New Year’s Eve, 2019. Part 2. By Mike Cavanagh
After the evacuation phone call from the RFS and a quick morning coffee, Julie began to pack and I went upstairs and woke Dan. Our plan, as we’d discussed and agreed, was to stay and defend at least until the southerly hit. At that point we would reassess and either stay on or leave immediately.
Our house lies on a south facing slope in a shallow bowl. A curving, low ridge surrounds us, open only towards the south east, a channel that funnels any southerly winds our way. Today’s southerly was expected around lunchtime; forty, fifty kilometres an hour. While we live in a suburban area, there are three linear bush reserves around us, more or less following the ridges and down slope some ways, that adjoin the extensive forests to the south and west. If the fire front swung with the southerly before it reached the coast, we could be surrounded by a ring of fire and cut off from escape. We wanted desperately to defend our quirky little home, but as they say, houses can be rebuilt, people can’t.
Around 7.30 a.m. we got another message from the RFS; it was too late to leave. Shelter where we could. An hour later roiling orange smoke rolled across from the ridge to the south-west, spiralling wildly into the sky, driven by the ferocious heat of the fire we couldn’t yet see. But we could hear it.
We went out onto the front verandah, scanning the ridge top in the direction of the rushing, snarling growl.
“Is that the noise of the fire?” Julie asked.
“Yep. It’s here.”
I’ve heard the sound of a raging fire described as like a jet engine, or a train. Yes, it has some resemblance to these, but in essence the only sound that is like a large, really angry wildfire is the sound of a really angry wildfire. It hits your stomach, your chest, as much as your ears; a deep, threatening growl that seems far too loud, too purposefully destructive, to be anything natural.
Within seconds we could see the flames writhing up and over-topping the trees at the end of the ridge to the south, less than 400 metres away, whipped along by the hot, dry nor-westerly. Majestic eucalypts, twenty metre high trees, were mere match sticks now, lighting up one after another within seconds. We couldn’t see the houses we knew were there, at the end of Vista Avenue that ran all along the ridge to our west. We could only hope that somehow those houses were not part of the flames.
Then we heard the first explosion, from somewhere over in that direction, and shortly after another, but this time directly west of us. There’s no gas pipeline to this region and all gas is delivered by 45kg LPG bottles that are placed against house walls and connected to the appliances inside. I thought the explosions we now heard might be gas bottles, but in really hot, fierce fires, trees explode too. Over the next couple of hours we continued to hear them intermittently; nerve wracking every time, knowing that if it was a gas bottle, then that house had gone. I still don’t know, and I think I don’t want to now. Julie organised a woollen blanket to cover our two bottles and we kept them constantly wet, mitigation against the bottles heating to blow point if the fire got too close.
We went back inside, made sure everything was ready to go if needed. Julie took what she could of the things we’d packed down to the carport and packed the cars. If we had to evacuate, we were heading to Corrigans Beach, less than a kilometre away. There was a large open park in front of the beach, and if even more hard pressed, the beach itself to seek safety on. Dan and I went back out into the yard, and the reserve, watering madly whatever we could reach.
What do you take, if you think it might be all you have left come nightfall? We had three vehicles and while we made sure we had what we’d need as a family, water, food, money, we also individually packed what we could, and needed to. I brought down two of my guitars and my two computers; years and years of writing, researching, and recording music on the hard discs I was not going to leave behind. We left the photo albums, knowing we had digital copies on the computers. In the end, we didn’t even fill the cars. Somehow in the face of potentially fighting for your life, material things diminished in importance.
Earlier this morning, this fire had been still five kilometres away. Fires invariably settle down over night, and take a while to pick up again. It shouldn’t be here yet, it couldn’t be here, yet here it was.
All morning, from around 6:30 a.m. we’d heard fire brigade sirens, and soon helicopters and fixed wind aircraft flying overhead. One chopper carried a large water bucket, another had a large camera on its undercarriage, mapping the spread, reporting to crews on the ground and back to some central operations point. At least three fire trucks with attendant crews were in the immediate vicinity, their sirens blaring as they raced from threatened home to threatened home. Every now and then we could hear other sirens further off; this was but one of many battles going on that early morning. As the flames took hold at the end of Vista Avenue the water bucket chopper and plane were in constant motion; down to the inlet to pick up water, blessedly only 800 metres away, back to drop it on the fire, then again, and again, and again. A larger plane came over low, dropping pink fire retardant across the ridge and behind it.
