Apocalyptic weather: one woman’s fire experience (followed by flood)
Bronte Davies from Sydney, who was visiting ‘Merigan’, a sheep and cattle property between Tarago and Bungendore in the Mt Fairy area in mid-January, gives a dramatic first person account of what it was like for an ordinary person (without a fire plan or reliable mobile phone access) to be confronted suddenly with last month’s fast moving grass fires in that district.
Heading that account she wrote: “Today I was caught up in flash flooding – my Paddington apartment flooded whilst I was stranded in flood water near the SCG.
“So in the last 4 Tuesdays I have experienced 1 dreadful fire, and 1 awful flood! ‘Straya!”
[The rest continues in her words…].
I was down at Merigan with my daughter as I am helping Tim with a kitchen renovation. The Tuesday morning was unusually hot. One of those extreme fire danger days. Vivi (my daughter) and I went out early to play with the puppy Shaka and ride her bike, but by about 9:30am it was just far too hot and windy. We retreated inside for cool drinks and to do some painting.
Paper painting didn’t cut it, so we moved to face. She was a pretty kitty. I was a black, red and yellow squiggle face. Finding it all very amusing I decided to go upstairs to take selfies on the yellow blanket. I had no idea how fortuitous that decision would be….
Barely any mobile reception
Most of the house has no mobile phone reception. Some of the house has wifi. The top corner bedroom with the yellow blanket has both (when the wind blows in the right direction). I had 8% battery. We took our selfies – they were fun and cute and we were laughing together. And then Tim sent a text message. It came through – remarkably.
11:07am, Tim: “Apparently there is a fire near my fairy.”
Me: “Where’s your fairy?”
Tim: “This is serious. Is there smoke?”
I went outside to see swirls of smoke and to smell the unmistakable scent in the air.
He messaged again: “Which direction is it coming from?”
I had no idea. I thought it was coming from the south in the direction of the railway line. I called him. The line was bad and cut out. What I ascertained was that I should go to the dam or evacuate. But really I should go to the dam. (No idea what to expect there, Bronte said later).
With uncertainty about the wind direction and what to expect where, I remembered Black Saturday and all the advice around getting out early. So I evacuated. I don’t remember carrying my daughter – but I did. I remember looking around for things of value to take – nothing seemed important.
The silly things that go through your head and what you do when you are in a panic.
I inexplicably grabbed a pink Agent Provocateur slip, two Barbies ‘Fack’ and ‘Sheezus’, a peach, some milk, dog food and a dog brush. All ridiculous items. I scooped up the puppy Shaka – who escaped again because I was panicking and yelling and she panicked, but I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and threw her in my pristine, new car.
I raced over to the other dog Turbo who was chained up, cursing that he was wasting my time and dirtying my car. I inadvertently left behind Chuck the dog – whose parents (the care-takers) were shopping in Goulburn. He didn’t bark, and he usually goes with them. I had no idea he was still there. (Happy ending for Chuck. Caretakers returned and evacuated him. Also some stock was moved but the smoke and fire became too intense to finish the job)
11.15 am: I zoomed out of there – unbeknownst to me, towards the fire which was coming from the north. The smoke got denser. It was so scary. It felt like I was surrounded.
I did everything wrong. I closed gates behind me. I didn’t have time to communicate with Tim. I had three things loose in the back of my clean car – of human and dog variety. I didn’t know where the stock was. And I didn’t want to free them into the face of danger/death.
I knew that fire could travel fast. Very fast. And I didn’t know which way to go.
Vivi (age 3} wasn’t strapped into her child seat when I hit the main road and my conscience took over and I had to stop and strap her in. It was so smoky and windy and Shaka tried to escape, but I couldn’t possibly drive without Vivi properly restrained. The silly priorities.
I flashed my lights at oncoming cars – Tarago direction I chose, as again, it appeared the fire was coming from Bungendore way.. Nobody stopped. Not one vehicle. A few slowed, but not one stopped. (Afterward recollected that other drivers were seeing a manic woman with a painted face).
I got to the pub in Tarago. It was 40 degrees, hot and windy. And there was an obvious fire in the distance. But the dogs weren’t allowed inside. And I wasn’t supposed to park in the only bit of shade as it was a driveway. But they changed their mind seeing the serious state I was in (in spite of my smeared squiggled face). They brought my dogs water and let me use the phone as my battery had died.
I called Goulburn Police. The constable who answered had no idea about any fire. This was about 11:25am. She also had no idea about any RFS numbers I could contact. I suggested a suggestion box. And in said suggestion box the suggestion to keep such numbers handy.
Report a fire, call OOO, RFS information line 1800 679 737, or app ‘Fires near me’
Eventually I found a 1800 number, courtesy of the pub. And they suggested the ‘Fires Near Me’ app. Which was brilliant.
