Extract from the book Eat Beat Sleep Repeat: A FIFO Life
After my break at home I was due to fly back to work for Christmas 2019 and New Year, 2020.
However, the world was about to get very crazy. There had been a large number of bushfires burning on and off for months in New South Wales, particularly on the mid North Coast. We had also watched a fire burning to the North of Katoomba, the closest major town, since September, and one even further North, up towards the Hawkesbury River. These fires just would not go out. It seemed the powers that be were happy enough to let them burn; either that or they just did not have the resources to do it. Coupled with that was a severe drought, the effects of which were very noticeable even up in the mountains.
The situation worried me. In 1967 our little town in Tasmania had been wiped out by a number of small fires that joined up on one fateful day on 7th February that year. Those one hundred little fires ended up being one huge fire that killed over 60 people in the state, including 11 in our tiny village. Over 90% of our houses were destroyed and it took years to recover. I had a bad feeling about the current fires. The drought had become so bad that I had set up watering stations for the wildlife in the bush surrounding our home. Every second day I would carry 30 litres of water to these bowls in the bush. Every second day these bowls were empty, a sure sign that they were needed. The usually lush vegetation withered and died, the bush became tinder dry. As the day grew closer to catch a plane back to work, the smoke grew thicker and the fires got bigger and bigger. It was not long before a number of once-small fires had joined up, creating some of the largest bush fires in the State’s history. Of particular concern was a massive fire to our North known as the Gospers Mountain blaze. To our South there was also a huge blaze, and to the West we had numerous fires.
My partner and my children had never experienced bush fires. Like most people, their level of concern was low; it could never happen to us. A few days before my flight I went to see my doctor. I asked for a medical certificate. There was no way I was leaving my home and family to handle what I could see was coming. She understood; her own home had been under threat for the past month from the very first fire in Katoomba, which was still burning. Within a few days it was clear we were in a serious situation. The smoke was so thick in our town that we had to start wearing masks.
The fires to the North had almost reached Bells Line of Road. Between that and the main highway through our town lay the Grose Valley. That valley was deep, rugged and cut through by a large river. The firefighters were doing their best, but there were just too many fires and they were everywhere. Added to that was the fact that the only way to combat most of them was by aerial means, large planes and choppers. The terrain was just too dangerous to send ground crews in. Every time the wind changed direction so too did the fire front, creating extreme and volatile conditions. As I looked at the seven-day forecast leading up to Christmas Day it became clear that, unless it could be stopped at Bells Line of Road, every town in the Blue Mountains was at risk.
Unfortunately, forecasts are not always accurate. That evening the volunteer firefighters started a backburn just to the north of Bells in an attempt to stop the fire moving any further South towards the Grose Valley. They did not want to do it, but were ordered to anyway. The wind direction changed, increased in strength and pushed the newly lit fire through a number of towns across to the West and on to the South of the road. Tragically, it destroyed homes. What had been a large burnt buffer zone was now a new bush fire with a new name. Things had just gotten out of control. I was angry about it but the firefighters were trying their best. They are brave, hard-working volunteers, absolute heroes, but no matter how you looked at it, the backburn operation had been a terrible mistake.
Over the next few days the Gospers Mountain fire joined up with the new Grose Valley fire and jumped the River. It kept burning both South and West, towards us. Meanwhile, the huge fire South of the mountain towns had joined up with others near Jenolan Caves, and one to the East. There had never been so much country burnt in recorded history. On December 18 I took a drive out to the end of a local road to Victoria Falls and tried to see exactly where the Northern fire was. I could not see a thing. Everything, everywhere was smoke. It was comforting to know that the fire would have to climb up over the top of the massive cliffs on the Southern side of the Grose Valley. The cliffs between us and the huge Southern fire were even higher. Our home had survived 140 years of storm and fire, surely we would be okay. At the same time, our entire house was made of timber, old dry hardwoods. The firefighters regarded it as impossible to save, along with the large majority of our heritage-listed village. I could see their point.
On December 19 the inevitable happened. To our North the only weak spot in the geography was a high, relatively flat ridge line called The Causeway. It connected Bells Line of Road with the Great Western Highway, and our town. The wind once again changed direction and blew everything across The Causeway directly towards us. That day I took photos of everything inside the house and packed as much as I could into our two cars. My family had lost everything in 1967, the most precious loss was the old photographs. I had very few images from back then, and the ones I did have, especially of my lost brother, were coming with us.
