January 22, 2020

The Burning

We flew in from winter. The Australian summer was smoky from above, the view of the harbour obscured by haze. We had been following news of the Australian bushfires for the past month but this was our first sight of them. November and December were spent in coats and jackets, crunching autumn leaves and watching clouds of breath dissipate in the chilly morning air.

The early November autumn colours in Virginia.

Winter coats stuffed in our carry-ons, we waited at the baggage claim for the six suitcases which held all of our possessions from the past year. It was six thirty in the morning and we were arriving at Sydney Airport after a year spent in the United States. The kids were searching for our suitcases when my phone rang at the baggage claim. It was my husband, calling to say he was not going to be at the airport because he had gone south, where the family farm was threatened by bushfire. The 144-hectare Currowan blaze had merged with the 22-hectare Tianjara fire, and it was burning all sides of the farm on the South Coast, between Bendalong and Milton. He had been back in Australia since November, for work, and we hadn’t seen him in six weeks. I wanted to cry at the news that he would not be at the arrivals hall, ready to envelop me in a hug, but I swallowed and tried to smile when I got off the phone. The kids were lugging our suitcases one by one to the baggage carts.

‘Dad won’t be picking us up, but your aunt will. And your cousin. And we’ll see dad in a few hours.’ 

At seven thirty in the morning we were eating free gelato they were handing out from a stand just outside the arrivals hall and then we headed south, in case the Princes’ Highway would close. Three hours from Sydney the valley where the farm is was thick with smoke, but the air was still. We were safe, for the time being. We unpacked and talked about what we would cook for Christmas lunch, last minute food shopping and how soon we could jump into the ocean, a twenty-minute drive away. 

Christmas was smoke, burned trees crashing in the distant bush and ham with a glaze at once sweet and sharp, like jam and mustard. Pavlova light and rich with cream. A walk to see the slowly creeping fire, just the other side of the creek. The State Emergency Service truck came down the road just before Christmas lunch. ‘We’ll be dropping incendiary devices in the bush by helicopter at 2pm, no need to leave,’ the incredibly tall man in an orange jumpsuit told us. The kids were thrilled. We took drinks on the deck to see the helicopters, but they never came. The sky was that strange shade of grey and orange it had been since we arrived. The air was eerily still, the only thing moving were the flies.

The eerie sky, walking to see the fires.
Rhapsody, Floyd and the fires in the distance.

We call it the farm but there has been scant livestock and nothing ‘farmed’ in years. Once my mother-in-law lived there and had cattle and sheep, a few alpacas, but since no one lives there full time we have gradually stopped keeping livestock. The exception is two chestnut horses, Rhapsody and Floyd, that belong to a neighbour: he visits them regularly. Once, before my husband’s parents bought it, the farm was a nursery for dairy cattle and their calves. There are paddocks pocked with wombat holes, a creek where we all swim when it is more than a puddle (all it is now), a dam where the kids paddle a homemade raft, the first trees they climbed and a treehouse with a zipline. It is the place they learned the meaning of hard work. We all work hard there: shovelling ditches, slashing bracken, mowing grass and clearing gutters. Simon works the hardest, he built the farmhouse for his mum in his early twenties – the first house he built. It is off the grid – solar power and rainwater tanks. There’s a high-ceilinged living space painted yellow, surrounded by windows and glass doors and a kitchen built around an Aga stove. A nook of bookshelves with a fireplace and a soft blue sofa. A long hallway of bedrooms and a claw-footed bathtub in the master bath, at the very end. 

The paddocks (so green!) in 2015.

After a few more days in the smoke and slowly encroaching fires we went to stay with my mother-in-law, Sally, at Narrawallee, by the beach. If the wind did pick up it could easily block the road, our one escape route. We drove out to the farm every day to clear brush and leaf litter and check the fire’s progression. On December 29th the Rural Fire Service backburned along the road from the highway. On the 30th we left the kids with Sally and drove in to discover the flames were not far from the gate. Trees had fallen across the road but Simon had a chainsaw to cut the branches, I helped drag them away, watching the still smouldering trees either side of the road, hoping none would choose that moment to fall. The forest floor was black and empty of leaves and brush, but many trees still stood, just their trunks singed or charred. Some had caught fire inside and spumed white smoke. There was no wind and the fire was moving slowly, but warnings were all for the following day when the temperatures were meant to reach 40 degrees and the winds pick up in the afternoon.

