On the morning of the 8th January, we learned we could return to Bundanoon so we shot off straight away to see how the donks where. They were delighted to see us, almost too delighted and I think they were more than a little discombobulated by what they had been through. They were surrounded by burnt leaves, were wide eyed and Mr P was so delighted to see us, he backed up to Jodie and sat on her knee. I think the fact that they had to share a field with sheep, and battle to keep their food didn’t help matters.
After making sure they knew they were still going to be pampered, we returned home, through a battle scared Bundanoon but were amazed and relieved to see how well the RFS has contained the outbreaks.
It was good to be home but the following week was a strain. The wind had dropped so the fire was having a rest but It hadn’t gone anywhere, stayed active and occasionally made a successful run at the odd outlying property, destroying another home, many outbuildings and damaging property. It wasn’t moving fast, just slowly encircling us and remaining menacing.
During this period, the RFS and the other services worked tirelessly to bolster our defences. New containment lines were put in, backburning went on, fires underground fires were found and dealt with, trees with fiery cores were cut down. So many water bombing helicopters went backwards and forwards it seemed like the fall of Saigon. We even had a touch of rain.
We had time to reflect on what we learnt from the experience of the previous week and it was this; half arsed plans are shit. Not having a robust plan to defend just means you have to run at the last moment, when the danger is most extreme and the emergency services are at their most stretched, or get stuck in place to have to deal with whatever comes through. If we were not committed to staying no matter what, we needed to go early so when on Saturday the 11th we were told that a strong southerly was due at 1 am the next morning and Bundanoon would be impacted, we decided to leave. Our house was right under the red bit on the RFS’s fire prediction map and we felt that in all likelihood, we were going to lose the Folly.
Leaving your home for perhaps the last time before it is destroyed by fire is an odd thing to do, wandering around deciding what to save and what to sacrifice. We had already evacuated photos and important papers to the back of our car, and had some stuff in our Chippendale flat, but the majority of our lives were either in the house or in boxes in the garage underneath. What else should we take? Should I take my vinyl collection? My favourite Paul Smith claret velvet suit (it is better than it sounds….. or at least I think it is)? Jodie’s wedding dress? Various military statues that I had been presented by organisations I have worked with over the years? In the end all we grabbed was my father’s old sword (no home is complete without one) and Jodie’s old stuffed donkey from her childhood years and decided the rest is mostly replaceable.
I am not sure if is a good or a bad thing that the most important things in our lives can fit in the back of a hatchback. Good to know though; when the zombie apocalypse happens, we know we can travel light.
It was very hard to drive away back to Lynne’s that Saturday afternoon, so we behaved like proper Brits; ordered a curry, had a beer in a boozer whilst we waited, then drank ourselves to sleep. I really didn’t want to lie awake all night, listening to the RFS scanner and hoping the Folly would be saved.
I woke at 5am and nervously opened the Fires Near Me app on my phone, then looked at social media to get the full story. The night had started to pan out as expected. At 1 am, the wind turned and picked up, driving the fire the last few hundred meters towards the south side of town. The fire rating was raised to emergency, those still in the village were told it was ‘too late to leave’ and RFS worked hard to slow the progress. On their radios, those on the ground voiced the opinion that the fire front would hit our road in 30 minutes. It was going to be a very bad night.
Then the wind dropped…. And drizzle started…. And the chat on the RFS radios changed, becoming more confident and relaxed. By the time I looked at my app at 5 am, it was all over; no more homes lost, the rating back to watch and act, and out of town RFS teams were already withdrawing to staging areas. The Folly was safe, and we could return home. This fire fire had been unstoppable for weeks. It had traveled about 50km without a break, destroying all before it and somehow it stopped about 400m from our door. Wow. Fucking wow!
That night really was the turning point, and whilst the fire continued to burn for a couple of weeks after this, the skies remained alive with water bombers and we has to get used to sleeping with a red glow out of our windows, the fire remined ‘under control’ and didn’t really threaten again. It got much better on Feb 2nd when very heavy rain slowly put this fire, and many others out completely. It was declared as “Out” on 10 Feb and we could relax for the first time in at least 6 weeks and I think the moral of 1000’s lifted.
