17 October 2013. Barely into the Australian spring, bushfire season was still weeks away yet there had already been one fire within a few kilometres of us. We lived on a dead-end road and already I’d had to evacuate Rumble, my horse, until the fire was out. I was on edge, even though summer wasn’t even here yet.
But this day dawned quiet and sunny, just like any normal mid-spring day. Still, I had a bad feeling about it for some reason.
By 10 am the temperature had risen drastically to mid-summer levels. By noon a hot wind was whipping the gum trees around in a frenzy. I checked my bushfire app and there were no reports of any fires, but I started to wonder if I should get out anyway. I started to put our important documents, my computer, my saddle and the dog leash by the door.
Around 1 pm I called my husband who was at work in the city and told him how uneasy I felt. He said to load up and go, even though there was no fire. I hitched up the trailer and started putting things in the car, but still wondered if I was just being paranoid.
At 1.30, a few kilometres away, some electrical lines came down in the wind. I didn’t know. There was no warning and no alert. By 2 pm I could smell smoke. The wind was wild and it was even hotter. Our bewildered dog, Rosie, was stuffed into the car, I grabbed my horse and ran him into the trailer and lamented that there was no room for the other dog on the property to come too. There was also no time. Burning ash was falling now.
As I pulled out of the driveway my phone alerted that there was a fire in the area but that nothing was amiss and to stay calm. Calm was not anything close to what I was feeling. The premonition in my gut had elevated to deep fear and I was shaking. Driving up the road I noticed a lot of cars coming the opposite way and fear turned to panic. The smoke was thick now.
A few cars later the driver waved at me to turn around. I had a horse trailer hitched and it was a narrow road. Were they panicking or was it really that bad? The next driver clinched it. Their frantic signals were clear. I still remember the weight of overwhelming dread.
‘So, this is how I’m going to die?’
Pulled over at what I knew was the last spot on the road wide enough to turn a trailer around, just before a blind corner, I desperately considered my next step. The fire was invisible because the smoke was so thick but I could feel increasing heat. Now I really did think that this was how I was going to die.
My previous fire training kicked in then. When you are facing flames, head to where it has already burned. The fire several weeks ago had burned an area at the very end of the road; a lookout with a parking area. I knew it was reasonably cleared because I had walked the dog down there since then. I turned the car and trailer around and as I drove back down the road, I was now the one waving the other cars to turn around. I stopped a friend of mine who was trying to drive out. Through the open window, I told her that I thought we were trapped and that I was going to head down the end to where it had burned already.
Still, I wondered whether I should stay and defend the house. Should I try to get the other dog? But if the fire came, I would really be stuck. The thought of greater safety won out so I drove to the end of the road. There was nobody there! Real panic set in then. Was I a complete idiot? But this was the best option I could think of. At least if the fire came it would be very much retarded by the fact that most of the area was already burned and relatively bare. Several times I almost left but something told me to stay put.
Then they came. Another car with a little dog in it. The driver was like me, unsure if this was the best place but unable to think of anything better. Then another one. Then a stream. Some of them with holes burned in their shirts from embers. Some of them with the blank stare of shock on their faces because they’d had to run from their burning homes. Old people, mothers with babies, crippled people. And my horse still in the trailer which was now surrounded by other cars packed into the small parking area and jamming the road in. And the road out.
By that time, I had phoned my husband again, telling him where I was, what the situation was, and that it wasn’t good. He was headed towards home from the city by this time but I wondered what he could do. I tried calling 000, the emergency number, to let them know that there were fifty or more of us here at the end of this road but it timed out. Their operators were swamped.
We were at a lookout and we could see out over the river to Sydney. Such a peaceful and serene view. I could even see where my sister lived, a few miles across the plains, and though how ironic it was that we could all die when we could see safety just a kilometre away at the bottom of the mountain. Others must have thought that too because they started to talk about hiking down the mountain to the river. I realised I had to let someone know we were here.
By now we could hear the helicopters dropping water onto the flames a few kilometres away. We could also hear the booms of gas cylinders at a nursery up the road exploding in the heat. The smoke was getting thicker, even here, and we could see flames at times across a gorge. By now my bushfire alert app had signalled that I should evacuate. A bit late. Some of us turned the radios on in our cars and were hearing the bad news on the national station. The local fire brigade’s Facebook page had some information on it about houses lost and people trapped but I couldn’t get enough internet service to post on it. I called my husband back and told him how many people were here and that we had to let someone know.