The 31st – the last day of the decade, I woke early in the spare bedroom at Sally’s wishing we could leave. The day dawned cool and still, not smoky at all. Would this really be the dangerous day they warned of? I went for a run and then swam in the ocean, the cold water soothing my sore legs. We drove to eat breakfast in Milton but the air there had grown thick and oppressive. My husband wanted to drive and check on the farm. I agreed, if I could come, or his mother: I did not want him to go alone. He called his mum and she agreed to go. I understand this desire to see what threatens you close, the worst thing is to sit and wait, not knowing. It is why people drive into disaster zones, why they wait and see instead of evacuating when they should. 

As Simon and Sally left I was putting cream on my daughter’s mozzie bites. Fifteen minutes later I got a warning on my phone:

NSWRFS EMERGENCY BUSHFIRE WARNING – Fisherman’s Paradise, Yatte Yattah, Cunjurong Pt Surrounds – Seek shelter as fire arrives. 

Simon and Sally were headed right into the area. The Princes Highway was closed between Jerrawangala and Ulladulla. When I called they were in a road block, right in the middle of it all. ‘You’re turning around,’ I said, more a statement than a question. He said he would, but there was a long queue of people, waiting to turn. He wanted to chat with someone, to see when they thought the highway might reopen. The sky was orange with smoky haze. I looked out the window in Narrawallee, three neighbours were up on their roofs, hosing away dead leaves. 

The sky in Narrawallee.

The kids and I worked on a jigsaw puzzle, read recipe books, I turned on the TV to see the news, and moments later the screen went black. The power was off. The sky had turned a deeper rusty orange. My phone was still working, so I obsessively refreshed the Fires Near Me app. The app was dotted with bright red flames, Emergency Warnings. Hours later, I heard the ute. They were back. My mother-in-law told me that they’d tried, but the RFS weren’t letting anyone through. 

The phones had by now lost service, and the power was still out, so we set up the battery-operated radio and then drove into Ulladulla for groceries and ice. The Woolworths was the only place open since they had a generator, so everyone was there. The entrance was unlit but the store itself was bright, with queues twenty people deep, people pushing trolleys filled to the brim and empty shelves of milk, bread, an empty freezer where ice had been. We walked around in a daze – what would we need? Tinned food, pasta, long life milk. We bought cheese and crackers. We bought chips and chocolate biscuits. The kids were baffled, since we don’t normally buy junk food, and they asked, for the first time – ‘Is everything going to be okay?’ ‘Sure,’ I said, hoping I was right. People were orderly and polite. The man in front of us said that his friends at Conjola Park had lost everything. The cashier, who looked about 18, said she was working overtime. She had been there since 7am, but she was earning $50 an hour. ‘I’ll stay as long as they need me,’ she said.

At home we realised we’d forgotten candles and torches, and we looked for what we had. Enough to get by that night, but on the radio they were saying it would be at least 48 hours without power. We all went to bed early on New Year’s Eve, the champagne still in the no-longer-cold refrigerator. We listened to the radio by torchlight. No one was in the mood to celebrate. My twelve and ten-year-old slept in the living room that night, rather than the bedroom downstairs. I woke at 3am, anxious and jetlagged, and drove into Ulladulla. I knew my mother and sister in the US would be worried, and there were a few bars of service there, so I could send them a text. The town was eerily dark, there were no streetlights, houses or shops lit except the sickly green sign of the Woollies. There were cars with headlights on beside the Civic Centre, where evacuees were, and the occasional RFS fire truck passed, but otherwise the streets were dark and silent. The darkest streets I have ever seen. I drove through Milton to see where the roadblock was. It was in town, and there was no one there except the RFS and a single police car. Back at my mother-in-law’s I woke my husband. ‘If you want to go through the roadblock, they might let you through now. There’s no one there.’ 

I hated to let him go but I could see how stressed he was not able to do anything. The waiting and not knowing drove him mad. Had the farm burned? He drove off with promises that he would be safe, and as quick as he could. There was no service so we knew he could not stay in touch. I stayed in bed as long as I could that morning. It made waiting easier, somehow, not being up yet. It was the first day of the new decade. Eventually I got up, and the kids and I walked the dog, drove through Mollymook, listened to the radio and watched blackened leaves fall from the sky. More reports of Lake Conjola and Conjola Park were coming in, of houses burned to the ground. People who spent the afternoon sheltering in the lake. Simon returned around noon, his clothes and skin smudged and ashy. They let him through the roadblock only because he could pull up an insurance document to show we owned a property in the area, and luckily it was downloaded on his phone, because there was no coverage. 