Looking back at this momentous time, the stats are horrible. In this fire season 46m hectares (72,000 square miles) of Australia burned (that’s an area more than twice the size of Portugal and 28 times bigger than the in the record breaking 2018 California fires. It’s so big, it’s almost impossible to describe in number of football pitches terms). At least 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area in NSW and 53 percent of the Gondwana world heritage rainforests in Queensland (QLD) were burned. 34 people lost their lives and nearly 3,000 homes were lost. 1.25 billion (not a spelling mistake) animals were lost. Absolutely staggering and I hope that we never have to experience it again.
I learnt some stuff through this experience and I will try to summarise some of the most important stuff.
Firstly, you don’t know what you don’t know. Many people have experienced multiple fires, but most have not, so it is a massive learning curve to go through. It’s all the little things that hack it difficult. For example, mowing the lawn is required to keep the fuel load down around your house, but when is the very act of mowing the lawn, with a hot mower, a fire risk in itself? I’m not sure what the answer is but one can attract bad looks for mowing and for not mowing. We learnt that driving a low car across grass (to visit the donks), is a huge fire risk that we quit rightly got told off for. We learnt that we should have spent more of the limited burning season burning the heaps of leaf litter and bark that are all around the property (in the 50’s, the phrase was “Burn it or it will burn you!”). The piles we had began to look like ticking time bombs in my mind (and this winter I am burning at every opportunity).
I learned that a public “stay or go” conversation is not immensely helpful. There are so many variables that all this conversation does is put pressure on people. Everyone needs their own plans, and need to make their own decisions and judgment from others causes some real strain.
Speaking of pressure, it is very real, and it goes on, and on and on. Constant smoke adds to it. Constant sirens add to it. Helicopters going backwards and forwards adds to it, as does an app pinging in ones pocket every hour or so, as does news showing broken people in front of their broken homes. People’s anxiousness is contagious too. Sometimes it is better to lock yourself away with a good bottle of wine. Or even a bad one.
We also learnt that Freddie and Mr P are bringers of joy. So many people started following their adventures. When we met people in the street, we were thanked by strangers, we had people hug them and cry. When we visited the RFS, it was a highlight of their day and photos of them with various teams spread around the world. We are very, very lucky to have them.
I was reminded that the press and social media can be a force for good or evil. Murdoch and his evil empire continued to push “it’s all the Greens”, “it’s arsonists” and “we have fires every year” bollocks, and people shared all kinds of utter shite on social media in the face of the RFS, the police, every credible scientist and every credible expert saying it wasn’t because of the Greens, only 2% of fires were started deliberately and that the fires were unprecedented. Whilst by the end of it, even Scotty from Marketing conceded that the world is getting warmer and we need to address this shit, too many are still being led astray by the peddlers of bollocks and I fear we will let our politicians avoid the real issues until it is too late………. Which it may already be……………… unless Covid 19 shuts us down long enough to have an effect…..
That said, I also was reminded the overwhelming majority of people are awesome. There are many political and social issues that divide us at the moment; Facespace and The Twitter would make you think that we all hated each other, but during this time, when people whose political views are ‘challenging’ to me reached out to offer support, I remembered that all this is just politics and the human spirit is something that really unites us. This shouldn’t really have been too much of a surprise to me as I have seen stark examples of this in Iraq watching the compassion of British soldiers treating injured Iraqi soldiers who had shortly before been engaged in mortal combat. We are at heart a compassionate species with much that unites us, and we should more strongly reject those politicians, public figures and organisations who try to divide us. This was feeling was never stronger than the night we attended Fire Aide in Bowral, where Leo Sayer and many others entertained 1000’s on a night so full of joy and love, it was very hard not to be emotional.
