A Tale of Two Bushfires: Spring 2013 in Springwood and Surrounds

So this happened two years ago.

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At the time we’d only lived in the Blue Mountains for 18 months, and with the swaggering arrogance of lifelong city-kids we were totally blasé about bushfires. So blasé that we didn’t even have a fire plan. Why would we need one of those? I mean, it’s not like we were completely surrounded by national forest or anything…. *cough*

That shit doesn’t happen in real life.

Except that it did.

Twice. In five weeks.

Spring 2013 was fucked up.

Two bushfires, five weeks apart. The first one was a warm up and the second one tore viciously through our small community, taking almost 200 homes with it.

The first bushfire happened two years ago this week, and it was the one that most directly threatened our family. The Rural Fire Service had done much-needed hazard reduction in our area and the smoke was so bad that we went down the mountain for the day. We took these pictures on the way back home.

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SHIT MAN, THAT’S WHERE WE LIVE! HOW COOL IS THAT?!

Two days later I’d be fleeing in panic with two small children in tow.

Not so cool.

That day started like any other. We woke up, had breakfast, watched some TV. Our entire suburb had been surrounded by smoke for days because of the hazard reduction so there was no indication that anything was wrong. It was all under control as far as I was concerned. Business as usual.

It was an unseasonally hot day and the wind was strong. Mr Hugzilla rang at 9:30am and cautioned me to be wary because he was worried that things could get out of hand. Being a total dumb-ass, it had never even occurred to me. Less than two hours later I’d be standing in the driveway shitting my metaphorical pants as the entire street was swirling with thick smoke and screaming with sirens.

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I was in the kitchen when it happened. That moment. The moment when things went from normal to “OH FUCK”. The boys were having a snack and I was gazing vacantly out the window when I realised that the smoke had gotten much worse over the course of the morning and had moved up the yard to completely surround the house, despite the gale force winds that should have been blowing it away.

That couldn’t be good.

Then I heard helicopters. That couldn’t be good either.

I walked outside and an instant sensation of panic and dread rammed into my gut, leaving me breathless. My throat constricted and I think I made some sort of gagging, guttural sound in an attempt to say “oh shit”. Two towering pillars of thick smoke were rising behind the houses directly across the street. The only houses that stood between us and kilometres of dense bushland. Bushland that was ablaze on a hot and windy day.

Fuck. That was really not good.

Seconds later four fire engines rushed past me with sirens blaring, headed for the national forest at the end of our street. A dead end street. Those trucks weren’t screaming through on their way to somewhere else, they were coming here. And here was in the middle of nowhere, so this is where the action was.

Fuck. That was really, definitely not good.

There was no way of knowing how bad it was, how close it was, what direction it was travelling, how fast it was moving. None of these things mattered. The only thing that mattered was getting the hell out of there before the only road back into town was consumed by fire and closed, which eventually it was.

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There was one small problem: I didn’t have a car. Or a driver’s license. It was a 45 minute walk to get to safety on a road with no pedestrian access; a road weaving through several kilometres of thick bushland that was currently on fire. With a 16 month old and a 3.5 year old.

I usually remain calm and clear-headed in a crisis but my body had other ideas. This was not a “Billy fucked up the proofs and we’re past deadline” crisis. This was a primal physical response to a direct survival threat. My mouth went so dry I could barely swallow, my heart was pounding, my limbs were shaking and I mentally blanked. I remained outwardly stoic for the sake of the kids but the adrenaline was surging and I couldn’t think straight.

I still remember the panic. It tasted metallic.

The visceral, out-of-body fear. The uncontrollable trembling.

Instead of methodically packing a small bag with necessities I found myself rushing from room to room in a barely contained frenzy, forgetting what I was looking for and cursing loudly at Mr Hugzilla, who had decided to leave his mobile phone in his desk drawer at work – on silent – despite his earlier warning.

