lifestyle

"Today I am returning to my home in the Blue Mountains".

The worst bushfires.in over a decade have ravaged NSW.

 

by STEPHANIE OSFIELD

Yesterday I returned to my home in the Blue Mountains.

We are still facing down weeks or most likely months more of being on edge, watching and waiting before the fires are under control. But at least today the BM community feels they can breathe without that ‘what if’ pressure wrapping quite so tightly around our chest. Except for those who have lost everything and are in deep mourning. I know all our hearts go out to them.

On Sunday night at about 1pm I woke my husband to say that on Monday I thought we should leave. After days of heat and winds sometimes gusting up to 100km. After days of closely watching news reports and a tally of lost homes that kept rising to over 200. That day the cicadas, which are in über abundance this year, had again been so loud outside we could barely speak to our neighbours. I am not religious but with the recent double whammy of insect overload and fire, it did feel a little like we’d taken a Tardis trip to the Plagues of Egypt and should be watching the sky for frogs or hail.

The tension in the air was electric after days of ongoing concern for friends whose houses were near the advancing fires in Winmalee and Springwood and the peak on Thursday night, when kids we know and a friend who is a teacher at St Columba’s school, were stuck in the Winmalee area late into the evening because the only road out was not safe to pass through. Understandably, many children and their parents were quite traumatised by that experience. A few kids became hysterical as they were loaded onto buses and saw exactly how close those fires were.

When you’re not directly in the suburb hit by fire, you’re on ‘embers watch’ 24/7. Embers could enter your roof and quietly burn while you sleep. Living a little ill at ease becomes your new normal. In our gorgeous bushbound world heritage area, we’ve faced this kind of situation many times before. But we’ve never left until now. This time as usual I checked the fire status before bed. The RFS were predicting that two suburbs right next to mine might be evacuated by Monday afternoon. Trawling through the RFS site to ensure we hadn’t forgotten any critical fire-proofing for our home, I saw repeated references to ‘Leaving Early’ in the bushfire survival literature. The RFS reminded families that we should decide and be clear on what our ‘Leaving Early’ triggers are.

So I thought about it. Again. As I only know the bare basics about how to fight a fire bearing down on your home (and the prospect would terrify me), I’ve always discussed with my husband getting out before risk gets too high. We’re on the same page about this, which is good.

You should talk about it too. Think about what you would do should you ever suddenly face storm or flood or hurricane or tornado or fire in your area. Would you stay or go? Think about it even if you live in the city, where it may be possible you would be without power or help for 72 hours after certain natural disasters.

Most importantly, discuss it with your kids. I’ve been up at the supermarket when some idiot has deliberately lit a fire on a windy day. This recent fire made me realise I needed to go through with my kids again what to do if a fire suddenly spiked and I’d popped out and things moved so fast that roads were closed and my children were home without me with a fire on the move.

There comes a point when you know it’s time to go.

Last Sunday night as I pondered if we should ‘Leave Early’ the next day I thought about the many people killed and injured in the Victorian Black Saturday bush fires in 2009.

And how some were caught out and trapped because situations morphed so fast that there just wasn’t time for any evacuation warning in some areas.

I thought about my mum in Canberra when she called in January of 2003 because several bush fire fronts joined up so rapidly and without warning that within hours she could see fire one km away from her house in every direction.

And over the next hours some of those fires crept closer and closer. In terror one poor woman jumped into her swimming pool when the fire hit – not only was the water super hot but as the fire passed over it sucked out all oxygen and she suffocated. It’s apparently not an uncommon story.

Fire storms can create their own mini weather systems and winds. Heat and smoke can pose problems that can get to you before the actual flames arrive up close. In the Canberra fires some people waited and watched then tried to escape last minute in cars only to have their tyres start to melt from the heat.

Others made that “I’m leaving now” decision only to realise the power outages meant they couldn’t open their garage doors and get on the road. Last Sunday night I decided I didn’t want to be in a situation where fire was suddenly upon us from a wayward ember and we had to hurry with stressed children in the car and hit the one main road out of the Mountains with a whole lot of other traffic.

With several fire fronts in the Blue Mountains potentially joining up and predicted shocking conditions of wind and heat yet to come, that was I decided, plenty enough ‘trigger’ for me.

By 6am the next morning I was assessing what to pack. And here’s the surprising thing. It wasn’t hard. Doing an inventory of our most important belongings in a potential emergency situation, reminded me how little we really need of the material possessions that surround us. Sure some of that stuff – like books and music, is much loved and if it went up in flames I would want to replace it.

But I realised so much of what is in my home, from crockery to clothes are not things I have emotional attachments to. That said, I feel deeply for those poor people in places like Mount Victoria and Winmalee and Springwood who did not have the luxury of grabbing their precious irreplaceable items. I can’t begin to imagine their heartbreak. And the enormity of having to start over.