One of the biggest things I learned is that the Australian community is exceptional (politicians….. not so much). It is optimised by the men and women of the RFS, the locals in the community who do so much to help others, the toughness and resilience of people who have lost everything and in the decency that was displayed by businesses and individuals who helped, rather than profited from the misfortune of others.
So many people in Bundanoon and the wider community ‘stepped up’ to help other in big ways and small. So many differences were put aside to help the common good. There is so much talent, skill and resilience to be found. If you have to go through an episode like this, you could not do it in a better place. Thank you Bundanoon.
And at the end of it all, I think I understand Australia more. I trust the community more, I respect it more, I like it more. I have bonded with it.
I’ll still be cheering for England against the Wallabies though…..
I write this with time on my hands due to Covid 19 from a very different world. The heaviest rain in at least a decade put out all the fires, filled the dams and made the wonderful Southern Highlands properly green again for the first time in a couple of years. It is almost hard to remember how dry it was already.
The last thing: whilst writing this last blog, I have just been informed that my application to join the RFS as a volunteer has been accepted and I will soon start training. I hope that if this ever happens again, I can do more than stand back and watch........
The donks coming home
By the 3rd Jan, as the fire got even closer, we were all getting a bit jumpy and uncomfortable. Plans that seemed robust a week before seemed a bit futile now.
Having the donks just the other side of Bundy also started to feel a little close and Andrea and Jason, who had already evacuated their animals, asked us to move Freddie and Mr P as they felt they were not in the best of positions.
Initially we felt a bit lost and helpless; 2 donkeys on leads and no real plan. Fortunately, we were again reminded that people are wonderful, and we quickly got support. Andrea’s horses had been evacuated to the very exclusive Vine Lodge stud and she had mentioned Freddie and Mr P to the team there, so as we walked the donks in to Exeter for a coffee, we gave Andrew a buzz (in the 2 inches of Exeter that has phone signal. We immediately felt better when he offered to take them in without missing a beat. So, after our coffee (and the donks making new friends), we kept walking to the other side of Exeter to the donks new home. I think we were all a bit blown away, walking up the tree lined drive with huge and elegant thoroughbreds freaking out either side as these two rather scruffy little things strutted into their neighbourhood. It all seemed rather more grand than the donks normal home – it was a bit like if a couple of East End market traders ended up having dinner with the Queen… although I don’t think the donks will ever care which knife and fork they use.
Horses and our mini donks have strange interactions, especially with Freddie. The confidence of our little furry friends compared to the skittishness of the statuesque horses makes me think of a situation where a tall, beautiful and aloof model is in a nightclub, looking all glamourous, sipping on a vodka, lime and soda, totally composed and unapproachable is approached by a very confident, slightly pissed, scruffy beer drinking, short-arsed tradie. The former backs away looking most uncomfortable and confused whilst the latter just wants to lick her nose and give her a general sniff. All very odd and very amusing.
Andrew, getting the measure of the little hooligans didn’t put them in with the models….. No, he put them in with the weirdos.. He put them in with the sheep and lambs.
“They’ve never been in with sheep” I muttered nervously.
“Don’t worry, they’ll work it out”.
And they did. Rapidly. Freddie, in drunken confident tradie mode went hurtling after them sending the flock into panic mode and they took-off as quickly as their tiny little minds and rather delicious legs could manage. Freddie was shortly followed by Mr P and I thought “Fuck. This is going to be carnage and we will be sent packing to try to find another home”.
After about 2 mins of herding sheep, which had J and I alternating between concern and laughter, Freddie needed a breather (too much booze and fags perhaps……) and stopped for a break. At this point the sheep has time to get a good look at their assailants, all 90cm of fluff that they are, and worked out that there were 80 of them and only 2 donkeys….. and all of a sudden, the chase was reversed and two very confused and worried donkeys could be seen being chased by a dust cloud containing some angry sheep. Two mins later J and I had two nervous donkeys sheltering behind our legs, trying to look unconcerned and calm, as if it was just a coincidence that they chose that part of the field to stand in.
They did work it out though. It was a big field and Freddie and Mr P decided they were happy within about 30 meters of the gate….. where the sheep weren’t. Cowards. Cute cowards.