I got fixated on finding jumpers for the boys and was rushing around trying to find them. It was already hot and temps would exceed 30 degrees so there was no need for warm clothing, but I became single-mindedly obsessed by the notion – to the detriment of other more pressing needs. It’s sobering to look back now and realise just how much my brain failed me under pressure.

My kids had no idea an emergency was unfolding and couldn’t understand why I was scurrying around and ignoring them. Mr 3.5 kept nagging me over and over to put a DVD on and to find his sunglasses, in that uniquely irritating way that 3 year olds have. It took every fibre of my being to not yell back “We CAN’T watch a bloody movie right now and I don’t give a FUCK about your sunglasses. Your FUCKING sunglasses DON’T MATTER!”

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In the midst of the confusion my 16 month old had found his way into one of the kitchen cupboards with an unsecured babyproof lock that had been forgotten in the chaos. Luckily he was only flinging handfuls of dried spaghetti around the kitchen, when he could have been chugging down a bottle of Drano instead. Small mercies.

Such is our amazing community that within the first 10 minutes of shit going down one of my neighbours was on our doorstep, offering me and the boys a ride to safety. Another two neighbours would do the same shortly after we’d already left. In the end we had no problem getting out but I never wanted to be in that situation again.

In the aftermath of the fires it was common for locals to get asked if they were moving out of the mountains. People lost houses. People almost lost their lives. Why do you stay? THIS is why we stay. The sense of community. The random acts of kindness. The fact that people look out for each other. I’ve not experienced anything like it in all my life, and it’s the reason I never want to leave.

Our suburb was evacuated and we spent the night with family. There is nothing more surreal than staring helplessly at footage of the flames on TV, wondering if your home is at risk. Actually that’s a lie. More surreal is silently driving through miles and miles of burnt out bush the next day, afraid of what you’ll find. Or not find.

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It would be four days before we could move back home because the entire suburb was without power after infrastructure burnt down. Though the immediate threat had passed there were still worrisome days when the fire broke through containment lines, and the constant buzzing of water-bombing helicopters was nerve-shredding.

Our story had a happy ending but the swaggering city-kid arrogance was gone, replaced by the wary apprehension of seasoned mountain-folk who understand the harsh reality of bushfires. Summers will never be the same and hot windy days make me feel highly anxious now: that once-blase girl can often be spotted outside on high-risk days, sniffing tentatively at the air like a small marsupial.

We have a fire plan now. And I finally got my driver’s license. Turns out, being caught in a bushfire is way more scary than being behind the wheel of a car. Go figure.

***

Linking up for Weekend Rewind with Bron at Maxabella Loves, Kelly from A Life Less Frantic and Sonia from Love Life and Hiccups.

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84 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Bushfires: Spring 2013 in Springwood and Surrounds

  1. How terrifying. My heart was going about 100kms an hour reading that but I do love a story with a happy ending because everything is replaceable except life itself. As a non driver, high five to you for getting your wheels. You’re right about the bushfire/driving scenario, like everything in life, it’s all relative.

  2. Far out, that was about as far from boring as you can get! How absolutely terrifying. I lived in bush fire territory growing up and we were evacuated a few times – the smell of smoke still fills me with dread. Stay safe this summer hugzy-family x

  3. Just awful. Australia does fires & floods far too well sometimes. I was born February 16 – Ash Wednesday, which up until black Saturday was Victoria’s worst bush fire. Mum at hospital in labour, dad fighting fires near the farm. Glad you & the kids were fine x

  4. How utterly terrifying for you Zilla. I can only imagine the sense of panic and everything that would rush through your brain. So happy you were all ok. I remember watching the coverage on TV and seeing people and what they had lost – it was heartbreaking. I have a few friends who are firefighters and the work they do and risks they take are amazing. As a city dweller I have no idea apart from the “stop, drop and roll” message which was drilled into me at primary school. I’d be useless. A fire plan sounds like a good idea! Here’s hoping you never have to go through that again.

    • Amen to that. Hopefully we’ve had our year and things will be quiet around here for a very long time. The firies are treated like gods up here, and rightly so. I still remember all the hand made signs that were all over the place around here after the fires – messages of gratitude and thanks.

