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Nothing prepared me for the fear


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Rachael Mead thought she was ready for the fires that threatened her Basket Range home last weekend – she was wrong.

I thought we were well prepared.

Our fire tank was full, our sprinkler system primed and our bushfire survival plan discussed, decided and practiced. But despite the best-laid plans, nothing prepared me for the difficulty of holding the fear and panic at bay when a bushfire threatened my home and community.

Living in the Hills, I think about fire quite a lot. I worry about it. I look at my house and the beautiful trees that surround me and imagine the devastation of losing it all.

Like sensible Hills residents, my husband and I have a bushfire survival plan. This is something we have discussed at length, written down, and a laminated version of this plan lives in the bottom of the in-tray on my desk at home.

Every year at the beginning of the fire season I practice starting the petrol-powered fire pumps that refill our fire-tank and supply the fire-sprinklers that encircle the house. There are two enormous plastic tubs that live beside our front door throughout the fire season filled with photo albums, important documents and irreplaceable items such as the leaf from the Dig Tree that my husband collected for me in the week after we met. The practical and the sentimental; things I don’t want to start a new life without.

I knew that I would be facing a bushfire alone. My husband is a member of the Basket Range CFS, so I had accepted long ago that if a fire threatened our community Andrew’s priority would be to fight it alongside his CFS colleagues. They are an immensely dedicated and skilled group of men and women and knowing they are on call to protect our area made my decision to stay and protect the house far easier.

Although I knew the Cherryville fire was serious, in hindsight, I was just going through the checklist on auto-pilot until the power went out. Despite the laminated and well-practiced plan, things started to go awry almost immediately.

I discovered that I’d neglected to recharge my phone the night before and with all the phone calls to Andrew to chart the fire’s movement and the lovely, but constant, calls and texts from concerned friends and family, by nightfall on Friday my phone was dead and the laptop battery dangerously low. The battery-powered radio turned into my life-line. Without it I would’ve been almost completely isolated and forced to either leave or keep running the significant distance over to my neighbours’ house every half hour to hear the emergency update.

A further spanner in the works occurred as the sun set on Friday. I checked the pump that was refilling the fire tank and discovered it burned out and spitting boiling water. This meant I only had one tank of water left. At this point the laminated survival plan went straight out the window. I had to quickly adapt the plan on the run. So rather than staying inside, waiting for the front to pass over and then running outside to put out the house and any subsequent ember fires, I decided to hold my nerve as long as possible as the fire approached, then start the fire sprinklers and leave. This meant climbing the steep hill behind our house in order to gauge how far the front was from crossing Lobethal Road. I sat on the hill squinting into the smoke, watching the fire-front crawl over the hilltop of the next valley. Curls of ash fell like a sinister snow. I can honestly say I have never been more frightened.

Friday night was emotionally and physically exhausting. Andrew came home but after only a few hours was called out again to fight a house fire on Mawson Road. I set the alarm to go off every two hours so that I could do fire and ember checks around the house. I dozed in the interim with the curtains open, hoping that if a fire started nearby the glow would wake me.

Saturday morning the forecast was dire. Northerly winds of up to 40km/h were expected that afternoon, meaning the southern front of the fire would blow straight towards us. After the frantic activity of the previous day, gutting the house of valuables and ferrying animals to safety, I didn’t expect the anxious tedium of waiting.

I spent the day alternating between watching the smoke and fire-front approach and tidying away the detritus of yesterday’s frantic packing. I tended to the house, restoring its order and dignity as if I was gently saying goodbye. With the roads closed, the power off the eerie silence was only broken by fire-truck sirens and the military clatter of media helicopters and low-flying fire bombers. When the wind didn’t eventuate and the rain began to fall I was up on the hill watching the fire. I broke down crying, my body completely flooded with relief.

Despite having a plan and swiftly putting it into action I was not ready for this bushfire. I wasn’t ready to have to adapt when things veered away from the expected so suddenly. I wasn’t ready for the exhaustion from the adrenaline overload or the hours of tension spent watching and waiting. I wasn’t ready for the fear. I just wasn’t ready. The laminated plan is in the bin. It’s time to rethink and start again.

Rachael Mead is a poet and regular contributor to InDaily’s arts pages.

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