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.........