Reading the Signs: My Year with Fire

When we think of wildfires, images of the bush ablaze and the aftermath most likely come to mind first. Less visible is the before – the behind the scenes preparation and anxiety of living with the risk of fire while trying to maintain daily life with all its commitments. Lost in the aftermath is this “before”. Now, when I think of the 2019/20 fires, I cannot separate them from the key moments before – the accumulation of signs and signals gathered across the year preparing me for the eventuation of fire. This is my before with all my interweavings, my observations, my preparations and emotional states. It is more than a story or a testament, it is also an offering of lessons learnt, things that worked, and things I hold dear.

In February 2019 I was driving around the Hills district in the NSW Riverina on a five-day creative research residency in the company of a small group of artists. Commissioned by a regional arts organisation, we met with local agriculturalists, pastoralists, and scientists in order to ferment ideas and seed relationships. As you would expect, at the end of summer, it was dry but this summer had been breaking records and it was different. The usual straw-coloured grasses were thin on the ground and the dry-baked earth was exposed. It looked and felt parched. I had seen drought before but this was crackling. One farm owner kept apologising for the dust, lamenting we could not experience the place when it was in its fertile cycle nurtured by rain and water. A local livestock auctioneer explained why he would prematurely auction a herd of sheep the next day. The farmer had hoped to hold onto them a bit longer but with the continued drought and no hope of rain, the cost of feeding them outweighed the gains – it was a risk he took to cut his losses.

A week later I was driving along roads buffeted by strong winds and the smell of bushfire smoke. Attending a conference further north I entered the regional town of Armidale. Fires had forced one presenter to take a long detour arriving just in time to walk into their session. Fire sprung up in casual conversations alongside reading material and preparation tips. Two months into 2019 and I was already acutely aware it might be the year our little home on a ridgeline, nestled between a vast national park and conservation area, could come under fire threat.

A story ran in the Guardian in April, Greg Mullins alongside other former senior emergency services leaders issued a statement about how unprepared Australia was for pending natural disasters associated with climate change. The fires this past summer and the continued drought were adding to the sense of emergency. In July, as reports of the first blazes in Queensland filtered through the news, I remember saying to my partner – this is not good. On our six-acre bush home we spent available weekends cleaning out what excess deadwood we could from the understory. Over the following months as fires continued to spark and burn down eastern Australia, my sense of forboding increased. Before we had moved here, the previous home to my partner’s parents, we had listed the pros and cons. Fire risk had been in the top three. Bushfire was something the place had avoided since the late nineteen-sixties, despite a few close calls. It was always a matter of time. By October our conversations turned toward a reality looming. We became more serious as we discussed what it would mean if our house and home burnt.

Mid-November and I was once more on the road in the Riverina continuing my creative research project. The week before, the NSW premier had declared a week-long state of emergency and emergency warnings had been issued for seventeen fires across NSW. The fires were no longer a possibility they were a reality – consuming rainforests, grasslands, plantations and national parks. As a particular combination of weather systems and warming patterns converged, thunder and lightning storms ignited the dry land like a tinder-box. A daily low-level nervous hum had taken up residence in my body. On the highway I passed Rural Fire Service (RFS) trucks a long way from home-base. Waving, I wished I had a “Thank you” sign on my car window. The skies refracted a particle atmosphere and the land was now more-than-crackling dry. Between research meetings I visit my Aunt and Uncle on their farming property near Narrandera. My Aunt takes me up one of the paddocks the long way on a bare dirt road – we can’t go the other way because of the danger the car exhaust might ignite dead grass. My mum texts me, “I noticed there is a fire on highway just out of Wagga…It’s a grass fire at Yarragundry…Sorry to worry you but fires are on my mind at present!” I reply “That’s ok. It is always good to check in regarding these things.”

My memory lurches back to a moment in 2013. The air is thick and the sound of helicopters rebound through the valleys of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. It is October and I am standing in my parent’s driveway, our car filled with some of their precious things. After closing the door on the final box I turn to hug my Dad. In tears I say  

when they tell you to leave, you have to leave straight away, not in a moment, not later, not because you need to do just one more thing – remember there is only one road and you are one of many. He reassures me – I might be stupid [about some things] but I am not that stupid.

This fire season there is only Mum.