The following day, the 4th of Jan, promised to be a big one as the wind was going to blow from the south and it seemed that the containment line at the Shoalhaven River was breached. After a very nervous day, during which other than lots of people being nervous, just before 10pm the RFS suggested that there was a low likelihood that the villages would be impacted that night (impacted is a RFS term for bits being destroyed by fire….) and we should reassess in the morning. Armed with this view. the neighbours WhatsApp group discussed if bed was appropriate. At 10.05, I confidently declared I was off to bed soon.
Then, at 10.10pm our ‘Fires near me” app buzzed and indicated that there was a new fire in the north end of the village. It seemed odd and we had experienced many false alarms and short lived isolated fires over previous days so didn’t amount to anything but to be on the safe side we decided to turn on the sprinklers, hose down the veranda and ‘man our positions’. A few minutes later, another buzz and another fire in the village, then another and I concluded that my plan had gone to shit. The new fires were on the main route out to the north and the main fire was reasonably close to the southern route out about 15 km south. In the forces we say that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’, so we need to be able to adapt. When the app suggested the fire was getting close to the Folly and the town was in danger of getting cut off, I suggested we adapted and fucked off sharpish.
There was no argument from J and by 10.42 we were driving away to freedom……. kind of. Unfortunately, by this time the fire was ‘impacting’ the north end of the village quite hard and had also hit the villages to our south, so the police and emergency services didn’t think it was safe to leave so as we attempted to leave we were redirected by rapidly deployed road blocks and herded to the towns oval (for my Brit friends, the oval is the cricket pitch that every Australian town and village has). I quickly got my mind around the situation, fully expected to spend the night there and was extremely disappointed that we had forgotten the gin.
The oval soon had about 200 cars on it and lots and lots of people wanting information. For some reason many of them decided I was the person to ask and it took a while for me to realise that wearing an old army uniform was not a great idea; I was obviously a man in the know…… who was a clueless as everyone else and very much regretted his wardrobe decisions. I was hugely relieved when the police told us that they decided that 200 cars on oval in a village that was getting increasingly fiery was not that hot an idea either and, with a couple of fire trucks, would escort us out on some dirt roads to the highway…… very rapidly. From there it was up to us.
Off we zoomed, us and half the village, through the night and into dust clouds thinking that this was all very surreal and rather nervous about what the night would mean to us all.
45 minutes later we found ourselves pulling up outside our lovely friend Lynne’s house in Burradoo who had immediately answered our call for help, offered us a bed and popped open some champagne at shortly after midnight on the 5th. Hurrah for Lynn!! The booze was good. It helped us relax and it helped me sleep.
The next morning we woke and looked at the news with trepidation. We learned that the previous night the Currowan fire had leapt forward 14km in minutes, setting off spot fires as it travelled north and forming what was named the Morton Fire (that then threatened us for weeks). Bundanoon lost 4 homes and Wingello lost 12, and both had significantly more damage as outbuildings, fences and cars were consumed. It is a testament to the work of the RFS and the retained fire services that more were not lost and it was fantastic to know that no lives had been lost. There had been a few close calls though. One family had been watching the fire approach from the back of their house when a neighbour called to say the front of their house was on fire. They literally escaped through fire, in a car with few possessions and they lost everything else.
The fire also ripped through the paddock next to the one Freddie and Mr P had been staying in until the day before and the RFS had been active all night protecting the local properties. I am glad we moved them – they would have had a very frightening night. Good call Andrea!!
As the local fires were tackled by the RFS, roads were cleared and dangerous trees removed, Bundanoon, and access to the donks, remained closed and refugees from around the effected villages could be seen wandering in a state of bewilderment around the streets and cafes of Moss Vale and Bowral, some of whom were not sure if their homes were still intact. We were lucky to have Lynne’s hospitality and I have to say, there are worse places to be evacuated to.