So what went in our cars? Of course the photos were first. Who would have known that my tardiness in getting photos into albums after my twin girls were born would prove handy in fitting those many photo packets in the car boot beside older bulkier photo albums.

Note to self (and to you)– it really would be great to scan them all on to my computer when I’ve got a spare year some day. Then came the digital cameras of all family members and our video camera. The kids also made sure I had their baby videos (oops).

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Next I slid into the boot the folios of the kids’ most special art works from when they were little through to now. I packed a few items of special jewellery and my journalism awards and my Oma’s faded wooden tray with its black ink bamboo and bird pattern. And my great grandma’s old teapot. And my father’s favourite dressing gown which when he was dying, he said I should have after he was gone.

In went a few important documents. As for clothes, I needed to be practical – so it was one overnight bag with a few favourite but comfortable items to suit where we were going. But actually first in my bag went my top exercise DVDs because I use them daily. Special occasion dresses? I left them behind.

Residents of Winmalee became trapped in their homes when the only road out was closed due to the fire.

What did I forget? My wedding dress? And my yoga mats – which I actually have missed.

What could I not fit? My copies of publications with all my stories from over 20 years of journalism.

What did my husband have to leave? His fantastic CD collection but he did fit most of his musical instruments. Safe and sound they were the first thing that went in to his car boot.

What was really interesting though was seeing what was packed by my kids – 14 year old son and 12 year old girls. Favourite books and CDs were selected first by all of them along with fossil/rock collections.

My son bought an old fork and spoon wind chime from when very little. I didn’t know he still had it. He also brought his apple core experiment, which he started when six (now liquid and in a plastic bag). And he insisted on bringing his huge childhood clown (a hand-me-down from his cousin) which is almost as tall as me.

That bloody spooky looking clown. I’ve tried to sneak it out of the house to discard it a number of times (hmmm, might try again on the way home) but he loves that thing and more recently, it’s had a cameo in some eerie attic pictures for a school project.

My girls? Also packed song lyrics they have written and the guitar they share. Out come a few soft toys like teddies that I haven’t seen for some time and their dolly from when they were toddlers. Into the boot went a bag of their amazing origami creations and some origami paper.

But their big hunt was for a bag of baby clothes that actually belonged to me and my sisters when we were kids. Which I used to use to dress up my own dolls. It’s the connection to family history I think and they love the old christening dresses and the antique lace.

There were no DVDs and there was absolutely no agonising about not being able to squeeze enough in a few bags. I was so proud of them. They too realised that the most precious things we needed to take would be in the car once we all strapped ourselves in. Okay it is a well-worn cliché but when you face a potential threat to your life, family and friends really are what matters most.

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Over these last days, messages of concern for our safety and offers of places to stay have came from so many friends we’ve been inundated with love and care and that has been very touching and special. Our mountains friends have also been in constant touch talking about staying safe and where they decamped to and how hard it is to concentrate on much else if you’ve had to bring work to do. Meanwhile, there have been losses you wouldn’t even think of.

Some very dear friends of ours who have a honey business have had 30 of their hives burned to black and rescued over 50 others from the fire zones. They love those bees and it has been a huge loss financially and emotionally. Those burned out areas will not bear honey again now for 10 or 20 years because the devastation is so big.

My family? We have been very lucky – our home and area is fine. We have generously been put up at a friend’s farm property in Camden in their beautiful old national trust house – my kids have been reading and sketching and playing music and making a ‘ghost film’ with the video camera. Their concerns about the Mountains have been about the people still there and the animals trapped or killed by fire. They have only once asked if our house was under threat.

Stephanie and her family have returned home, but not every family has been so lucky.

My computer (yes, I’ve had a story deadline as always) looks kind of out of place here in what would have been a formal sitting room right near the formal dining room of this majestic home that is almost 200 years old. A dongle has let me still access the Internet.

We live in strange and changing times. And we live in times where extremes of temperature are going to bring new challenges, stresses and crisis situations on a much grander and more chronic scale. So I would urge you to make sure that you are ready.

That you have a plan. That you know when you would stay and when you would leave (and where you would go) should you be facing down a natural disaster in your area.

As I had my morning coffee today I was outraged to see that some are complaining the RFS overestimated risks and inconvenienced people needlessly in the Blue Mountains. Goddamn. Unbelievable.

Where is the collective pat on the back for those who have worked night and day to avert disaster on our behalf? If most people from the Mountains have lost a day or two from our usual routine then we’ve got off very lightly.

I’m ever grateful to those on the front line fighting the fires and planning the strategies. And right now we should give nothing but thanks and praise to them for stepping up and making the safety of people in communities all over NSW the number one priority.

 Stephanie Osfield is an award winning health journalist and newbie blogger. To read her posts about issues like whether X-rays are safe for your children and if calcium supplements increase risk of heart disease, go to her blog Savvy by Stephanie Osfield. Or touch base with Steph on Twitter: @stephosfield.

What would your ‘trigger’ be to leave a fire or flood-stricken area? And what would you take with you?