Back home I am watching social media updates from friends as they prepare for the fire gaining ground near their large bush home North of Sydney. For those of us in fire risk areas it feels like social media is the glue, keeping us all informed, sharing preparations, resources, things to do, what is working, when to evacuate and when we are safe. There have been small fires appearing on my watch zone. So far they have promptly been brought under control. Then on November 26th a fire registers on the Fires Near Me app near Yerranderie in the heart of the Nattai National Park. My heart jumps. I already know that this will be the one.

By the end of November the wind is the thing, when it starts to gust my nerves rattle. We watch the easterly spread of the fire as it makes it way almost deliberately toward Lake Burragorang. The RFS are already warning us, asking us to know what our plan is. Mum texts, “Cooler here today but beastly wind yesterday.” I reply, “The wind was terrible here today 100 km gusts from the North West which made me a bit nervous as there were two fires in that direction.” The unease leaves little room to focus on other things or engage in the development of new projects.

Early December and Mum and I are in Sydney helping my sister out with the kids while her husband is away for a week. I try to enjoy the time with my family and not worry, but the fires are constantly on my mind. I just want to get home. I make arrangements with Mum, “Balmoral has been on watch alert for the big fire in the Burragorang area so we just want to do more prep this weekend.” Mum replies “Ok I’ll come back Friday.” As we cross over on the Friday, Mum and I have a moment in my sister’s kitchen to ourselves. I admit to her my worries and fears. Together we analyse the fires map trying to find a glimmer of hope. Combining the prevailing factors and the pattern of erratic weather, it looks bad. Hope is all we have.

Back home we visit some friends. When we leave we make apologies saying we have to go home to pick up sticks. One friend makes a quip “Good luck with that!” We share a moment of uneasy laughter.

I have come up with a strategy for the continually falling dry leaf and stick litter around the house, sheds, and general domestic areas. My solution is to create berms in places that will enhance shelter and protection for established and future garden-beds. I get up before 6am and work during the cooler morning hours. I rake and wheelbarrow load after load after load. I arrange them in long narrow piles, squashing them down and finally covering them with dirt. By 10am it is scorching and I head inside unable to return to the job until after 5pm.

Mum texts “How are you going?…You could always come (here)…they’re saying some of the big fires could burn for weeks.” I reply “All ok here at the moment…just got to watch the wind directions over the next few days. I will stay here…and leave if the fire changes.” Mum replies “Pleased all is ok, I know firies are trying to work at containing fires before next hot weather on Tuesday.”

Two days later it is Tuesday. I have been working outside every chance I get. The helicopters are a continual presence. I notice that many of the usual larger birds don’t seem to be as present. I wonder if they have already left. The smaller birds, however, are still here. This is their home. Hot and thirsty they continually frequent the water baths.

Mum: “Are you still at Balmoral? I notice the fire is getting bigger! But not sure which way it is moving. Air quality today and now is awful. Looks like thick fog only pinkish.” I reply “Yes still here. Been…generally making it as tidy as we can around the house and in the western yard as that will be the direction the fire will come if it comes…We are on watch and act…going to a community meeting tonight. Once the southerly comes that might keep us safe [for the time].”

Later I drop into some friends to pass on the information I gleaned from the meeting in the next village. The fire, now named the Green Wattle Creek fire, is out of control and unpredictable. With no expectation of significant rain until February, they believe it will travel through the Nattai, Warragamba, Kanangra-Boyd, Megalong Valley, and out to Oberon before it goes out. Now that I have heard the words and seen the charts for the tactical backburns and firebreaks, it feels hyper-real. I am offered home-made raspberry icecream with fresh berries. It is a treat amidst the worry. These friends have been through fires before and we talk about our plans. My partner is in Sydney during the week and in a somber moment I ask their advice – if I get caught out where is the best place to shelter in our house? At the end of a dirt road and then a dirt driveway, I don’t expect any help from the RFS. I imagine they will be too busy trying to stop the fires on the west side or protecting the small centre of the village based around the RFS shed. It is December the 10th as I head home the moon is red and there is a gusty cool wind.