He was also listening to the radio as he drove so, on a hunch, he called the ABC radio and told them that there were people trapped at the Yellow Rock Lookout. I don’t know how but someone must have heard it and passed on the information. Soon the helicopter got louder and louder and then appeared over us, flying so low I could see the pilot’s face. I’ve seen that look before. In my old rescue days, we used to call it the ‘oh shit look’. He had it, clearly visible to me even from a distance. He was obviously shocked and dismayed that there were so many people and cars crammed into this small area with only one way out. I tried to signal to him that there were over 50 people there but I’m not sure if he saw or understood. He gave me a feeble smile and a thumbs-up and flew away.
Some of the people really started to panic then and wanted to walk down to the river. It was a very steep climb through heavy bush and not all of it had been burned and I knew it could have been a fatal mistake for them. I encouraged them with the fact that the fire brigades knew we were here now and that they wouldn’t let us burn and that the chopper would drop water on us if it was needed. Inside I wasn’t so sure, but I tried to sound calm and convincing and tried to distract them with activity such as gathering folks under the small shelter and clearing leaves and branches away. The air was heavy and it was getting very dark from the smoke and ash.
Suddenly, through the smoke I saw two men and I wouldn’t have been happier if they had been angels. They were angels to me, two firemen walking down the dirt road to us. I wondered how on earth they had gotten through but I didn’t care. They were here. Except they both had that ‘oh shit’ look too, only their professionalism had them hiding it. They came and said a cheery ‘hello’ as if this was an everyday occurrence, analysing the situation as they went. After a quick conversation on their radios they told us they were going to take us back up the hill to the last house on the road. It was a partially cleared area and it also had a swimming pool that they could pump water from so they could defend us there. I wondered if I was the only one who heard the hint of doubt in their voices but it was our only chance.
The cavalcade of cars slowly drove the short distance back up to the house and the firemen parked us all tightly in by the house with the cars almost touching, over lawns and garden beds. We were told to bring our animals into the house with us and to go inside and stay there. My heart sank as I had to leave my beloved horse in the trailer. I had closed it up as best I could against the smoke and the heat. He was actually standing there quite patiently but I choked back a sob as I gave him a pat and followed the fireman’s orders to go inside.
The owners of the house, an American family, were so lovely. They welcomed us all inside as cheerily as if it was a picnic, even though we dirtied their carpets and our pets were laying all over their floors and furniture. They offered us what water and food they had and let us use the toilets which quickly filled and overflowed as the electricity for pumping water had been cut.
Meanwhile the meagre fire crew with their one tanker positioned themselves and their hoses to defend us as best they could. Another quick text to my husband who by now was at the evacuation centre, unable to get any closer due to the road closures, to tell him the situation. And then the fire came.
It was fierce. It was dark. The wind howled and blew the flaming embers at right angles across the windows like the snowflakes I had seen in blizzards back in America. I could see the three firemen doing what they could, spraying the house, putting out spot fires. I wondered if they could hold it. It was horrific. The flames were over a hundred feet high in the trees, leaping way over the two-story house. The fences were on fire. I texted my husband something like, ‘It’s here. Pray hard. It’s bad. I love you.’ Or something like that. I wondered if it was the last time I would say those words to him.
I had been watching my trailer through the window but now I had to leave and go to the other side of the house. I felt so guilty but at the same time I simply couldn’t stand there and watch and listen to my horse screaming if he burned to death in there. I just hoped that the firemen would have enough water and time to spray it down if it came to that. Nauseous with fear and dread, in shock, feeling guilt and utter helplessness that I, who had always been the rescuer, was now the one being rescued I huddled with my dog on the carpet of the stairs and waited with 53 other people, dogs, cats and a bird in a cage. Everyone was eerily silent as we listened to the holocaust outside. I was bracing myself for someone to come and tell me that the cars and my trailer were on fire. It was probably only about an hour but time lost its meaning as I tried to shut it all out, overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Gradually though, it started to get lighter and quieter. The roar dulled and the smoke appeared to be thinning. I ventured to a window and saw that the main front had passed. Trees, bushes, and fences were still on fire but they were just burning instead of bursting into flame. I took a deep breath and walked to the side where my trailer was. It was still there intact.