Somewhere on the ground, standing between us and the inferno, brave women and men were desperately trying to save homes, lives. As they’d been doing now, virtually non-stop, for weeks, months. All we could do was prepare ourselves and our home, and will them on, to keep fighting; and stay safe themselves. It was something that was drummed into me through fire training for National Parks: don’t become a casualty. Don’t be a hero. You can’t help anyone if you’re dead. Stay alive. Stay safe. We hoped they would.
Across the ridge to the south, the fire had moved through the line of trees, leaving them still burning and smoking. We couldn’t see where the fire front was now, but were thankful that what we’d seen was the flank of the fire. But I’ve learned to be wary of being ‘thankful’ in such circumstances; our good fortune so far meant that someone else’s fortune was worse, far worse.
We were all back inside pulling the last of the goods we were going to take if needed when we noticed the branches of the palms against the south side of the front verandah were swaying in all directions.
“The southerly’s coming,” said Julie.
This was the moment we’d known would come. It’s one thing to be prepared to stay and defend when the threat is still some way off. When it arrives at your door is a very different matter. I’d told Dan the night before as we sat looking at the fire map, it all depended on where the fire front was when the southerly hit. If the inferno reached the coast before hand, then the southerly would blow the fire back north, into already burned ground, lessening it’s potential impact on us. However, if the wind changed occurred while the fire front was still raging directly south of us, then our wonderful surrounding bush would go up in mere minutes and we’d be surrounded by fire and fighting not just for the house, but for our lives.
Julie told me later that she knew as soon as she looked out that whatever the fire was doing, wherever it was, was impossible to tell. Bearing down on us, and enveloping the house within seconds, a roiling, mad, orange wall of smoke swept up from the south, blotting out the sky. We could only see about 30 metres through it. Black bits of burned leaves and bark were swirling down.
It took a second or two for my brain to process what I was seeing, then I turned to Julie and Dan and said,
“We’re getting out of here.”
Without hesitation we were moving, grabbing the few remaining bags, shoving complaining cats into their cages, and heading out the front door to the cars. The southerly was now a roar, the sky blotted out, just this dark, angry, orange smoke now consuming our world.
As we drove away from our quirky, demanding but much loved home, we had no idea when we might return or what we might come back to when we did.
* * *
We drove through an eerie world of dense, orange smoke, hearing screaming sirens, near and far, and the sound of a helicopter or plane from somewhere above us. Now part of a small convoy of vehicles, we pulled into the beach reserve car park where a man in a hi-vis jacket directed us down to the grassed sandy area at the beach a hundred metres further on. Everywhere was full; of cars, of people sitting staring in their seats, of some walking around, wearing masks or scarves or holding handkerchiefs on their faces. Eyes squinting in the acridity of the smoke, their faces held the same anxious and dazed countenances that I’m sure ours did. The cats in their cages where with me, and their intermittent cries seemed to reflect what I was feeling: what hell on earth had we been condemned to?
Julie and I managed to park near each other, but Dan had been shunted off further back up the car park, onto the verge on Beach Road. I got out and went to check Julie.
“Dan’s parked further back towards the road,” she said as soon as she wound down the window, loud to be heard over the still blustering southerly. “Could you please go check on him? Here, take this face mask.”
“OK, be right back.”
I donned the mask and kept my glasses on as some defence against the smoke and sand being whipped up. I found Dan and told him there was some space near where we were and to come down. As his car was packed full I walked back to the beach and Julie.
We were alive and safe but, along with the other three hundred or so people, disoriented, anxious, helpless. Some folks were walking their dogs, putting water bowls out for them behind their cars. Most people were wearing masks and a few couples and groups had headed down to wait on the sand. What else could you do? We were all isolated with our fears, but also joined by them, everyone wondering the same thing: do we have a home to go back to?
After an hour the southerly dropped back to a stiff breeze and the smoke pall eased off to a thick haze. Visibility improved to around 300 metres, and we could see as far as where Beach Road curved up over the low headland south of us. Jules and I were in her car when she said,
“I think we should head back to check on the house.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. There’s still fire trucks moving around, I don’t want to get in the way.”