The next morning it is another orange glow sunrise. After the southerly came through last night and signaled a short reprieve, it is the first morning I haven’t reached for my phone upon waking to check the various information apps and pages. It is a small window of quiet. I try to take it slow and observe the bush and birds having their morning baths. In the evening I watch the red full moon peek through the tangled branches of the eucalyptus trees I love so much.

On Saturday the 14th we head into Sydney for a couple of Christmas gatherings. We force ourselves to go, thinking it will give us a break from the stress. The talk is all about the fires and friends who have survived the fires to the north or like us are threatened to the west and south-west. While we are there a fire escapes near the north end of our village. It is hard to feel festive and we head off so we can get home early. Mum texts “I see there is a high alert for Balmoral so take care. If you need to leave…a bed always here.”

The water carriers and helicopters are constantly flying and the smoke is ever present. We continue doing more preparations and re-clearing the gutters. The sense of urgency is palpable. This is no longer an “if” somewhere in the distance, it is a “when” lapping at the doorstep. When we fall into bed exhausted at night I ask my partner what their gut feeling is. Will our home survive? Will we still have a house? Will we be ok? They say we might lose everything else but the house has a chance. It is a small glimmer of hope to keep me hoping and allows me to drift off to sleep.

The forecast for the week is grim. Thursday and Saturday are predicted “catastrophic” days with temperatures 40 degrees Celsius plus accompanied by strong gusty winds. As usual I am up early doing what I can, even if I wanted to sleep, I can’t. Then I just look at the bush and the trees and wonder if there is any point to my actions. We live here because of the bush, because of the critters and birds, because of these interconnections. From every room there is a view of the bush. It doesn’t feel separate it is part of our home. Yet I have to be prepared for the loss of this part of our home, as the fire will follow the bush corridors. Worse case scenario we will not have a house to return to, to care for our home in recovery. I take small comfort in the design and position of the rectangular house, aligned so the short ends face east and west with no windows on the west side. I know the cement slab, galvanized steel, HardiPlank and deep walk around verandah were all fire considerations at the time it was built. It is modest and it sits low.

As the day heats up I decide I just have to do normal things and prepare for Christmas lunch with the family. Christmas has been so far from my mind so I head out to the closest shopping town. Along with some food I return with a bunch of pink lilies, figuring they will be open by Sunday. I rarely buy flowers and so this is another weird spell I am unconsciously weaving – if I buy lilies today they will be open by Sunday and our house will be safe.

Tuesday the 17th at 7:30am I am looking out the kitchen window, planning my day and waiting for my coffee to brew. I take note who is visiting the back watering station – Crimson Rosellas, Wattlebirds, Bowerbirds. The larger birds are followed by the smaller ones – White-eared Honeyeaters, Striated Thornbills, Pardalotes and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. The superb fairywrens peck and flit around the garden beds – the blue male on look out atop the rosemary bush. A movement catches my eye in the distance and I realise a large male lyrebird is making its way along the edge of the bush line. We rarely see them up this far from the gully. I grab my camera and track its progress from a distance as it casually stops and starts, scratching the ground. Even in all the dryness I am amazed at how green the trees and the understory still are. In the shade of the large Eucalypts and wattles a coolness still prevails. In these past weeks I have taken more and more photographs in preparation for what might be. I was not to know the lyrebird would be my last.

Tuesday evening the helicopters are continuously flying overhead. I use their activity as motivation to keep going with my preparations. At different times I wander in and out of our storage and worksheds wondering what else I should remove. On a whim I grab a bag labeled vintage clothes (leaving my winter clothes, coats, shoes and performance costumes); a luggage bag with a retro dinner set a friend had recently gifted us; a storage container of notebooks and miscellanea. I place them in the back of the car. We have relocated the important and essential things but it is impossible to move a whole house while still living each day at home. We make choices and weigh up the risks. There are so many things, and some things I don’t realise are in boxes.

It is Wednesday December 18th and I have been furiously raking and burying more leaves and sticks aware that it is possibly the last opportunity. My berms are now shambolic as I have run out of readily available dirt to cover them efficiently. They are scattered around with no order to them, I think, well it is still better than nothing. The helicopters are getting to me so I go for a drive on the pretence I need more supplies. For the second time in six weeks the Premier has declared a seven-day state of emergency. The RFS has published the prediction map for the potential fire spread tomorrow. I have packed and know what needs to be done in the morning. I have my last things to do list. The plan has always been to leave. We are on tank water and do not have enough resources in place to safely defend against the types of fire we have been witnessing this season. Conversations with friends help keep me grounded.