He told me he drove down an eerie, emptied highway, past charred trees and paddocks. With the fallen trees on the two and a half kilometre dirt road into the farm it took him an hour and a half to chainsaw a path to drive through. The gate to the farm is down a short section of drive. What he saw made his heart sink. The gate was burned, hinges and a few blackened edges of timber, a pile of ash. 

The gate at the farm.

He thought: there’s nothing left. It’s all gone.

Simon drove down the steep driveway, stopping to clear more trees. Plenty were still smouldering. The sky was thick with smoke. As he turned the bend, he glimpsed, among the burned out forest and black charred paddocks, a patch of green. Two paddocks weren’t burned. The neighbour’s horses were there, alive, and to the left was the house – untouched – and the tractor parked in front of it. It was amazing, considering everything which had burned. The shed full of tools with the mower, all the tractor attachments and a studio were decimated. The forest all around was filled with skeletons of trees. The garden, jetty, battery shed, cattle yards, tree house, generator shed, the canoe and kayaks on the bank of the dam – charred or melted. The fire chose and skipped the strangest things. There were two plastic jerry cans of diesel on their own in a paddock untouched, though the grass was burned around them. An old stable beside the shed, made of timber, was blackened but still stood, while the galvanised metal shed had collapsed to the ground. 

The shed.
Where the jetty was (you can see the ladder still) and where the canoe and kayaks were (you can see the imprint in the dirt of the burned boats).
The battery shed and gas tank.

He checked in on the neighbours on the way home and their houses were untouched as well. We were getting reports then of all the damage done in the fires on New Year’s Eve, but the news was also carrying a clear message for the coming Saturday. Fire conditions were meant to deteriorate. All tourists were told to leave the South Coast. It was Wednesday, and we decided we would leave Friday, because Simon would go back to the farm and lock up, he wanted to make a temporary gate to secure the place. We went to the hardware store for supplies and stood in line for nearly an hour as the cashiers wrote receipts out by hand and used credit card machines which make an imprint of the card – old technology useful again.

That afternoon the power came back on, it had only been 24 hours, not nearly as bad as they thought it might be. Some towns would take weeks to regain power. Again, we were lucky. The next morning Simon left again early to drive to the farm, the highway had opened that morning and he sat in traffic for almost an hour for the fifteen-kilometre drive. The mobile service was working again for us so I expected to hear from him in a few hours. When I didn’t I began to worry. His mother and I discussed that one of us should go to look for him. I said that I would, and told the children I would be back to take them to see Little Women in the afternoon.

The highway was open, just crowded with cars and trailers and campers trying to leave the South Coast. I drove our VW Passat station wagon past charred bushland and paddocks, even the paint on the highway signs at Fisherman’s Paradise, Conjola and Yatte Yattah was melted. I turned off on the road to the farm with my heart pounding. The still smoking trees along the highway had spooked me. I didn’t have service anymore on my phone. The dirt road was closed, but it had the bollards and ROAD CLOSED sign up for days and we had simply been moving them to get through. The first kilometre where most of the other properties fronted was clear, unburned. Then, past the power lines, I could see where the fire had come through. Simon had cut through the fallen trees. I drove around and past the smouldering piles as quickly as possible. Branches scratched the duco. In my head, I pictured Simon trapped under a fallen tree somewhere. I hadn’t thought as far as how I would get him out, but at least I could get help. 

When I reached the gate of the farm was just as he had described – ash and some burned edges of timber. Blackened hinges. I drove over branches which thunked and ground against the chassis of the car. I swerved around one tree he hadn’t bothered to move but I could see the tyre marks from where he’d driven around it. His ute had far more clearance than my Passat. It dawned on me how stupid I was to drive down there on my own, looking for him. What if the car got stuck? Now both of us had no service. Nobody could reach either of us. I wanted the children to have at least one parent. Who would take them to see Little Women? The house was visible in the distance now, and around it, charred sticks of trees, blackened earth, burned fence posts. The tractor was there but the farm ute was gone, and Simon’s ute was parked beside the house. 