“The smoke has lessened and a number of cars are leaving. We should go back to check on the house.”
Our discussion was interrupted by the scream of sirens and looking across to Beach Road we could see two fire trucks and a support vehicle speeding south, and the sound of another siren from over the ridge between the beach and our place heading in the same direction.
We watched the trucks disappear, wondering, fearful for the lives and homes down that way.
“Michael, We need to go check on our house.”
Dan offered to stay and mind the cats, so we moved them into his 4WD and Julie and I set off in her car, back to what we hoped was still our home. We drove in silence through the dense, unworldly smoke haze, each in our own thoughts, quietening our own fears, comforted though to be with each other.
As we turned the corner into our street we breathed out, deep, long, letting some of our built up anxiety go. It was still there. As far as we could tell the RFS had managed to hold the fire at the ridge; from here we could see no houses burned, just the charred remains of the trees along the skyline. Only later would we learn that half a dozen homes had been lost along the ridge and down into the gullies. Julie went inside to grab some things we’d left behind in our rush to leave, and I went back around the house with the hose. I was down the front hosing the roof of the garage when I heard a loud, crackling bang, then a woman’s voice screaming, then other voices shouting. About 400 metres away, south, I saw the top of a tall roadside tree raging into flames. I stopped watering and headed back to see Julie.
“A tree’s just exploded across the way. We need to get out of here again.”
We grabbed the odds and ends (including kitty litter for the cats) and bolted back to the car then back to the beach.
So we waited, again, back on the beach. While the tree exploding was disconcerting, we’d seen no signs of a fresh fire line while we’d been back home. We still had reason to be anxious, but less so, finding reassurance that for now, at least, we’d escaped the maw of the beast. But we also knew one stray glowing bit of tree bark could destroy our house as surely as a whole wall of flame, and blackened scraps of leaves and ash were falling steadily.
After an hour or so we could see other cars leaving, people heading back to their homes, hoping their houses were still there. We’d still seen no further sign of a blaze, so when Julie suggested we head back home with Dan, I agreed.
Thankfully our home was still there and we unpacked what we required for the night, leaving some bags in the cars in case we needed to evacuate again. We had no power though and the evening was drawing on, but it was somehow comforting to know a bright, summer sun was sinking through a blue sky somewhere above this still angry, smoky world below.
Exhausted, with only candlelight to see by, we went to bed early. Sleep for both of us was fitful at best, and I kept waking during the night with every noise, immediately alert and straining to hear any hint of a fire crackling. None were, thankfully, but each time I was also thankful as I drifted off again; thankful that we had a bed, we had a home, and we had our lives.
* * *
There was more to this fire season before it was over, and we had days on end without power, and food stocks ran short as supermarkets struggled without power. Contacting family was problematic, and we are very grateful to a young girl who had intermittent service and loaned us her mobile so we could text our family back in Wollongong. Our youngest, Sarah, posted on her Facebook page that we were safe; the first news anyone had had for three days.
The next day I went up onto roof to hose the overlapping flashing where the steep upstairs roof meets the shallow slope of the living room. Black water streamed out, filled with burnt leaves, burnt twigs, bits of charred bark, obviously blown under there when the southerly hit; three buckets worth by the time I’d finished. How had none of this stuff burned the house down? I couldn’t help but wonder if that trip back, the one that Julie had insisted on, had helped save the house. I sat on my haunches and gave thanks that it’s also the angels, not just the devils, who are in the details. Then I went inside and hugged my wife.
* * *
While tragically 25 lives were lost and 3,500 homes destroyed in Australia over the five long months of this ‘Black Summer’, more than 9,000 homes and who knows how many lives were saved directly by the efforts of the firefighters. To the Rural Fire Service fire crews, sleep deprived, worn to the bone, staggering from crisis to crisis, and the National Parks and State Forest crews who assisted, in awe and profound gratitude, we have no words but these.
Four days later we had another catastrophic weather day. We had our drill worked out now, and by day’s end all was safe, although we had no power. In the early evening a southerly hit, and we heard a thud on the roof. The old wattle out the back had fallen down, over our back fence and onto our bathroom roof. Very little damage though. But we also knew that had the fire hit our reserve on New Year’s Eve, this tree would have fallen, burning, onto our house.
We know we have so much to be thankful for. Every day.
Estimated fire spread at end of NYE