Black snot and reverse panic attacks: What no one tells you about being trapped in a bushfire.

Cate Tregellas has been in Mallacoota as the bushfires descended upon the town – burning 100 houses and forcing holidaymakers to evacuate via navy ships. But while we’ve seen the haunting images of people crowded onto the foreshore of the Victorian coastal town to escape the flames, we’re far less aware of the day-to-day reality when you’re caught up in a bushfire emergency. Here, Cate writes about the 13 things no one tells you about being in a bushfire.

1. Black snot

Every night for the past week, my last task before I blow out the candle and hit the pillow is to remove hard dry particles of the blackest of black snot from my nose so I can breathe freely overnight. Despite wearing the latest Mallacootian fashion accessory of a face mask all day, the stealthy little bastards of ash and dirt manage to inveigle their way past all barriers to lodge uninvited and unwanted in my nasal cavities. I never dreamt that in my fifth decade that I would (willingly) be picking my nose. Just don’t tell my Mum.

2. Black IS the new black

Black clothing is the choice of anyone who has to tackle the dispiriting, back-breaking task of cleaning up what is left of their home/shed/business/vehicle/paddock. There is no point wearing anything else, as it will be thoroughly black within a few minutes anyway. The antidote to this (for me anyway) is once I have had enough of sifting through superfine debris for the day, I change into the brightest, lightest coloured clothing, drag a brush through my stiff, ash encrusted hair, slap on some lippy and go into town to deliver more donated goods to the Community Refuge Evacuation Centre. I feel better, if even for a short while.

Watch: Celeste Barber’s mother-in-law on the devastating Eden bushfires. Post continues after video.


3. RSA or rapid skill acquisition

I have developed new skills that I never, ever thought I would have…such as breaking into houses. Despite having the absent owners’ permission to raid their pantries, closets, cupboards for anything they want to donate for the comfort of others they have never met, I feel that I will be sprung at any moment. I can see the headlines now: “School Council President and Copper’s Wife Arrested for Looting Fire Ravaged Homes”. In my defence, I have been emptying out the putrefying remains of each fridge and freezer as I go.

4. There are no alone moments

I can’t even go to the toilet alone – two of our dogs follow my every move from the moment I wake to the moment they can flop exhausted into our bed at night. We normally don’t allow any creatures (apart from our children) in the bed with us, but if it means they and we get some sleep, why not?

5. Don’t take goldfish on an overnight evacuation

When you pack four kids, three dogs, two cats, five guinea pigs, one rabbit and four goldfish into a car at a moment’s notice and high tail it down to the Main Wharf to spend the night with 4000 of your new best friends, don’t be surprised when everyone doesn’t survive. We scooped up our goldfish at the last minute (despite protestations that they would be more comfortable at home in their big cool spacious tank), but by early the next morning, they were all floaters. Whether it was the ash that mysteriously found its way into their container through closed car windows, or the fact that their water was suspiciously warmer than when we left home, they were gone. Yeah, you say, they were only fish – but we had one each and they all had names and we loved them.
Lesson learnt.


6. I long for blue

In the past seven days, the sky has been every other colour, every conceivable shade but blue. Even when the smoke has cleared a little and there’s some soft gentle rain, there is no blue. We haven’t seen the sun since it all began, and I wonder how all the plants, the bush are coping without sunlight. The veggie garden that I was feeding my family from is toast, and my orchard is gone.

7. Fine smoked cuisine

We have learnt to enjoy the taste of everything smoked. For instance, this morning, breakfast was Smoked Water, followed by a bowl of Smoked Porridge made with Powdered du Lait, washed down with a fine brewed Smoked Coffee. For dessert tonight, we are contemplating Roast Peaches with Cream of Ash or perhaps Char Grilled Pears with a drizzle of Ant Encrusted Honey.