I walked around, coughing from the thick smoke. There were huge gaps in the trees where leaves and underbrush had once been, the vistas were eerily unfamiliar. The gingko tree stood unharmed but the olive tree was charred, the wisteria on the shed gone, the garden behind the house burned to the ground. The piles and piles of leaf litter we had moved from the house to the hill beside the dam were all gone, burned. They would have surely brought the house down with them. In the distance the shed looked like a modern art installation, a tangle of metal and wire. I was as scared as I have ever been. Simon had probably driven to the rear gate to replace it with a temporary gate. I would never get there in the Passat. I knew then that I would have to leave without seeing him. I had to get out of there, I was certain of that. I had driven all that way to make sure he was alive, and now I was turning without seeing him. It felt wrong, but it felt worse to stay. Every sense I had was telling me to leave.

I left Simon a note beside his phone in the kitchen. The house smelled smoky but was otherwise just how we left it, some Christmas presents still unwrapped, a cup of tea by the sink, cold. Two tins of baked beans beside them which he had probably eaten for breakfast. The phone line was dead. I got back in the Passat and drove as fast as I could out of there. 

On my drive back along the highway the wind was picking up and I saw a fire go from smoke to flame beside the road at Yatte Yattah. I saw two police cars pull across the oncoming lane to block traffic going north. The Princes’ Highway was once again closed. I had just made it out, and I knew it would be hours before I saw Simon. I drove back to Narrawallee, told Sally what I had seen, and took the kids to see Little Women. I nearly always cry in movies, but I cried more than ever, as much for Beth as for all the people who live and leave quietly, for the spirit of Marmee who gives away Christmas breakfast. For those with so little who still have so much to give. 

Driving back to Narrawallee from the movie theatre at Ulladulla we got stuck in an unmoving traffic jam – the entire Princes’ Highway was a stopped all the way from Milton through Ulladulla. People had parked their cars in the middle of the highway since it was closed and yet, we were still being told to leave. We found another route to Sally’s and decided that we would do something for all those people sitting in their cars for hours, perhaps days, until the highway opened. We stopped at the grocery in Mollymook for chocolate and sandwich supplies (hot dog buns, because they were out of bread) and back at the house made sandwiches to hand out along the highway. I could not help but think of Marmee. My ten-year-old was embarrassed when I told him what we were going to do.

‘What if no one wants them?’ he asked. 

‘Then we’ll take them to the Civic Centre, but I think people will want them.’

Walking south from Milton Hospital we went to the cars which were parked, bumper to bumper, their engines off, along the Princes Highway. Some people were resting inside, others sat out on the grassy verge with kids and dogs, chatting to other travellers. The people of Milton had similar ideas, houses lining the highway had opened their doors to travellers who needed toilets or water, there was a woman making people cups of tea and another family who set out fruit, tea and water in their driveway. Our sandwiches disappeared first and the chocolate not long after, one woman teared up when we offered her food because she said she had been alone in her car with her dogs for eight hours, and no one had approached her. There were families with dirty-faced toddlers and old men smoking in their utes, young guys with surfboards strapped to the roof and middle-aged couples reading books in their campers. Radios were almost all tuned to ABC radio Shoalhaven. Every few minutes it seemed a fire truck or police car would zip past, sirens on, in the opposite lane, luckily there was almost no oncoming traffic for them to collide with. Once the food was gone we headed back to Sally’s for our own dinner, we had heard from Simon and he was helping neighbours along the road with more backburning, assisted by the Rural Fire Service. I knew we would not see him for hours yet. 

When he came home, it was nearly dark. His clothes were black with ash and he smelled of smoke and petrol. I had already packed the car. That night I barely slept again, and when I looked at my phone at 3.30am I saw the highway had only just opened. We left at four in the morning on Friday, driving through darkness with the red brake lights of hundreds of other cars and the glowing embers in still smouldering trees either side of the highway. Police cars blocked the roads to Lake Conjola, Bendalong and Sussex Inlet and I thought of the hundreds of tourists still stuck in those places. I could not breathe deeply until I was past Nowra, two and a half hours from Sydney. We were home in Maroubra at 7.30 in the morning, Simon an hour later in the ute. That afternoon he showed me the wildlife sensor cameras he had found on the farm, there were five but four had melted. One remained. 

The mother wallaby and her joey, ten days before the fire.

We downloaded the images, there were thousands, and found the ones of the fires, how quick and hot it burned, how desolate the area looked after. But the most difficult to see were the weeks before, the wallaby and her tiny joey who kept coming past the camera, feeding, nuzzling, and watching over the valley. Had they survived? I read once that animals abandoned their babies in bushfires for their own survival. The images from the fire showed that the temperature at the time was hovering at 60 degrees. But the horses were still alive. I hoped that some of the wallabies, wombats, snakes and goannas, lyrebirds and kookaburras, cockatoos and tawny frogmouths survived, but I know the impact of these fires on native wildlife is unfathomable. The land is so eerie now, burned and blackened, deadened by flame and ash. I think of moonscapes, places where nothing can survive. 