Devastating. But brilliant. I watched the fire move towards Merigan. Move over Merigan. Consume Merigan – and was able to relay this to Tim (who was on his way from Orange). He had had wind that the homestead was fine – but I had been watching the grey patch. It didn’t seem fine to me. I told him to prepare himself.
Thanks to the RFS
Around 6pm we returned to a blackened, smouldering apocalypse. It was awful.
The homestead survived – thanks to the RFS. They waterbombed for 45 minutes at least. To them we owe a debt of gratitude.
I marched up into the pine tree wind breaks which were still alight around 7pm. I was under- equipped, wearing shorts and boots – no socks. I had Roundup tanks full of water on my back. I melted two pairs of boots. Tim rode up on the bike and told me to stop. That the trees would fall down and I would orphan Vivi. I couldn’t stop. I had to put out the flames.
It is bizarre the way you think. The way you react.
Afterwards, nearly as horrible as the event…
Two days later I went out into the paddocks with Tim on the bike. Earlier I had heard the sounds of the trees in the windbreaks falling. I had heard the crack of the gunshots putting burnt animals out of their misery… but from the green oasis of the homestead I hadn’t seen it. It was macabre.
A desolate, black, apocalyptic moonscape. Not a blade of grass. Not a living beast to be seen. Not a single intact fence post – all the carefully planted trees, gone. All just charred ashes. It was intense. Overwhelming. Lonely. And very, very sad.
(The sheep were still dying Bronte said recently – from smoke inhalation, burned feet or burned lips so they couldn’t eat)
It was devastating for Tim – if you knew the pride he took in his land, the planning, the years and the dedication…..
Help from all over
We didn’t know many of the neighbours. Many of them were small block owners from a recent subdivision, new to the area. Many were burned out too. I convinced Tim we could put something up on Facebook to make people aware. And his mates came from all over NSW in droves to help.
I heard about BlazeAid – so I contacted them. And they were amazeballs!! They said yes after only a few days. They were encouraging and supportive. And they turned up! And they will stay “until the job is done”.
Can you believe there are people out there like that?
Fencing contractors can charge anywhere from as much as $14 to $20 per metre. With the help of BlazeAid and our co-ordinators Mary Howarth and John Lillico (and Brian Carr in the early stages), the support of Elders sourcing materials for cost price, (and potentially Bungendore Rural), the fire-affected farmers may be able to re-fence for as little as $4 per metre.
It’s a great community. It is a rotten thing that has happened. Big changes need to be made to identify the inherent risks and avoid future disasters, but the community is united in their desire to help one another. There is support. And this is heartening. For everyone.
Notes from the Fire Front – personal accounts
Some reflections from RFS volunteers who battled the fires from Mulligans Flat Road toward Sutton on January 18 with some of their colleagues still deployed to the Tarago/Mt Fairy fire. Thanks to them all
[By noon on the 18th]. “the temperature had already reached 38 degrees with winds increasing just after lunchtime,” said Marty Boyce from Sutton Brigade.
“The pager went off for a fire call, a fast running grass fire on Mulligans Flat Road. Driving to the station there was already a large smoke cloud visible. This was moving quickly, fanned by strengthening winds. On to the truck, Sutton 2, with both other vehicles on deployment at the Tarago fire. We were going in solo, a crew of three, we headed to the approaching fire,” said Boyce.
“A wind change fanned the approaching front and it jumped the road heading straight for us. Before we knew it the fire front was on top of us, a colourful expletive or two and the shout was get going, get us out of here. We were back on the truck in an instant and the driver gunned the motor to get us out of danger.
We were heading through the hell fire with a failing pump, crew area sprays on and keeping low to avoid the radiant heat. Was I scared? You bet I was, this is one experience that I will be happy to never have to repeat. Safely away from the fire front we headed back to the Sutton Fire Station feeling deflated as we were out of the fight for now,” Marty said.
“The Watch and Act notification at Sutton soon turned to an emergency warning, the radio stations were broadcasting the unfolding events. The hardened and long serving may brush it off, but you worry about your fellow fire fighters, your mates, your brothers and sisters,” said Luke Amor from Wallaroo Brigade.
The Yass area RFS fire command reported: “The Mulligans Flat Fire was finally declared out on the 27 January, 2017 (nine days after it started) after much hard work by local RFS crews returning multiple times each day to patrol and extinguish the fire. Twenty-one sheep, four goats and one alpaca unfortunately did not survive. 65km of fencing, six sheds and one bore pump were also destroyed. Some residential dwellings sustained some superficial damage also.
(Source of testimony, NSW RFS)
Ed note: An acquaintance (amongst others) was evacuated thanks to the RFS going house to house and alerting people to the approaching fire.