In the path of an inferno: My battle with a bushfire

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
In the path of an inferno: My battle with a bushfire
Fire engulfs Green Point, south of Forster on the NSW mid-north coast earlier this month.

Once you experience the ferocity of a fire, you never forget it. The experience is burned into your memory.

This month I've been safe in my living room, fists clenched anxiously as I watched much of Tasmania and NSW consumed by bushfires.

Like you I saw grey clouds of smoke become black, obscuring the sky. Like you I saw distressed and disbelieving people, agonised animals, buildings, paddocks and trees aflame.

Unlike many of you, it was an experience I have lived, as well as watched.

I can remember billowing smoke, the hot winds driving the flames. I remember the smell of bush burning, the sight of trees exploding, the sound of helicopters overhead, the taste of ash floating lazily in the air.

I remember the feelings of helplessness, bewilderment, despair and rage.

This month, I've I relived one of my worst memories: the day a bushfire jumped out of the news and into my backyard.

On that Thursday afternoon in January 1994, the police wouldn't let me drive to my house high above The Comenarra Parkway in Turramurra, a leafy Sydney suburb.

So I raced up and down hills on foot — oblivious to the blisters on my feet — in high heels and a pencil skirt, with my briefcase clutched in my hand, toward a luminous orange sky punctured by billows of roiling black.

My Christmas present to myself had been the final mortgage payment on the house I was now running towards, one of three on a side road opposite a narrow valley, part of the Lane Cove National Park.

Now the house was mine. But for how much longer?

When I got home, my first thought was saving my two cats. My 'back yard' was the bush: if the fire jumped the Parkway the cats would be incinerated and I couldn't let that happen.

Without my car, I knew I couldn't take much if I had to evacuate: the cats, some family jewellery, some undies: that was all I could carry by myself.

Not much to show for a lifetime. No recipes, no photos: only memories. They were in my head. They will always be with me.

That night I sat on my deck for hours, watching fire devour the valley and feeling somehow detached from the spectacle in front of me.

Strangely beautiful in the darkness, the flames and sparks reminded me of New Year's Eve fireworks.

It seemed a lifetime before the weary fire-fighters got the blaze under control.

Exhausted, I went to bed, hearing sirens all night. Whether they were in my head or on the roads I couldn't tell.

The next day, the Parkway was re-opened and my daughter Meredith unexpectedly appeared. On holiday in Queensland, unaware of the fires consuming Sydney, she'd felt an inexplicable urge to come home.

She drove for hours. Shortly after she arrived, the Pacific Highway was closed to all traffic.

Meredith and I spent the next few days watering both around the house and in the smouldering valley opposite.

To get water to the valley we linked hoses with plastic connectors and snaked them across the road. People stopped to sightsee, drove heedlessly over the hoses, constantly breaking the water flow.

Only our determination to extinguish spot fires and embers stopped us abusing those thoughtless people.

A couple of days later I watched something small coming up the driveway. It was a long-necked turtle. Somehow it had survived, negotiating the burned-out valley, crossing the now-busy road and clambering up the concrete Everest of my driveway.

That evening, Meredith and I took it back to its creek in the valley. As we neared the water its head and legs popped out and began waving furiously.

I bent over the creek and the little creature almost leapt out of my hands. With a splash it vanished, safe and out of sight under a submerged rock ledge.

The turtle survived, and so did the valley. As will NSW and Tasmania. As will the memories.

Your say: Have you experienced bushfires? Share your story below

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