The fires on New Year’s Eve.
Another shot of the fires.
The temperature – 60 degrees.

Climate change is real, we have seen it first hand, it has changed our lives. I’ve watched roads full of climate refugees leaving, I’ve been among them. I’ve watched fires trickle and putter, clearing underbrush, doing what they should, and fires rage, burning out of control, destroying everything in their path. The Australian Government needs to fund a paid workforce of bushfire fighters. Rural fire services need to have the resources they require to buy the equipment and materials for this level of disaster. I hope the Australian government stops supporting coal and puts more into renewable resources and legislation that requires companies to look after the environment. And I believe we need to be better at disaster management, so that we are not being told leave while the roads out are blocked, so that thousands are not stranded on a highway with nowhere to go. 

We left winter for summer, one home for another and we have, despite the fires and smoke and loss, loved being back in Australia. We missed it during our year in the United States: leisurely coffees with friends, the wild and unpredictable surf, the spontaneous chats walking to school or the beach. From the raucous and gorgeous birds to the smell and texture of eucalypts, the beauty of this country is vast. The farm will take a lot of work to rebuild, but we are here for the foreseeable future. It is up to each of us to look after the land. We must care for it like our lives depend on it, because we know now, more than ever, that they do.

16 Comments

Robyn Cadwallader

Oh Eleanor! What a story, and so beautifully told. I’m so glad you’re safe but the losses are so huge. Go well as you rebuild xx

January 22, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    Eleanor

    Thanks Robyn, we are lucky compared to so many, but it still feels strange, like the world is more fragile now. Thank you for reading. xx

    January 22, 2020 at 4:58 pm

Sunita Oberholzer

So moving. I had to stop more than once to wipe tears away yet at the same time, so beautifully written it was somehow soothing. You have a gorgeous voice, Eleanor.

January 22, 2020 at 1:07 pm

Michelle Scott Tucker

What a beautiful piece. What a welcome to come home too. So glad you’re back, and safe.

January 22, 2020 at 1:44 pm

Lisa Hill

I have to thank you: you have released the tears that have been built up within me ever since the news of the fires began to dominate our lives.
I broke when I read that the kids knew there was something wrong when you bought junk food. They always do know, don’t they?

January 23, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Eleanor

    Thank you Lisa, and I’m sorry to make you cry. It made me smile that it was the junk food, though. The kids are savvier than we think. X

    January 23, 2020 at 8:34 pm

Juanita Dunham

Thank you for sharing your personal experience. Your descriptions portray the gut-wrenching reality of what you and so many others have endured. I hope and pray Australia overcomes this tragedy, and that you enjoy a renewal on your farm that defies all the odds. Best wishes to you and your family from Canada.

January 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm

sally sweetapple

I’m finding it hard to focus through the tears. Thank you for documenting so beautifully our ‘never to be forgotten’ Christmas week. So many have suffered in so many ways, insects, wildlife, animals and people. I hope all this pain leads to a new way of thinking for us all, especially governments at all levels. You are amazing and so are your children. It is wonderful to have you home..

January 24, 2020 at 10:24 pm

Samantha Blagg

I’m so pleased you are all safe , Eleanor.
What an Aussie return you have had.
Thank you for sharing your families experience
As it’s been so hard to comprehend from the
Media , conflicting reports and stories from the bubble of Sydney / Maroubra life.
I hope to see you about soon x

January 26, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Eleanor

    Thanks Sam – it is hard to grasp even for us now that we’re back in Maroubra – apart from some smoke and the news it seems so far away. Hope that you are well and to catch up around the neighbourhood soon. x

    January 27, 2020 at 1:30 pm

kate hazell

Thank you Eleanor for your words taking us back to the little bright stories found in the turmoil and sadness of it all. All we can hope out of such pain and loss that the people stand up and demand of our government the need to take the seriousness of our situation responsibly and with honesty and a lack egos.
Beautiful words around the bush as we knew it, and hopefully know again.
A harsh welcome home but very glad you’re here

January 26, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    Eleanor

    Yes! Thank you for sharing your thoughts Kate, I so agree that some change needs to come out of this (without the ego and blame). We all loved seeing you in spite of the circumstances. X

    January 27, 2020 at 1:50 pm

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