  5. Yuck yuck yuck. I was working on the chief of staff desk at channel 10 during the Black Saturday bushfires and the phone calls and footage that kept flooding in will haunt me forever. There’s nothing that scares me more than bushfires. They are not to be fucked with. I’m so glad you all made it out ok. Ten times as scary when you’ve got little people to take care of.

    • Absolutely – there is something about fire that scares me more than flooding or cyclones or earthquakes. I’ve watched documentaries about Black Saturday and – knowing what I know now – find it so hard to fathom how those communities were able to bounce back from complete devastation. I saw a guy on TV the other day and he lost 25 friends in one day. 25 friends. I can’t even imagine that. We were so lucky. Lots of property lost, but no lives.

  6. Wow – I was a nervous wreck just reading this! I think my brain would fail me in the same situation and I would have gone into a panic too. I would love to live in a place like the Blue Mountains but man you’d need to be bush fire savvy – know the risks, acquire marsupial air sniffing skills like you have haha, have a plan. All that jazz! So glad all was fine in the end and very pleased you’ve got your driver’s license and a fire plan ready for whenever there might be a next time!

    • Hahhaa I was a nervous wreck writing it too. The Blue Mountains is so awesome. I always tell people that the only thing that sucks about the mountains is bushfires, snakes and venomous spiders. Oh, and really slow internet. That too.

  7. I totally get that sense of community, we’ve just moved from the city too and it’s the most amazing thing, people and community and the things they do for each other.
    I’m so glad you have your licence and you had a happy ending, one thing they say here too is, always have a full tank of fuel, you never know when you just might need to go somewhere fast.
    Dropping by from the weekend rewind. Lovely to meet you.

  8. Holy crap! Once you have had that sense of community it is so hard to leave. It’s like being surrounded by extended family that don’t live in your pocket, they know your business before you do and when the chips are down are on your doorstep to help quicker than lightening. I couldn’t live any other way. Much love and respect to you, you little air sniffing marsupial. Great writing as per usual. 🙂 Xx

  9. Sheesh, what a fright! We are on a property in Central Qld, and around our backyard fence (which is probably 25-odd metres from the house) we have about 8 or 10m that is kept mowed down and then most years we also back-burn the grass in the paddocks past that. Fire is one of my greatest fears, and to read your story makes my arm-hairs tingle. I am like you – I smell smoke and I’m peering out windows and heading outside to see if I can see where it is coming from.

    • Yes, there is something about fire that provokes a visceral reaction, and the unpredictability is what makes it so terrifying. Fingers crossed we both have a quiet and uneventful season this year x

  10. Fark love, how bloody scary. I couldn’t even imagine the terror. I’d be a blase city slicker for sure in that sitcho. I’d be scrambling for worse things than jumpers! The panic that accompanies being a parent and shielding little ones is just that extra notch of fear too. So very glad to hear you guys were safe and it worked out ok. And how awesome is it to have such a fab little community there! Restores my faith in humanity. x

    • Honestly, it sounds glib but moving here DID restore my faith in humanity. It blows me away just how kind people are to each other here – it’s a totally different vibe to living in the suburbs or city of Sydney. I was kind of surprised to find it – I thought it didn’t exist any more.

  11. I remember this and remember you also going AWOL from your blog at the time. The whole thing sounds completely terrifying. I would lose my shit with every hot wind forevermore I think. Good on your for getting the DL. Nothing like conquering a fear with a fear. 😉

    • Hahahaha! Yes, the losing of one’s shit on extreme and catastrophic fire risk days is definitely a thing. The following year it freaked me so much I would actually take my boys down the mountain and stay at my brother’s house. We’ll stay at home this year but it will involve regular checks of the Fires Near Me website. LOL.