Thursday morning the 19th of December, predicted “catastrophic” Day 1. My partner calls to check-in and see how close I am to leaving. My Mum texts “Have you left Balmoral yet?” I have filled the gutters with water and placed water buckets around the verandah. I move mats and other items inside. By 10am it is already nearly 40 degrees Celsius. I keep doing last things. I text our friends up the road to say I am leaving soon and will drop in on the way out. I fill up water bowls for the birds and walk past our struggling vegetable patch. It is strange the things you suddenly decide to do. There is a pumpkin plant scorching in the heat and I decide to put some shade cloth over it. As I head back toward the house I hear it, the sound of the sirens and klaxon bell. I have never heard them before but I know instantly. Even so there is a moment of almost dream-like curiosity as I question what I am hearing – Is that a fire alarm? Yes it is. Can you see smoke? Not at the moment but you can’t see anything beyond the canopy. Then my adrenaline kicks in. Get out, you can’t see, you don’t know where the fire is. I run inside, grab my bag and head for the car. I am quick. As I drive out, it is all too real. Tears stream down my face as I talk out loud to the house, to the land, the trees, the critters and birds – Stay safe, stay safe, stay safe! I take one last sweeping look not knowing what might be here when we return. When I reach the intersection of the dirt road and the bitumen road I have my first clear view from our ridge-line toward the West and the Nattai. To the North of the village a massive smoke cloud is pluming high into the air. Looks like I am taking the road South, I say to myself. As I head toward the first T-intersection utes and cars are hurtling past. When I reach the main road, I stop and take a photo of the smoke cloud before turning left and leaving. I don’t stop until I am close to the freeway fifteen minutes later. I pull over and check my phone. The emergency text is there, warning it is too late to leave and to take shelter. The time stamp is 11:32am, five minutes after I had taken the photo. This is how fast these fires have been moving and it is their speeds that are frightening. I call my partner to assure them I am out and I am on my way. Then, I turn onto the freeway toward Sydney and away from the unknown of what is unfolding. Flooded with adrenaline my senses are heightened. I drive slowly through a smoky fog, the visibility so low it seems like there must be fire everywhere. It is like I am inside a weird suspended time capsule and it feels surreal driving alongside other people contained in their cars and engaged in their daily activities. It will not be for another hour and a half that I will know the path of the fire and if it reached our home. Later I find out the freeway was closed not long after I slipped through. For the second time that day I seemed to just be ahead of things.

Entering Sydney is disconcerting. It is hard to connect the two worlds of a city preparing for Christmas holidays and a village under fire. My heightened state makes me feel alien, like no-one could possibly understand. Arriving at our friends place my partner hugs me, it seems we might have been lucky. Mum texts “You must be exhausted! Hope house remains safe.” I reply “Just calming down and watching all the alerts as things unfold. Our house is safe today at least.” Mum replies “It’s very nerve racking…so far up here ok but been warned to keep up to date.”

The next morning I am up and alert at dawn as has been my habit in these past weeks. I want to get back home to reset for “catastrophic” day 2. Yesterday we were lucky while others were not. I know we may not be so lucky tomorrow. I am worried the heat is evaporating the water in the gutters and want to refill them as well as move more things before leaving again. I check the apps and google maps to find all roads in have been closed. I text my friends on the ground and they affirm what I am seeing. The only passable road has a police checkpoint. State of Emergency powers extend to entry in and out of an area under threat. Once a resident has evacuated they cannot return unless there are extenuating circumstances. I pace, it is excruciating. I understand the reasons behind these powers but of course you see the logic of your own story. Mum texts early in the afternoon “So far so good it looks from map…we’ll all be pleased when tomorrow is over although well aware that isn’t the end to it!” The day passes in a blur. All day the fire ebbs and flows making little runs.

Mum texts “It’s really awful and it seems as if this fire is unstoppable! You know you can always move in with me in the worst scenario which is small comfort if you lose your home…so worried for you [both] and feeling helpless to do anything.” Mum is sensible and practical but the irony is she is also within reach of the Gospers Mountain fire. I reply “it’s ok Mum it is what it is and we just have to do our best. The main thing is we and others are safe and everything else is extra. Love you.”