Although we had been told to stay inside I asked someone to hold my pup and went out into the choking smoke to check on Rumble. He was completely fine! Because my trailer was a style which could be shut completely, there was very little smoke inside. Additionally, as it was mostly made of poly plastic and aluminium, it had not gotten particularly hot inside either. He wasn’t even sweating and didn’t seem at all perturbed at the flames or the noise. He was mostly looking for his hay net and wondering why we weren’t going anywhere. I got him some water and he took a few sips. His familiar nicker was music to my ears.
Those wonderful, amazing firemen were still hard at it knocking down spot fires and fallen branches that were alight. Finally, the unit commander came inside to check on us and reassure us that we were fine now. He was so kind and I will always remember his compassionate face. He knew how terrified we had been and, to be honest, I think he had been pretty scared himself. Later as we were chatting, I learned that their unit was not actually a bushfire unit at all, it was a town fire engine accustomed to fighting structure fires, and they had never actually ever fought a bushfire in their lives. I asked him how they had gotten in and he admitted that his sister was one of the mums with a baby inside the house. She had called him and they had driven through the road closure, through the flames and over fallen trees and power lines to get in. They were the only truck that did and he smiled wryly as he said how glad he was that they didn’t have a dash-cam because their supervisor would probably have fired them! After the fires, we nominated them for awards, which they duly received. I am certain they saved our lives. He did say that he had no desire to ever cross over to bushfire fighting or to ever go through that again.
I called Ross again, quickly to save my phone battery, to tell him that we had made it. But it wasn’t over yet. The road was still closed and fire dispatch demanded that we stay put until it was deemed safe for us to leave. We were there for many more hours and I remember people getting phone calls saying that their house had burned, or being afraid because they couldn’t get hold of loved ones.
Shortly before dark a four-wheel-drive police unit made it in to check on us and told us that it was still too dangerous for us to leave. They counted us, asked what house addresses we had come from, if everyone had gotten out of those houses, and if we knew of anyone who was absent. They transferred that information to other units who were searching for survivors. Reality was setting in for many of the people there who had left their burning houses. They wondered where they were going to go and what they were going to do. I wondered if our house had made it too.
Several hours after dark the police told us that they would lead us out in a motorcade and that under no circumstances were we to stop, even at our houses, until we got to the main road leading to safety. In a long line, we slowly drove the several kilometres out, winding around downed burning trees and over dead power lines. Other than the flames lingering on trees and fences, it was so dark. There were no street lights and no house lights. But you could see the skeletons of houses, cars, and sheds that were still burning.
And it was house after house after house still burning. Sometimes there would be ten or more in a row that were still alight, then one or two that looked like they had possibly made it, then more houses and cars in flames. Just around the corner from where I had turned around earlier that day, there were two burned cars haphazardly angled in the middle of the road as if their drivers had just jumped out and run for their lives. I wondered if they had made it and shuddered at what would have happened had I not taken that last chance to turn around.
As we went by our house, I tried to look but because it was down off the road it was hard to see. The fence posts were burning but the house was dark and I took that as a good sign, that it might still have been there. I really wanted to stop and grab the other dog but we had been instructed to keep driving, no matter what.
Nobody was being allowed into the area yet, so Ross was still at the evacuation centre. Before we left I had called him and told him to drive down the highway to my sister’s house; that I would go down the other open road and drop Rumble off at a stable I knew of where he would be safe. As I drove down the winding road, now safe, I realised that I was shaking badly and desperately wanted to pull over and throw up, but I kept driving. Arriving at the familiar stable facility I turned on some lights, unloaded my beloved horse and tucked him happily away in a grassy paddock with water. I finally made it to my sister’s house, ten hours after the ordeal had begun.
She was overseas at the time, but my wonderful niece immediately poured me a massive bourbon and coke, which I think I downed in one long chug. There was so much adrenaline in my body that it didn’t have much affect at all. Ross arrived then and we held each other, not saying much, both in shock, both so grateful.
We hardly slept, we just held each other with poor little Rosie, who was quite traumatised, on the bed with us. Periodically I would have to get up and look out the window to reassure myself that the fire wasn’t coming. Whenever I would fall asleep I would go immediately into a nightmare of flames and heat and would jerk awake and go to the window again to check. We were reasonably safe there, but you could see the flames clearly from the bedroom window, looking like molten lava on the escarpment across the valley.
The Linksview fire took almost 200 houses but, miraculously, no human lives were lost. It was one of the worst bushfires the Blue Mountains had seen to date.
I was safe, but through that endless night I felt that life would never be the same again and, as I came to find out, it wouldn’t. The fire was, in a way, the beginning of the end.