  12. OMG how scary. Every time I saw bushfires on the tv I immediately imagined myself stuck in a house trying to work out what to do to get to safety. I can’t imagine how frantically I would be running around the house like a headless chook. I have a friend who lives in a suburb that’s a bit out of the way and every time I drive there {for half an hr mainly through bush} I keep reminding myself as much as I love the houses and the space I’d be far too petrified to live there in case of fire. So glad that you guys were ok and that you now have a plan in place in case, god forbid, it happens again.

    • Mate, that is the thing that terrifies me the most. Part of writing the fire plan is to drill right down to the worst case scenario, and that involves being trapped in the house with the kids. It’s horrible, because you have to work out what you are going to do when the power is off, all communications are down and the water stops working. It’s chilling stuff.

  13. Bush fires were part of my childhood. I’ll never forget one summer when some family friends were evacuated and ended up at our house. Only to find that the fire changed direction in the evening and then we were all trapped. Our fathers/ neighbours took turns monitoring the fire from our roof, with hoses ready. Thankfully the fire didn’t make it to our home – but I am always bushfire ready.

    • And that is another one of the things that makes bushfires so scary, the fact that weather conditions can change the path of the fire. Even if it seems to be moving in the other direction you can never feel safe until it’s out. Glad that you guys were able to avoid a nasty outcome as well – so much of it is down to pure chance.

  14. Crap what a thing to go through. I worked at the Penrith Star for 18 months and spent a lot of my time up the mountain, such a gorgeous spot but yes it is very freaky because it gets so damn hot and tinder dry up there. What it is with people and having their mobiles on silent, why bother? I have a family member that does this all the time – SHITS ME! No offence Mr Hug x

  15. That was such a close call. How scary to live out the next four day with out being able to go home and check stuff too. I’m glad you got out.
    I freak when I smell the smoke in the city. When the day is hot and windy and you can smell it for miles. Freaky.
    Maybe I should have been a bit more friendly to those firemen on the dance floor last night 😉 wink

  16. So frightening! Absolutely my worst nightmare. I read the other day about someone having a fire “go bag” that has their passports, photos on thumbnails, birth certs etc all in one spot ready to grab if fire comes. Are you doing something like this too? (Way too organised for me! I was highly admiring her for it thought)

    • Yes, after that experience I out together our “bushfire boxes”. We have three plastic tubs with lids that have important paperwork and irreplaceable things like school photos, letters etc On severe and catastrophic rated days we store them in the back of the 4WD and on other days they are stacked in the office cupboard.

  17. I didn’t know you lived in Springwood. My aunty and uncle also live there as do my cousins. Those fires swept up the back of their property, went around their dam and house, up their driveway and then burnt out nearly every property up on their street. They were away on holidays when it happened.

    I am very thankful that my FIL owns a company that installs homebushfire protection systems so if you need one – I’m your girl!!

    • Yes, sure do. Glad to hear that your family members were spared the agony of losing everything and it must have been a bittersweet feeling knowing that so many of their neighbours weren’t so lucky. That’s what really struck me about this event – the randomness of it all. Some houses were mostly untouched but were surrounded by properties that were completely destroyed. Luck plays such a big part in it all.

  18. An incredible experience in the true sense of the word (fabulously written too). I still have vivid memories of Ash Wednesday in Victoria when I was about 9 or 10. We were in Melbourne, a long way from the fires, but there was ash falling in our yard. It freaked me out and I cannot fathom how children of a similar age and older (yours were thankfully too little) cope with experiences like Black Saturday. We have a friend who was with his family in his parents home in Kinglake in the middle of Black Saturday. They couldn’t get out because the fire moved too fast and had to remain in the house. He still gets teary telling the story, several years later. Fires are horrific but regional and country communities are amazing. Great work co-hosting too 🙂 xx

    • Funny you say that because I remember as a teenager when the last bad fires in the mountains happened in 1994 I think, and we were standing in our suburban backyard about 40km away and had burnt leaves and ash landing in our yard. I also remember that there was so much smoke that the sun looked flourescent pink. I never imagined that one day we’d be this close to the action. Great news about your friend – I can’t imagine just how traumatic an experience like that would feel, particularly when so many people lost their lives. May it never happen again.

