The view from 30,000 feet was grim. Thick billowing smoke blanketed the world, spreading from horizon to horizon, providing a scene that could only be described as apocalyptic.
Massive bushfires were devouring our beloved Blue Mountains.
We were heading into the unknown.
Two days earlier Maree and I had flown down to Victoria to work as volunteer officials at the Phillip Island MotoGP. It was to have been a welcome break from renovating our home, and a chance to enjoy some magnificent racing working trackside as flag marshals.
As we drove from Tullamarine airport to the Island our phones suddenly went crazy. Message after message came in – “Are you guys ok?” “Hope you’re both safe, get out early!” “Be careful, thinking of you”
We were dumbstruck. We had no idea what it meant.
My phone rang. It was the guy who agists his horse on our land, and he sounded terrified.
“It’s really bad” he said, “I’m taking Digger out of there and I’ll come back if I can to wet down your house”.
“I’ve got to go”, he said, and with that the phone went dead.
As Maree drove on I started searching for information.
The fire was huge; started by power lines shorting out in tree branches the flame front was only 1km from our home as the crow flies. It was heading towards our beautiful Sun Valley and would soon be threatening the forest behind us.
It looked bad.
I lived through the 2001 bushfires that devastated many homes in the Lower Blue Mountains; my home saved only because two helicopters dumped water on the place, extinguishing the flames that were licking the roof from adjacent trees.
I had hoped I’d never have to go through that again.
The feeling of disbelief was overwhelming. Six hours earlier we’d left to drive to Sydney airport in the crisp morning air; yet here we were now reading of fires heading towards our home fanned by 100 kilometre an hour winds and 35 degrees Celsius temperatures.
All we could do was wait and hope; we were too far away to be of any use, stuck frustratingly a thousand kilometres south.
The worry was eased slightly by evening updates reporting Sun Valley and surrounds were safe for now, but many homes had been lost along roads that followed the ridge directly behind.
Two years ago I worked as a Postie, delivering mail to most of the homes that had been razed in Winmalee and Yellowrock. One of those destroyed was on our short list during our search for a home to share.
I knew some of the people affected.
We spent Friday trying to do our job at the track as best we could, but constant messages from friends told us that things were not good back home. The weather was deteriorating and the fires were likely to flare up.
That evening we made our apologies, said our goodbyes, and booked the first flight back on Saturday.
The drive home was interminable – every traffic snarl painful, every red light torture.
By 3pm we were at our driveway.
Thick grey smoke and fine ash swirled in the hot, dry air, and on the ground burnt leaves told a story of woodland destruction.
The fire plan we’d discussed went into immediate effect. Important documents, medications, precious things and a change of clothes were quickly gathered up into overnight bags and thrown into the car.
We ran out the hoses from our water tank and tested them, ensuring there were no leaks and that the fuel supply was adequate. We took great comfort in the knowledge that the jet of water easily reached the rooftop.
The woodpile was moved and debris raked away from the house; no point giving the bastard any more fuel than it already had.
Air vents under the house were blocked to prevent ember ingress, gutters checked for leaves and twigs, and soaker hoses placed on the roof. I nailed large sheets of fibro-cement over the most vulnerable windows, hoping to prevent them from bursting in the radiant heat that precedes the flames.
We emptied our bins of rubbish and recyclables and filled them both with water, and we placed spare buckets of water strategically around the property with towels nearby. We’d use these in hand-to-hand combat with the flames if necessary.
Food, water, fire extinguishers and fire blankets were stowed in a concrete area under the house; a relatively safe haven if we needed a place to shelter from the heat.
There’s an old, brick well on the block that’s about six metres deep, so I unscrewed the cover and placed a ladder into it. Apart from a few large huntsman spiders and the occasional millipede it was pretty much empty. We’d be able to use that as sanctuary if caught out in the open.
Our plan called for us to position our cars on the road pointing in the direction we would need to go, a large open field 200 metres up the road. There we’d shelter in our cars under thick blankets until the firestorm passed, then quickly head back home and do whatever was required to save the house from ember attack.
We were as ready as we could be.
Perversely, in a world reliant on the internet, the AM radio became our best friend, with ABC radio broadcasting fire updates every fifteen minutes, and it quickly became obvious this fire was not going away any time soon.
Nervous times indeed.
Saturday faded into Sunday and the roller-coaster ride continued. The Rural Fire Service repeatedly rated the Linksview Rd fire status as either “Emergency” or “Watch and Act” in response to fluctuating wind strength and direction. Embers were dropping kilometres ahead of the fire front igniting spot fires in inaccessible country.
Sleep was impossible.
Sunday dawned calm, but soon the winds were up and the tension resurfaced. We kept patrolling our block, looking for any sign of danger, but thankfully none came, and although the air was thick with smoke we avoided catastrophe.
This was the pattern that continued throughout the week, and even as I type there is thick grey smoke all around. Helicopters still fly overhead, bucketing more water onto the remaining pockets of fire over the ridge.
We don’t know when it will be over.
We had a visit from a fire crew yesterday who were happy with the preparations we’d made. They gave us some good advice and left us with at least some confidence that we had a chance.
The fire service says it could be weeks before the flames are completely extinguished, so for the foreseeable future the cycle will continue. Watch, wait, and try to not think about the worst.
Considering the fire season isn’t supposed to start for two months that’s not going to be easy…