It happens every year. The start of the fire season, Matt starts keeping his CFA (well now, CFS) bag in the ute with him at all times, the inevitable news footage from the bushfire zones, the lump in my throat forms, the prickle in the eyes, I sit and I cry. For so many reasons, but mainly for our own personal experience with fire.
In 2009 we were living in Murrindindi – managing a 1200 acre beef property just over the ridge from Marysville and within cooee of Kinglake. The Black Saturday fires devastated our community.
That Saturday night is so vivid to me, it’s funny how your mind will pick and choose certain memories to hold on tight. I wish I could remember more about my Grandma crocheting, I wish I could remember the school sports chant my Grandpa taught me, not stuff like this. The looks of people faces who lined the main street of Yea that night (we had arrived into town from our best friends wedding, two hours away, Matt was best man, he literally threw me in the car and said we had to go, like now, he is the least dramatic person I know, I knew it was bad then). People sat in the gutters, bewildered, horse floats with stamping horses aboard, people walking aimlessly, people walking with purpose, police and emergency services trying to direct people, the red glow of light despite it being 11pm. While Matt went and banged on the police station door to little avail I stupidly called my mum, hysterical, we couldn’t get home, luckily at that time nobody knew exactly how bad the fires were, she had no idea what we were facing. Eventually they let us through the road block, they said they couldn’t stop us, and Matt’s CFA crew was on the other side, he had intentions of jumping on the nearest tanker. Driving the 10km out of town, ash and burnt leaves hitting the windscreen, Matt asked me if I wanted to keep going, I nodded. The road was quiet, we passed a fire tanker, going the opposite direction. Driving into our winding driveway Matt radioed his CFA captain – where did he want him? Webby radioed back – go home, there’s nothing they can do, protect your own property, get Emma out of there. I said I wasn’t going anywhere Matt wasn’t going.
Our feet hit the ground fast at home, we got the dogs inside, they were crying and coughing from the smoke, we wet towels and clothes, anything we could, and put them through the roof of our little weatherboard cottage and under the doors and windows. Matt had to get his cattle down to the river, he went and mustered them in the dark and smoke, of course they were spooked and it took him a few hours. Meanwhile I packed up what I could in the house, we had decided we needed to evacuate to our neighbours. We radioed Paul, who was in a mud brick home with a swimming pool and in a clear area. Our little cottage was beside bush, if the fire was that close we stood little chance to defend. Our driveway was 5km long and the only way out, it was hardly a safe situation. We filled the largest vessels we could find with water and put them around the house, I poured bucket after bucket of water on the deck and the house, the sprinklers were put on the roof, giving a bizarre sense of security that it was raining. It was 2am and 37 degrees, I remember vividly looking up at the candles on the mantlepiece, they had all bent over and melted. It felt like we were already on fire.
At 3am I opened the gate of my horses paddock and watched him bolt off into the smoke, I hoped he would find his way to the river where Matt’s cattle were. Matt packed me into our car with our worldly possessions – insurance papers, letters we had written each other at school, Matt’s grandfathers akubra, family photos, irreplaceable things. He was going to drive the ute with the firefighting unit and the dogs to Paul’s. He gave me a woolen blanket and showed me how to cover myself and brace on the floor. I’ve never heard his voice so calm and assertive, he told me if we got separated or I couldn’t see him anymore to just keeping driving and get to Paul’s. I was crying, of course, but nodded obediently.
We got to Paul’s at 4am, exhausted, hot, but reasonably safe. Matt and Paul stayed up preparing the house to defend in the worst case scenario. I collapsed into bed, for the next six months I had nightmares and would wake in a cold sweat to the strongest smell of smoke. The smell of smoke, oh the smoke, it was so vivid, so evocative. It fills me with fear and this strange, raw emotion I can’t even name. In the morning Matt had already gone, putting on his yellows and jumping on a tanker with his CFA crew. I rarely saw him for the next few weeks as he fought the fires. People think it was all over in one weekend, but the fire kept coming at us for literally weeks after that Saturday, eventually burning to our back fence. Matt received burns to his chest and hands, and would only come home to Paul’s (where we stayed until it was safe to go home) for a few hours sleep at a time and then go again. He doesn’t tell anyone about his burns, his mum only just found out recently, five years later. At the time I was working for Elders – the next six months were a blur of co-ordinating fencing volunteers, organising truck load after truck load of donated feed and finding agistment all over Australia for hundreds of hungry cattle. The fencing, fencing, fencing – not only did I dream of smoke, but steel posts and gripples.
Our Black Saturday story is hardly extraordinary – it isn’t tragic (thank goodness), it isn’t heroic, it isn’t anything overly amazing when you hear others who were more directly affected compared to us. But it is our story, and it changed me in a lot of ways. It is a big part of our narrative. Our friends lost houses, livelihoods, businesses, communities were ripped apart and barely put back together.
My mind has been elsewhere in the past few days as NSW burns. My thoughts and prayers are with those defending their homes, especially the volunteer firefighters and their families. It is too early, far too early, in the season for this to be happening. It scares the living daylights out of me. Stay safe everyone, what a bastard of a land we live in…