From October, the fires started pretty much started everywhere; to the north of Sydney, in the Blue Mountains to the west of the city, on the far south coast, on the boarder of NSW and Victoria, south of Brisbane……. I could go on. Essentially the east coast of Australia had fires from top to bottom and people began losing homes, property, businesses and sanity. Even Sydney was affected, getting covered in a blanket of smoke from all the fire around it. This may have been a good thing as having your daily skinny latte in a smokehouse is a great way of illustrating to normally unaffected city folk that of the battle that was being waged in so many places. At times, the air quality in the city was the worst in the world.
Whilst everyone will tell you that fires are a part of life in Australia (and Rupert Murdoch and the coal lobby try to remind us every day), every informed person was saying this was bad. The ground was so very dry, and rain was not on the horizon for a long time to come. Rain is really the only way to stop these things, coz the fires are huge, and Australia is huge, and most of the forests are very, very hard to get into…. and they are huge too. In a rural area, it seems that all we can do is hope that rain gets to us before the fires do. A wonderfully empowering position to be in…… A bit like sitting in your house waiting for a virus to physically or financially impact you…..
‘Our’ fire had humble beginnings. Whilst everyone was focused on the Green Wattle Creak fire to the north of Bowral, a big powerful thing that was causing devastation and misery 1000s and which caused tremendous loss in the village of Balmoral on the night of the 22nd of December, my focus landed on a very small fire about 50km to the south of us. It was started by a lightning strike on about the 18th of December and I think my interest was peaked by the fact that whilst the Green Wattle Creak fire was closer and very much bigger, there was a lot of habitation for it to get through and I reckoned everything would be thrown at that particular problem. This little one was in the forest and had a clear run from its start point to our house without leaving the forest. Just loads and loads and loads of trees to feed on. So I started tracking it.
The photos below are my first screen shots I grabbed on the 19th of December, remarking to J that this was the one we had to watch. The first of the two is at two about 2pm and shows the fire just getting its head on (a red ‘Emergency’ symbol next to a very small but out of control fire to the south) the location of our home (the binocular symbol) and the two blue circles are the ‘watch zones’ I set up: one at 40km and one at 20km. The second is at 6pm (now a yellow, ‘Watch and Act’ symbol) on the 19th. The last shows its relation to the bigger Currowan fire to the south.
At this stage, it had only consumed about 140 hectares and was yet to claim any properties, but you will see from the pictures below, taken that same day, it was already lively………
From that point on it was like watching a monster creeping towards us, gathering energy and becoming more confident.
On the night of the 22nd of December, it joined up with the massive Currowan Fire, which had been burning since late November, had burned 100,000 hectares and destroyed many homes. Between them, they made a huge mofo of a fire; big enough to create its own weather systems and to encourage laymen to have an opinion on pyrocumulonimbus clouds…… which made for some ‘fascinating’ conversations……
On the 29th December, hot on the heals of the last guests of 2019, J and I returned to the Folly to start getting it ready. Our plan for the holiday had been to spend two weeks relaxing there, with friends visiting for New Year and a whole heap of chores to get through to keep the Folly looking good, but these plans became less fun focused and most of those coming to visit looked for alternative options that didn’t offer the option of fiery Armageddon.
To a Brit, even the thought of getting a home ‘ready’ to take on a bush fire seems a bit surreal. I had a bit of experience of wildfires, having had to tackle them on the moors of Otterburn in Northumberland and the prairies near Medicine Hat (a real place) in Canada, both of which were the result of military live firing in my army days and fairly straight forward (in Canada the advice was ‘Just drive through the flames to the burnt side and you will be fine’. Trying that for the first time is spicy). Normally the closest a Brit gets to a wild fire is burning the sausages at the once a year BBQ we have in a back gardens and even these are rapidly extinguished by the inevitable rain that accompanies all British BBQs (………..and yet we keep on trying and we keep on hoping). This scenario was as alien to a Brit as finding a supermarket full of toilet rolls and pasta in the middle of a pandemic is to an Australian.
We were joined my Jodie’s sister, Kyla, and her mad as a box of frogs, utterly disobedient but entirely loveable Briard, Winston, or Winnie to his friends. At the time Kyla lived Northern NSW and had recently had her own fire threatening her property outside Uki so had she family fire ‘experience’. Together we blocked drainpipes with nappies and tennis balls so we could fill the gutters with water, set up sprinklers and hoses, filled up buckets, bins and kids paddling pools with water, cleared the bush away from the house as much as we could, tried to block holes in our attic spaces, sealed up doors and generally just did stuff more knowledgeable people told us to do.
One of the biggies was to fill up our brand new and very empty 22,000 litre water tank from the mains water supply and declare it to the Rural Fire Service (RFS) as a static water source that they would be welcome to user. We had learnt that water supplies in rural areas cannot be guaranteed in a bush fire as water pumps are destroyed, causing firefighters to ‘scavenge’ water locally so decided to do what we could to help these brave and hardworking people. We are yet to get a bill for that one, but it’s going less pleasant than the moment when as a teenager your grandfather/mother asked you to apply the suntan lotion for them.
Another big decision to make was to evacuate our miniature donkeys, Freddie and Mr Percival. They normally live on our property, eat grass, shout when they see us, walk to the village with us when we go for a coffee or a beer (perfectly normal around here) and generally deliver joy on a daily basis. However, as the consensus seemed to be that when the fire came, our property was probably ‘fucked’ we knew we had to take them to a safer place. As an aside, I was told that we had to ‘Watch out when the fire gets closer. As you’re on the edge of the bush, all the snakes will come through here’. Fantastic.
Part three will cover evacuating the donkeys and increasingly strong evidence of the great community of Bundanoon.