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