Early evening we study and scour all the usual information sites. Checking the progress, matching the data, looking at where the fire is and where it was and where it might be lurking. Matching it with the topography in relation to our home. Matching it with the predicted winds. Searching for something we might have missed something that will allay our fears. After an hour of this we come to the conclusion our home will be in the line of fire tomorrow. I have been preparing for this for a long time but it all feels so abstract until it is not. And then I just keep thinking about all the animals.

It is 9pm, unable to settle I have been out walking and am now sitting in a suburban park on the phone to a friend. In tears I explain no matter which way we look at it the fire will probably plough through our home. We talk, console, cry and laugh. Later, I snuggle up to my partner clinging to what was, this time tomorrow night things will be very different.

It is Saturday the 21st of December, summer solstice and four days before Christmas.  The winds are predicted to blow relentlessly from the West, gusting in the early afternoon, shifting to the North East before a Southerly in the late afternoon. Considering this our home is trapped in a pincer move. The winds will usher the fire from all sides. I am pacing like a cat. A few friends come over to help distract us while we wait it out. Laptops remain open and constantly refreshed. At 2.05pm the Emergency Warning text lands – “Balmoral – seek shelter as the fire arrives.” The timings are almost as predicted. Then the southerly hits. Mum texts “It’s nerve racking continually watching everything unfold…It certainly looks grim.” The ArcGIS mapping site shows us there are hotspots everywhere. At 4.22pm, another friend arrives just as we receive a call. It is our neighbour’s son who has been helping defend their parent’s home further down the slope. He tells us it seemed to be going okay until the winds changed and everything became chaotic. The fire suddenly seemed to be all around them and they couldn’t see. At that point they left. He said it was “going off” and the RFS had been instructed to pull out. He imagined their house had gone and if so probably ours. We later found out our local RFS refused to leave and endeavored to protect the 70 or so people sheltering in the fire shed, assisted in the final hours by NSW Fire and Rescue.

How do you talk about this? After the phone call I feel numb. I remember saying “Well that’s that then.” It is kind of like accepting this thing you have been imagining would happen on one level while feeling disconnected and disbelieving on another. It is hard to comprehend and I am worried for our friends and all who stayed. One by one our friends leave us with many hugs, tears and words of support. We watch the news but it is hard to tell what has gone on it just looks bad. Mum texts “it doesn’t look good but I guess you’ve still got to hope. It will be horrendous anyway for the village on a whole. I feel for everyone and especially the poor firefighters who do all they can to save property and lives…in the long run you [are both] safe which is most important, we’d be devastated if something had happened to you… Love you heaps.”

By early evening we are in a limbo state, we wander the streets not knowing what to do. We wander into a local pub, exhausted. We try to think positively and discuss next steps. At some point late evening we get another call from our neighbour’s son to let us know they have had word their house is still standing. It is fantastic news for them and the call is meant to bolster our hopes. We tumble into bed with mixed feelings attempting to sleep.

Sunday the 22nd December, we will head back today to see if we can get in. At 8:46am we receive a text “Yesterday was horrific as expected. [S] can’t get down to…see your place so can’t give you info yet. [S] stayed and saved our house” the message then listed the houses of friends that were known to have burnt down, ending with “…there’s no power.” We make plans to stay at another friends house closer to our village while we wait. Then at 9:37am my phone pings again “S says your house is ok!” then another list of houses lost, four of which are on neighbouring properties “It’s going to be heartbreaking…steel yourselves.” It feels strange, unbelievable and elating all at once. My heart is racing. All I want to do is get back home, no matter the devastation.

Later, 300 metres from the Police checkpoint, we watch pink retardant drop from an aircraft carrier and water from helicopters. There had been a brief opening in the middle of the day but the window of opportunity has now closed once again.

