What the Bush Fires Taught Me.

When my son was younger I used to point to the sky and cry “Helicopter! Helicopter!” whenever we heard the beat of propellers pulsing overhead. His little face would peer upwards and he’d smile at the amazing flying machine in the distance. Ever since the Springwood bushfire hit the Blue Mountains last Thursday afternoon, we have heard helicopters roaring through the sky almost constantly. The sound is there when we go to sleep, when we wake in the night, when we open our eyes in the morning. These days, I’m trying to distract my two children from the sight of the helicopters rather than point them out.

When we moved to the Blue Mountains from Wellington in 2010 we felt a strong pull to the region like so many others from different parts of Australia and the world. We loved the beautiful bush, the gaping gorges, and the strong community spirit. We knew that we lived in a bush fire zone, but coming from the land of damp cool forests we were completely unprepared for what a spark can do to tinder-dry Australian bush.

The past month has been uncharacteristically hot and windy. When we should have been enjoying the first warm days of spring we’ve been sweating through 35 degree + days instead. Day after day gale force winds have knocked over trees and sent dust flying. More than once I’ve heard people talking about the possibility of a “bad fire season”. By the beginning of October the grass was brown and crispy to walk on. The fruit trees in the backyard sagged in the heat and the leaves turned brown. We closed the curtains to block out the heat and quietly wondered what on earth summer would be like if this was what we had to contend with in spring.

Thursday 17th October was just another hot day. I dropped the kids off to school that morning with reminders to drink lots of water and stay in the shade. The wind picked up at around lunch time and I remember thinking that I should probably keep an eye on the rural fire service website just in case. Just after 2pm I was sitting at my desk in my home office, enjoying my last few moment of child-free work time. I happened to have the fire update webpage open and when I glanced at it I was horrified to see that an out of control fire was burning a mere 3 km from the children’s school. Although our school wasn’t in immediate danger, I made arrangements for them to be collected early knowing that if it got worse I might not be able to get down the highway.

On the road heading home from school

Within half an hour the roads were congested with traffic, streets were blocked off and fire engines roared up the mountain highway. Helicopters and water bombing aircraft began circling overhead. A line of cars snaked along the highway, the drivers craning necks out of windows to get a better look at the direction the smoke was coming from. Nearer the school, frantic parents abandoned their cars on the side of the road and ran.  At the school gates parents looked each other in the eye and gave one another a solemn smile as they hurried their children away through the smoke. As I drove back up the mountain towards home I passed 15 fire trucks parked on the side of the road with their sirens blaring and lights flashing in unison. My daughter mistook the white and yellow painted trucks for ambulances and burst into tears. In the other direction cars were streaming down the highway away from the fire, their boots packed high with sleeping bags, pet carriers, pillows and bags.

The sky was like this for days. 

A char grilled cicada blown into our yard. We also had burned leaves and sticks floating around and lots of dead bugs.

We left that afternoon, then returned, then after a few days of anxiously checking the rural fire service website we left again yesterday (along with most people in the mountains). We’re not out of the woods yet. As I’m typing this, the wind is picking up outside and the fire near us is still burning. I feel safer now that I have in days though, I think the absence of smoke and aircraft overhead has a lot to do with that.

Now that we’re home again, it’s given me a chance to reflect on the events of the last week. I like lists, so I thought I’d compile one here.

What the Bush Fire Taught Me.

  1.  When you’re living with a potentially life changing threat hanging over you, the rest of your life doesn’t stop. The kids still want breakfast, they still fight over who gets to hold the remote, work still gives you deadlines and the dishes still need to be done. Dealing with that when tired and stressed is hard.
  2. The sensory things – the smoke that gets into your hair, your skin, your clothing and the sound of the water bombing aircraft will be at first interesting, then quickly become tiresome and very stressful indeed.
  3.  We should have been more prepared. I will know where my wedding negatives are from this day forward. I'm glad I had time to video our things for insurance purposes. I can't imagine trying to remember every little thing we own. 
  4. Choosing what to pack and what to leave is heartbreaking and kind of surreal. We left yesterday genuinely believing that we may not see most of our possessions again.
  5. Even if you shield your children from images in the media, they will feel that something is wrong. Talk to them and give them “just enough” information. If they want to ask wacky or inappropriate questions let them. We told the kids that there was a fire in our area and we were leaving to have a break from the smoke.
  6. If you have an allergy kid like I do, please make sure you know where your medications are and keep some special foods ready in case of an emergency.
  7.  You might find yourself concerned with stupid things in the middle of a crisis. For example, when I was packing up I thought about the fact that I’d just organised my pantry and put pretty labels on all of the jars. I didn’t want to have to do all of that again!
  8.  The rfs are incredible, selfless and amazing people.
  9. The power of community is humbling and beautiful.
  10. I won’t ever take the fact that we live in a bushfire zone for granted again.

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