After two nights at Lynne’s, and in the knowledge that we may be evacuated at short notice at some time in the future, we left and checked in to the lovely Peppers Craigieburn on the edge of Bowral, who rather than viewing large scale evacuation as a business opportunity, offered fantastic rates and looked after us and the other evacuees that were lucky enough to get there extremely well. That night we joined our neighbours, Jessie and Wayne, in the restaurant for a very relaxing and slightly boozy dinner.
Part 6 will cover the return to Bundanoon and being reunited with our donks.
A lot of the time hanging around waiting for a bushfire to get to you is just a bit shit, a bit like queuing to lodge a planning application with the local council. It’s hanging around in a crap location waiting to have an unpleasant experience.
The smoke was too thick to run in – really. I tried it once, in early November when I decided the ‘Don’t do vigorous exercise outdoors’ warnings were for weaker people than me……… and got a bad chest infection. Mostly we needed to be in a fit state to evacuate rapidly so we were in limbo, in a hot, smoky yellow place…….with a pub…...and a constant background noise of sirens.
The constant sirens gave me flashbacks to an 18-month tour of Londonderry in Northern Ireland that I deployed on in the late 90’s. On that tour we rotated from an intense existence in hardened bases, surrounded by sentry towers, corrugated iron and barbed wire ‘West of (the river) Foyle’, where we slept little, patrolled much and lived on our nerves a bit, to an easier life in our main barracks ‘East of Foyle’ where we could drink, train, take leave and relax a little. Problem was, it’s hard to relax as a British Soldier in Londonderry because a significant amount of the population wants to do you harm, whether you are on or off duty. Also, the barracks West of Foyle (Ebrington Barracks – it’s now a lovely public space with restaurants, a brewery and a park) was right on the banks of the river so you got to hear everything…. And the sirens, the friggin' sirens, things that are designed to be the exact opposite of relaxing, they were friggin' constant. They were like an over active 8 year old on day 20 of Covid 19 lock down; always there, always noisy and never bringing good news…………….. After I left, I looked back on my behaviour and that of my colleagues (heavy drinking, mood swings, grumpiness, permanently tired etc) and realised we were all on the verge of clinical depression and I think this was partly because it never felt like we were every ‘away’ from it all.
The upshot is I friggin' hate sirens and after the last summer I think most of rural Australia may now hate sirens too.
By the 30th Dec, the area south of Sydney was carnage. 40oc plus days combined with strong winds to make conditions perfect for fire. When the wind blew from the north, the villages north of Bowral and on the south coast were in peril, and Bundanoon was shrouded in smoke. When they blew from the south, the northern villages got a respite and the Southern Highlands ‘southern villages’ (Exeter, Bundanoon, Penrose, Wingello and Tallong) were on tender hooks. It was invariably a shit day for someone somewhere, and the men and women of the RFS dashed from one place to the other with the wind. Knowing that your relief was someone else’s danger took the edge of any real joy.
The 31st, normally a day of celebrations, was a stark example of this. A strong northerly had spent the day pushing the Currowan fire south, cutting off popular tourist town on the coast, forcing people to flee to the beach, some of whom had to be evacuated by the Navy by sea. It also heavily impacted the town of Cobargo, killing two and destroying vast amounts of property. At about 5pm, as predicted, the wind swung round to a southerly, thousands breathed a sigh of relief, and Bundanoon was hit by the most amazing thick yellow smoke cloud. It became incredibly eery and unsettling.
I was in the garden, filling a bin full of water and watched this wall of smoke come through the trees and blanket us in smoke in a matter of minutes. It was so thick, we could see only about 30 meters and as our house is as airtight as Nigerian investment opportunity that appears in your email, we could barely see each other in the kitchen either. The fire hadn’t got any closer, but we were a lot less comfortable, physically and temperamentally. I think this may be an instinctive thing; Fire close but no smoke? Wind is probably taking it away; have a beer… Fire close and a shit load of smoke? It’s probably a big fire and it is heading your way; think about running…
We did think about running; we packed our car, prepared crash bags, including one with gin and tonic and other essentials, then reminded ourselves the fire was sill at the far side of the Shoalhaven River and thought ‘Fuck it’ so celebrated the New Year ‘The Traditional Way’ (got pissed).