It is Monday morning and we are waiting at the RFS shed in the next village. Cups of tea are offered and bits of information flow our way. We know the road is being made safe and they are trying to limit unnecessary traffic. After four hours we head back to our friends place not wanting to be in the way. Deflated we decide to get some groceries. But once inside the supermarket I realise it is the wrong decision. Amid the bustling last minute Christmas shoppers I feel like an outsider. Less than twenty kilometres away fires are burning and I feel anything but normal in this environment. Standing in front of the fresh fruit section I suddenly don’t know what to do, I feel so strange. I burst into tears, sobbing in the bright lights of an indifferent supermarket while people pass me by taking a wide berth. No one inquires or asks me if I am ok. My partner finds me, wandering around like a lost child. I just want to get out of here. Balmoral is only twenty-five minutes away and yet it seems like a million worlds away. Later I am on a couch resigned to the fact we won’t get into the village today when I happen to check the local RFS Facebook group to find they have just opened the checkpoint to residents. I jolt into action.

A couple of hundred metres from the checkpoint we see the blackened trees and pink fire retardant from the previous evening. I hold my partner’s hand briefly – Here we go. As we travel along the ridge road the lack of understory reveals contours we have never been aware of. It is a weird sensation driving along a familiar road and having your perspectives shift. It is kind of amazing and shocking at the same time. As we turn onto the final street before our dirt road we face the reality of the fire. Looking across to the home ridge further east the dark black shapes of twisted trees stand out where once there was bush.

A fallen and still-smoldering power pole lies across our driveway forcing us to continue further along the road toward the workshed entrance. There is no workshed just a jumble of objects and folded metal, the window melted into thin air. Scanning 360 degrees I stare at the unfamiliar long views through the shocking lack of understory. As we make our way further in we can see from a distance the storage shed next to the house is similarly heaped. A pair of crimson rosellas land in the bare branches of a eucalypt, my heart swells – you are still here, you are ok. Not long after a pair of gang-gangs fly down for a quick drink from the ash filled water bowls. I am at once elated and sad at the same time. For these threatened birds there will now be no food trees here for a long time. 

On the verandah of the house dark wisps of plant shadows lick up the sides of the concrete slab. Stepping inside is like being caught in time. The lilies I had bought a week ago have now opened (as planned). Some of the windows are cracked but have resisted imploding. On the kitchen windowsill the radiant heat has reformed a plastic soap pump. Otherwise it is just as I had left it. Normal inside, other-worldly outside. 

It is another four days before we have power and can move back to our house marooned in a sea of ash. These days are still uneasy, there are still fires burning close by, big plumes of smoke and gusty winds. Despite there being nothing left to burn an irrational fear is always present. The day before we move back I hear the distressed call of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo. Unlike any call I have heard these birds make before it is unsettling. I watch as it kamikaze lands in the high denuded branches of a Silver Top Ash. It jerks its head and looks around, intermittently calling.

As surrounding houses succumbed to the fire ours teetered on a threshold. Our preparation was to work with a combination of knowledge, strengths of the house, the layout of the land and clearing excess organic litter within the domestic zone. The drought had already created the conditions for die back of many native shrubs and grasses. The large eucalypts near the house had few low hanging branches and we tidied around their base. Ultimately we will never know the combination of elements that worked in favour of the house, only the evidence of how tenuous it was. We are lucky, having a house to return to allows us to attend to the recovery of our home-place. The recovery is another story of slow practices and observation documented elsewhere. Ultimately the lessons of my year of fire and the ongoing bush recovery are manifold, connecting me deeper to this place and all the plants, critters and creatures we share it with.

Julie Vulcan

Julie Vulcan is an artist, researcher and writer working across performance, installation, digital media, and text. In 2020 she was awarded grants from the Australia Council for the Arts and Create NSW to research and develop new works in relation to care and recovery of post-bushfire land. Recent works include DARKswell (Wired Lab Open Day 2022), an audio-visual performance of post-fire recovery; Rescript a performance honouring the loss of non-human life (Requiem Sydney Festival 2021 curated by Janet Lawrence with Sydney Environment Institute) and #afterthefire#daybyday an online visual diary. Julie lives and works on Gundungurra and Tharawal country south-west of Sydney.

5, 683 words

Location: Balmoral, NSW

Summary: After the fires have past, leaving a trail of devastation, we often forget what happened before, in the lead-up. This is a telling of that before, with all its signs, preparations, anxiety, frustration and emotion. It is more than a story, it is also an offering of lessons learnt, things that worked, and things I hold dear.

Featured image: Provided by Julie Vulcan and is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0