So this happened two years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.