  19. I realise I was holding my breath the whole time I read that. So scary. It is wonderful that you have that community. I loved the blue mts when we lived in sydney. Amazing area xxxxx

  20. I also didn’t get my license until well after the kids were born. This is an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it – can’t quite imagine the terror but it’s strange how our flight and fight responses kick in (or don’t kick in).

  21. I had a similar experience in the mid 90’s but I only had myself and a cat to evacuate, though zero support from my nameless neighbours. You and you kids are so very lucky live in such a caring community. xx

  22. Glad you guys were OK, wowzers what a scary situation!

    You have inspired me to get my fire action plan in order. Previously it consisted of… “What Fire?? Action? I’m Cooking Risotto I Ain’t Got Time For No Action Plan!” We also live two houses back from a national park which, thankfully, is controlled burned regularly. But every few years there’s a serious fire threat- our street was evacuated just before we moved in five years ago. Time to get my fire shit together methinks.

    And what is with fucking idiot partners who ring and say ‘keep in close touch’ and then fuck off somewhere with their phone in a drawer on silent????? Faaaaarck!!!!

    • Yes – getting your shit together time is here! LOL. I think even doing little things like having important documents and photos etc all together in boxes makes all the difference and saves a lot of running around. Next time it will be – boxes, laptop and kids in the car. Let’s go. And LOL yes, my husband is a special kind of stupid sometimes. Bless him. HAHAHHAHAHAHH!

  23. Wow, that sounded very scary for you. Our brains can work in different ways when we are put in a state of panic. Lucky you now understand the seriousness of bushfires, and have knowledge! I would have reacted the same as you I think. Glad you guys are all okay after those horrific fires!!

    • Such an interesting social experiment, to say the least. I always thought I’d be the movie hero type – brave, stoic, shit together. Nup. I’m one of those annoying side characters that loses their shit and is totally useless. LOL.

  24. So scary. We grew up next to Manly Dam and got evacuated a few times. I remember the smoke and how QUICKLY the fire came near us. Super scary. Mum and Dad have a plan now and keep some family keepsakes at my sisters place away from the bush. X

  25. Oh gosh! I have goosebumps reading that. I can’t even imagine how scary it must have been for you guys. I remember the awful Black Saturday fires in Victoria – it was just horrible. Sounds like a good plan to have a drivers licence.. definitely the less scary option!

  26. I was just deleting old emails and found this. Don’t know how I missed it. The thought of being trapped in a bushfire terrifies me. They’re so relentless and powerful. You are right. Panic does taste metallic. Brilliantly told story Hugzilla. I felt like I was right there with you.

  27. How did I miss this first time around? Holy crap. I’m a country gal but even I would struggle to comprehend this. Pretty sure I’d pull the mad panic routine. Hooray for wonderful communities. x

  28. I missed this one first time too – first it was there, in my reader, then *poof* it was gone. Like a puff of smoke. Like a swirling thick black choking smoke of terror. Bloody good story, and I understand the city ignorance… we’re not right in the country though but I definitely feel unprepared just due to the fact I’ve never faced a fire at close quarters. I’m sure the top of my head would fly off from the panic and I’d be flapping around like a chicken with no head not having a fucking clue what to do first. fortunately we have a career fire chief over the road from us who has given us lots of tips
    When you wrote you didn’t have a car, my guts clenched – god, I can’t imagine anything scarier! Thank god for caring lovely neighbours. Glad you guys are all fine, and hope hubby got a kick in the balls for not having his phone on.

    • Yes, it’s not something I wish to repeat in a hurry! Those two fires were a massive eye opener for the hubby and I and we have done so many things differently since then to be better prepared. Funnily enough, I’m actually headed to a community seminar this week about what to do if you CAN’T leave early and need to stay and defend. Lots of people got caught out because it just came so fast, and the thought of being home with the kids and needing to ride it out is literally the most terrifying thing I can think of.

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