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.
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).