heart began beating so unbelievably fast. The wind was howling, I was shaking and the smoke in the distance was racing to blot out every piece of blue sky. I could hear the stream of fire trucks dashing northward, playing their harrowing background music that seem to send small shocks to my nervous system.

I managed to pack the car and find everything we needed. I then woke up my son and strapped him into the car. Once on the main road we soon hit traffic. People were coming from all directions trying to get back home or collect their children from school. After 15 minutes or so the traffic began to move and I was able to get through.

At the preschool, worry was etched over the teacher's faces but the children were none the wiser. I felt more relaxed once I had my daughter with me. But as we drove off down the highway I got a sense of the situation. In the valley to my left, just a couple of kilometres away, I could see flames licking the tops of the trees, racing towards the township of Yellow Rock. It felt like we were escaping from a disaster scene in a movie.

I felt relieved once we arrived at my mum's place and my husband joined us not long afterwards. Adrenaline was still coursing through my body like a wild river. It would come in waves, ebbing and flowing. It wasn't until around 6pm that we found out my in-laws place was okay. It was a miracle. However, it meant other homes were not so lucky. Hundreds of people just down the road from me were now homeless, many lost everything they had, including their beloved pets. 

The burnt-out bush that backs onto my in  laws home.
The fire threat didn't end there as the flames continued to rage not too far from our home. It just felt like we had this unpredictable, faceless and fierce monster lurking in our backyard. We evacuated another three times that week and on one occasion a new fire had sparked up just 500 metres from our home in the gully behind us. Thankfully, it was extinguished quickly by the RFS heroes. We soon became quite accustomed to having them appear in our street.

Source: NSW RFS
Then there was Wednesday – the day we all HAD to evacuate. The RFS had given an apocalyptic style warning urging everyone from the Blue Mountains to leave and leave early. It felt so surreal. Facebook was flooded with paranoia, rumours and good information. Yet, it was difficult to sift through.  By this stage we’d had enough as it had now been six days since the fire started. After much heated discussion, our family decided to prepare the house (at midnight by the way!) and leave the next morning. It was a long, long day that ended with my husband returning home in the afternoon to defend the house from any possible falling embers. Thankfully, nothing eventuated and we could all go home around dinner time.

The fire threat continued to roll on for a few more days and we were still in the midst of it. Helicopters were constantly flying over our house, rattling the kitchen bench and the good china in the cabinet as they flew out to water the fire nearby.

Source: SBS 
Thankfully, after some mammoth fire fighting efforts and the cooler weather, the fire was soon downgraded to a ‘watch and act’ status. A couple of weeks later it was declared ‘out’. The people of the Blue Mountains collectively let out a huge sigh of relief! 

After everything that happened, it took weeks for the adrenaline to stop pumping. I wasn't getting much sleep but I wasn't even tired. Many people put their extra energies into relief efforts, including our family. We held a huge fundraising garage sale, raising money for a family who lost everything. It was just some small way we could help.

The fire had a huge impact on our community but it was not all negative. We all bonded through the disaster because each person was affected in one way or another. Everyone also became particularly caring and concerned for friends and strangers alike. You couldn't speak to anyone without saying, “take care” or “stay safe.”  People got together to provide masses of food, clothing and furniture to those who lost everything. While the fire fighters fought the flames, our community fought for each other, building a sense of hope despite many losing everything.

Source: The Daily Telegraph
So after our experience, you may wonder why we choose to live in a fire zone. It's quite simply because of the people here and the beauty of the Blue Mountains. I love living where I have to shout above the crazy noise of the cicadas, where I can see the red glow of the sunset from my backyard, where I can swim in pristine waterholes, where I can know my neighbours and those who I see down the street in the local cafe. It's certainly worth taking the risk to live here.

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