The ‘when do you go?’ issue is a fascinating, difficult, and often divisive conversation to have. There are so many things to consider. If you stay and are able to fight the fire, then the chances of saving your property increases (some are destroyed by something that starts as a tiny spot fire and then gets bigger rather than by the fire front itself). If you stay and fight the fire badly,………… well you may die, or at the very least cause the stretched emergency services to prioritise your rescue putting themselves in harm’s way and increasing the risk to other people and homes that are no longer being protected. If you leave, you will not need to be rescued but the hard-pressed emergency services may have to spend time defending your place rather than others.
It seems to come down to location and prep. If your home is not defendable, get good insurance, get the important stuff out and accept that you may lose what you leave behind. Fulford Folly is a tough one; it’s on a rise on the edge of the bush, has gum trees within 10 meters (on next doors property) and has soooo many holes in it for embers to get in. The consensus seemed to be that it was a very high risk combination and I got the impression that the friendly firemen that we spoke to were holding back from telling us that they were unlikely to be able to defend it.
Prep seems to involve both stuff and attitude. You really need the right stuff; an independent source of lots of water (town water may go off or at the very least lose pressure at the wrong moment), a fuel powered water pump (as it is likely there will be no electricity) good, durable hosepipes (not garden ones), goggles, masks, cotton clothing, gloves and a safe place to shelter as the front passes. The attitude bit is about understanding that it will be very dark (even in daylight), noisy and is probably pretty terrifying. If you lose your nerve, veer from your plan, then the risk of bad stuff happening to you is high. You probably also need to be fit enough to handle the heat and the need to be on the move from place to place rapidly to fight spot fires.
We had the water, we had the clothing (my old army uniform, circa the Iraq invasion of 2003), we had the fitness and I think our previous experience in the army may have helped us through the experience, but we lacked a proper hoses, a pump and we weren’t sure we had a safe place. Because of these factors, we opted for what we now know was a ‘half arsed’ plan.
We set the house up to keep it wet and my plan was to ‘hold the line’ against ember attack but to do a runner when it was clear the fire front was to come through our property. Many of our neighbours had similar plans, though others had ticked all the boxes and would without doubt defend and others were simply staying and hoping they would be ok………forgetting that ‘Hope doth butter no parsnips’ (Google it).
In the next installment........ fire comes and we run.........
Moving the donks was our first exposures to how incredible the community we live in could be. We have no horse float (as we walk them places) and no tow bar on our car to allow us to hire or borrow a float, so on the 28th of December I used the Facebook community page, Just Ask Southern Highlands to put the word out that we could use a hand. The response was overwhelming. We had soooo many offers of support, some from people who already had the hands full with other fires. People offered to go miles out of their way to help and some offered us moral support if they could offer no more. It was lovely to feel that we were in a community that was prepared to go out of its’ way to help others.
In the end, the lovely Andrea, Jason and Morgan came to the rescue, picking the boys up on the morning of the 29th and taking them to their agistment just outside the neighbouring village of Exeter. The donks knew the place well as they had been staying there for the year we spent travelling, and they were loved and very well looked after. It made it so much easier to know they were safe and cared for and I’m not sue the donks really knew/cared that they were somewhere else. ‘Grass! Yum! More grass! Yum!’
One we knew that the donks were ok, we could settle back to life at the Folly and the next few days were odd. The village, in fact most of NSW was covered in smoke, it was friggin boiling (over 40oC) and the countryside looked completely shattered; defeated and waiting for the inevitable. The news was full of sad stories; destruction, sorrow, narrow escapes, mercifully few deaths and all anyone talked about were the fires.
For me, my military training was that a defensive position is only ever finished when the enemy get there, so each day we cleared a little more, stuffed a few more holes, prepared a few more neighbours gutters and visited a few more vulnerable people to help or just be supportive. And we drank beer and wine. Beer and wine make most things better.