It was not just a grab and run; we had decided to either evacuate to the East or the West, depending on which fire hit where first. My kids were safe; they both lived further down the mountains, and I had given them detailed instructions on what to do. After surviving 1967 and fighting a number of fires while in the Army, I knew what was coming. Most people in the town either accepted it or thought it would never happen. One of our neighbors had decided to stay put, no matter what, even though she was on her own. Many had already evacuated, those with somewhere safe to go.
For myself, I had experienced the incredible speed and ferocity of a major bush fire and it had left an indelible mark. I had seen the flames coming over the top of the Snug Tiers five miles away. That was just after midday on February 7th, 1967, and the sky was pitch black. By the time my grandfather had walked 100 metres towards our doomed cattle, that same fire front was burning the home across the road from our house. My brother, my grandmother and I screamed at Pop. He could barely hear us in the roar and wind of the fire, but he saw what was happening and bolted back up the hill. We reversed our old Holden into the flames. The air itself was on fire, nothing could have survived outside that car. I saw brick homes explode and the tops of trees being vaporised. We were lucky and made it down the road to our school. Half the town were inside and survived, even though the school itself was on fire. The other half of the town survived by getting to the beach and wading out into the water. Eleven souls were lost, including a mother of six; 120 homes lay in ruins. It was all over in less than 20 minutes but the ordeal felt like hours. I had no intention of risking our lives for an insured building, no matter how historic and irreplaceable it was. We were going, it just depended on when.
That night we could see the flames of the approaching fire. The firefighters did the only thing possible and started a backburn from our town, back towards the fire, trying to remove or reduce the fuel load in front of the main fire front. Along The Causeway flames were up to 20 metres in height as the fire turned into a firestorm, fanned by strong winds from the North and East. I spent most of the night wetting down the house and the gardens. Embers were already raining down, lots of ash and burnt leaves. The fire to the North had also turned West and was heading towards the towns of Hartley and Lithgow. It had already destroyed much of the small towns along Bells Line of Road.
Early next morning, after one further attempt to convince the remaining neighbors to leave, we packed the dogs in the cars, said goodbye to our home and headed West, down the Mount Victoria Pass and into the smoke so thick it was difficult to see. My brother’s farm was a four hour drive away, over 400 kilometres. The smoke was with us all the way. At Lithgow, the hills surrounding the town were still on fire in places. On the radio the call came through that it was now too late to leave our own town, Mount Victoria. I did not expect our home to survive. To the North of town the fire had burnt all the way to the back door of some homes. To the South the bush land was thick and dry and ready to explode. We hoped the embers would not make it that far because the bush was literally metres from home.
We stayed at the farm until Christmas Eve. My partner was worried about fires even down that far, but there was literally nothing to burn. The drought and the wind had reduced the flat landscape to something resembling a red desert. Not a blade of grass remained, and the sheep were being fed every couple of days. In the mountains, the firefighters had done an incredible job. While there were terrifying videos of flames just climbing up cliff faces, ignoring all predictions, the controlled backburns, plus a drop and change of wind direction, saved our town. When we got back home I found burnt leaves and black embers all over the yard. I found burnt leaves a kilometre to the South, in unburned bush land. We were very lucky. The neighbor who had stayed admitted just how scared she had been. On the worst day she could hardly breathe, inside a house.
Next day, Christmas Day, 2019, we gathered in one of the grand old hotels in Katoomba for lunch. There seemed to be a lot to be grateful for that year. The bushfires would rage on for another month; they would wipe out whole communities on the far South coast during the last few days and nights of 2019. They would kill an estimated one billion animals, and burn out over 46 million acres or 72,000 square miles. In comparison, the Amazonian wildfires of the same year had destroyed a mere 2.2 million acres or 3500 square miles (9000 square kms). In the Blue Mountains – our home – 80% of the World Heritage area had been destroyed. Almost 3000 homes were lost, including our neighbour’s old place at Dargen on the Bells Line of Road. Miraculously, under 40 people were killed, but it was still a terrible tragedy for their families and communities.
And then, 2020 arrived.