How My Family Escaped The Fire Engulfing Our Holiday Home
On New Year’s Eve, my mum reminded me of the fear of bushfire I had as a kid.
There was a time in the 80’s… I was playing at a friend’s house when a bushfire came to their suburb. As we played in the pool, sirens screamed past her street, blackened gum leaves fell from the sky and I became quite distressed. I ran home crying, worried that the fire would get our house too and wanted to be with my family if something bad happened to them.
This fear has remained with me to this day.
Like many of us, I have been following the fires devastating our country this year and living in a smoky Sydney has become a sad part of our daily life. In my 45 years of Aussie summers, seeing bushfires affect our country and the communities around me, I have never seen things this bad. Vicarious trauma is affecting us all, with news updates and social feeds bringing us painful pictures and stories of loss and tragedy as our country burns. It’s heartbreaking.
Yet amidst the feeling of loss is also hope and the kindness of strangers, which comes in the form of our amazing volunteer firefighters and neighbours helping each other out.
This week I got to experience all of this for myself. And whilst even writing this now makes me teary, I am beyond grateful to be able to do so.
Our relaxing holiday escape was to cap off a busy year for our family. My husband Greg is a hard working tradie, a project manager in civil construction and I run Bus Stop Films, which has seen me travel a lot this year. So to spend a week with Greg and the kids doing not much more than swimming, surfing and eating, staying in a beautiful wooden house “Bali View” in the bush of Tarbuck Bay (north of Newcastle, NSW) was meant to be a great way to recharge.
But on Monday, 30 December, it turned into something very different.
When we were first alerted to the fire, we tried to leave the holiday property in the car. The kids filmed the ordeal and watching the short clips back later, we seemed to be thinking it was just a bit of an adventure.
But that adventurous feeling soon turned to fear at the sight of the fallen power lines and burning trees laying across the driveway, the flames growing bigger -- and the realisation we were trapped.
With tyres screeching, Greg skilfully reversed the ute up the windy dirt drive way. The kids were screaming. This was not the holiday fun we were after. Our plan to seek shelter in the house was soon dashed when we saw the flames came over the deck.
I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids (I am hard of hearing), but I could hear the intense sound of the rushing fire very well, it was so powerful. When I watch the clip Aurora, my 17-year-old daughter, filmed, hearing myself calling triple 0, I have a Pavlovian response and cry. I feared for my life and for my family’s life -- it was like nothing I have ever felt before.
Greg’s a great man in a crisis. He’s very “Bear Grills” about life and I had confidence he’d know what to do. So when he told me to take the kids and run through the bush, I did it immediately. I didn’t know where we were going. My legs were like lead and I vomited as I ran, feeling both woozy and powerful. I had to keep my kids safe now, no matter what.
My daughter Sage, 15, fell over. My son Zahn, 9, had only socks on. We were all screaming out for help, getting scratched by branches as we went. Coming through the bush into the safety of the neighbours’ property, we all cried at the sight of the elderly couple, who had stepped outside to see what was going on.
The RFS, heroes in yellow jackets, appeared and approached us with calmness, hugs and bushfire know how. They checked we were safe, mapped the fire’s path and went to find Greg. They guided him out through the bush, saving our car and its contents. With water bombers flying overhead, I gathered the kids in a huddle and we prayed.
The bush we ran through was now alight and the holiday house was on fire, but we were safe.
When we finally got back to Sydney that night, I had Zahn sleep in the bed with Greg and I, smelling the smoke in his hair throughout the night, while I laid awake, recounting the trauma of our experience.
Zahn broke down today, thinking about what he’d lost and how we should still be on holidays. Surf boards can be replaced, but I can’t take back from him the fear he felt running for his life. He’s just a kid and his summers should be about fun and family not fear.
But we know we are the lucky ones. So many families have lost so much more. I can’t imagine the utter heartache of those who have lost loved ones and their homes, who’ve had their communities flattened, everything gone. Nothing we’ve been through can compare with their loss.
As for the drought and climate crisis impacting us, I don’t know what the answers are. But I hope those in charge listen to the experts and take action. Now.
The owners of the Bali View have been wonderful, and I hope they can rebuild the damage to their stunning home. In the meantime, I will rebuild my family’s memories with good times, safe times.
Stay safe people, and hug your family close.
Thank you to the Pacific Palms and Coomba Park RFS. You are our holiday heroes -- heroes we will never know how to repay for their efforts and their utmost selflessness.