The RFS really started to become part of our lives at this time too. This volunteer organisation, always selfless but often thankfully under-used were really our only form of defence and they were hugely outnumbered. This really didn’t deter them though and the volunteers left their families and jobs behind day after day, night after night, to protect others. From late October, crews from small villages and towns around NSW raced across the expanse of the state, forming ‘Strike Teams’ to put themselves between the fire and us, working day and night in horrendous conditions and losing some of their colleagues in the fight.
The pressure these volunteers were under must have been incredible as not only were they dealing with fire, many were trying to balance seeing their families, holding down jobs, paying bills etc. Some big companies give volunteers a couple of weeks leave so that they can do their stuff, but often in rural communities’ people are self-employed or work for small companies so choices are harder. Even those in the bigger companies soon used up their two weeks leave and had to deal with this challenge too. They really are an incredible bunch and when I was shown a picture by worried but proud parents of their 16-year-old daughter manning a hose deep in the bush, I must admit my eyes moistened. The ordinary people of the community were showing how extraordinary they could be.
Elsewhere in the community, everybody rallied round, looking out for each other, helping anyone and everyone, organising briefings from the RFS, taking away garden rubbish from each other’s properties, checking in on elderly neighbours, setting up WhatsApp groups and generally acting like we can do at our very best, but often fall short of. It was hugely heart-warming and confidence building.
A great by-product of all this is that in Bundanoon we got to know our neighbours in a way that we would never have without the threat of fire and we formed some great friendships. We have some fascinating, talented and decent people around us.
And then, together, we waited……..
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.
I suck at bonding with people. I like most people quickly and I enjoy meeting new ones. This is maybe because I like new ideas, new stories and new perspectives, or maybe because for a while I can boast new friends……… if a friend is defined as someone who doesn’t know me well enough to find me shallow, a little crude and have so many high-horses, it’s like being at a rodeo in a meth lab. Also, I have about three stories, which are hilarious the first time a person hears them but are really friggin' dull after the gadzillienth. Just ask the wife.
This reluctance to bond may also be because I moved around a lot as a kid. My father was either in a very volatile hotel business, or on the run; I could never really tell. I am sure the rain mac, big hat, and big false ginger beard he wore whenever he went out was just a fashion statement.
So, after 13 different houses and 5 different schools, perhaps I just couldn’t be arsed making the effort to bond anymore. I bounced around between the Midlands, the South West, the South East, the Herefordshire side of Welsh border, the North East, The Midlands and The Borders in Scotland. Invariably the first few months were spent getting used to a new endearing nickname; ‘Soft Southern Wanker’ (in a school in a pit district of the NE of England during the miners’ strike), a ‘Northern Monkey’, an ‘English Bastard’ (from a fanatical SNP supporting history teacher in Scotland) and a ‘country bumkin’. Though the last I rather liked, this ‘lifestyle’ became rather tiresome after a while.
However, after bouncing around for the formative part of my life, I decided to keep the trend going and joined the army at 22, went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and found things were rather different there. Whilst I was probably surrounded by Soft Southern Wankers, Northern Monkeys, English Bastards, (some Scots ones) and country bumkins, I couldn’t tell as nearly all of my fellow Officer Cadets had been to good private schools and it seems that after such an education, everybody speaks with the same accent.
It was a demanding environment to be in and quickly you realise that the accent is less important than the ability to handle a tough situation, to stick by each other when life was shit, and to maintain a sense of humour when funny stuff is as scares as humbleness at a Donald Trump house party. Perhaps for the first time in years, after going through this shit stuff, I bonded with the people that went through it with me. This happened first at Sandhurst, then over the next 16 years serving in The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in various parts of the world I got to spend time in, some of which were great (Germany, Canada, Gibraltar, Whitehall and Warminster, for example), some not so great (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Swindon for example). Some of the relationships I formed at this time remain the strongest I have........... and as one of the relationships I formed was with my wife, Jodie, I guess this is an important statement.....!
Beers after a difficult operation in Zvecan, Kosovo, Aug 2000