8. Constant unconscious worry

Then you realise that it’s been a week and despite messages to them, you haven’t heard from your friend in the little settlement off the highway. You know that their general store has burnt down, and then someone tells you the general store is still standing, but it is your friend’s 100 year old home that is now a pile of ash. The panic, the dread, the fear for them starts all over again.

Evacuees from Mallacoota are transported to MV Sycamore in Victoria. Image: Australian Department of Defence / Helen Frank / Handout / Getty.

9. Fear... not

Even during the worst of it, when the fiery apocalypse was raining down on us, and our homes and all the familiar places we know and love and spend most of our summer at - I was not scared. I am still vaguely curious as to why, but the main emotion was impatience. I was bored of waiting for the inevitable and just wanted it all to be over. I can no longer answer well-meaning messages that tell me that I must be relieved that the worst of it is over. No way, sunshine, the worst for this community, for the whole of the blackened eastern seaboard, for the psyche of our fair country, is unfurling itself now, like some charred parasitic monster. It's spreading its evil tendrils into the hearts of people who think it is okay to rummage through the smoky detritus of a friend’s home to take whatever might be worth flogging. Whatever it was worth to you, I want to tell them, you have just stolen their childhood memories, their last vestige of hope that they may rebuild, or, worst of all, the only way they can possibly make a living in the grim months ahead.


10. The supreme importance of the seven Ps

Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance (and Panic).

One of the upsides of being married to a retired policeman (who still carries bullet fragments in his head), is that he is the epitome of calm no matter what is happening. Like a centrifugal force, he draws us in for hugs, jokes, and tender moments as we swirl around him, getting instructions, tasks, reassurance. With three children aged 16, 15 and 12, we had made the decision a long time ago that our long, linear, north facing house was not to be defended, being right on the edge of town next to the squillions of drought affected bush that is Croajingalong National Park. So when the call came to evacuate internally (trust me, it’s not what you think!...but it’s just as unpleasant), the camper trailer was already restocked and hitched up to my car, the tandem trailer with precious photos, paperwork and supplies to his. I felt no emotion as we left, instead a flood of hot, burning impatience that it would hurry up and happen so we could start dealing with the inevitable.

11. Reverse panic attack

Three days after we evacuated and we were home again, sleeping in our beds and back in the routine of feeding animals and trying to have as normal a life apres-flames, I found out the true story of why our singed house didn’t keep burning. I was standing in the main street talking to one of my youngest daughter’s friends who lost everything when her house went up in flames and was destroyed in less than 20 minutes. I was lamenting the fact that it wasn’t quite the summer holidays that we all expected when she said, “At least I get out of cleaning up my room!”


We stared at each other in shock, in delight, in the sheer wickedness of voicing something we truly felt, then doubled over in helpless hysterical laughter. Wiping our eyes, I felt an arm slung around my shoulders by the tiny, wiry 70-year-old woman who used to be the town’s post mistress. She told me how a neighbour patrolling the next street saw smoke billowing from our back veranda and yelled at her to get over there. She and the former occupant of our house doused two fires that had taken hold either side of our back door and were up in the roof. I go from laughing to gasping for air in an instant. My heart feels like it is going to explode, I can’t breathe, I can’t stand, my mind is a black hole and yet I am reaching my hand out to the young girl, our eyes still locked, and telling her I’m okay, and she will be okay. We both know that is a lie.

12. I used to love telling people that I lived in a 'World Biosphere Reserve'.

The town’s slogan was ‘Victoria’s Best Kept Secret’. Ha-bloody ha.

13. Life does go on

Our chooks keep laying, we wake once more to birdsong, there are even small joys when a blackened rosebush thrusts a bloom of the purest soft pink skyward. Getting out of bed each morning to face the million and one jobs/messages/calls for help is getting harder, but I know that I can’t lie there and let it beat me. So I push my sore, tired, aching body upright, drag on the not-as-dirty clothes and find my husband, already up and outside. We silently embrace each other, and go on with our day.