I’m inspired to write this by a young woman who has been our waitress many times at a local restaurant. Unbeknownst to me, she is a volunteer fire fighter. She is extremely competent as a waitress, but this is not a role that I knew belonged to her. I want to mark my respect and appreciation to the individuals that form the community I live in. A community hard hit by fire.
It’s 1:05am on Christmas Eve eve and it’s unlike me not to be able to sleep. But this year is not like any other year. It’s a week since the ‘mega fire’ hit Bilpin. This time a week ago, I was also awake, uncharacteristically unable to sleep. Fitfully trying, as I inhabited an unfamiliar bed kindly offered by friends, because I couldn’t get home to my own. Another side of life was being revealed to me. The couple I stayed with had both been volunteer fire fighters, they knew what to do. In their home, not currently directly impacted by fire, they’d been ready for weeks; a hand held radio to listen to the RFS fire control channel for our area, gutters blocked with hoses set up to periodically ‘flood’ the gutters in case of ember attack, protective fire wear laid out, leaves raked, cattle close to the house. Their home had been hit before. Prior to their possession, a previous owner had just purchased the property and got as far as leaving all their stuff in the shed and retreated as the fire threatened. The fire came, the firies heroically saved the house, but not the shed. They weren’t to know.
Two days later when I was finally allowed home through the road block late at night, having completed some work commitments, it was already a changed community. My husband had prepared a meal for a local family who had sustained losses; their old house, their cool room and damage to the roof of their current family dwelling. They were all a little shocked and as the power supply for their home had been burned out by the fire, they weren’t able to prepare a meal. We’d been lucky. My husband, home alone to defend our property, supported by the incredible work of the RFS and other emergency services, had an air of relief and mild victory having fended off spot fires on three flanks of our property.
Indeed it had been all around him as we kept in touch by mobile phone. I had tried to get through to bring him supplies and to allow him some sleep after being vigilantly up all night in defence, but I was turned back. It was a strange concoction now of relief and grief as we dined together exchanging stories. I heard of the roar of the fire as it came close. The panic as neighbours desperately moved horses to safer ground and generally supported each other. Helicopters and fire trucks, and planes dropping ‘pink stuff’. I had left home that Sunday afternoon unprepared. There was no threat when I left after lunch, it had all changed in a matter of hours.
The weather was milder now and the threat not as great, just the lingering smoke and smell of fire. It was a welcome reprieve, but ‘catastrophic’ was coming. There were more preparations to be made; hoses, fire pumps, generators, water tanks on the back of the trailer. I had a moment of gratitude that we had the resources to be able to organise this. Over coffee my husband and I agreed on plans for the days to come. I just wanted to stay close to home, my skills were limited. I resorted to what gave me a sense of comfort and community – I cooked. Vegie stew, rice dishes, crumbed chicken (and eggplant for the vegoes like me) – scones, biscuits – anything to keep me busy as I stayed mesmerized to the newly discovered RFS channel on an app on my phone.
I was so impressed, this other world hitherto unknown to me, a sophisticated network of communications, brigades, call signs, coordination with air attack. Oh my God, this has existed for years and because of this threat I’m suddenly privy to it. Crews welcomed to the fire grounds and gratefully ‘stood down’ at the end of their shift. The logistics of catering, bulk water, bull dozers, ‘blacking out’, property patrol and defence. I am so grateful! As I type this it brings tears to my eyes. This is community.
The prime minister is on holidays – so what – it isn’t the prime minister that’s making any of this happen, this is the good will of the people. In fact it is a beautiful meeting place of government resourcing and the sheer love, commitment and dedication of individuals who put the welfare of their community, and others, above their own. In this individualistic world I am so heartened to discover this somewhat covert undercurrent of genuine care and concern for others.
I grew up in the Blue Mountains and have vivid memories as a young girl helping out with my mum in a community hall in Wentworth Falls making sandwiches for the firies while plumes of smoke billowed on the horizon. There are memories of when my kids were small having the car packed with treasured possessions for weeks not knowing when fire would hit. I remember when we purchased our property in Bilpin assessing the fire risk. The first Christmas in our new home watching fire plumes to the north, east and south. Fire has always been a background threat, moving more foreground at times. But now, ‘up close and personal’ in a way I’ve never experienced before.
I was touched by the reality that the family of one of the kids, one of my kids went to school with had lost their home. Also, by the constant flurry of well wishes from friends close by (and on the other side of the world), acquaintances, work colleagues and extended family that I hadn’t heard from in years. Also, by the offers of assistance by people that wanted to do ‘anything they could’ to help. This is community.
On the ‘catastrophic’ days I observed the change of tempo that accompanied the temperature and wind speed. The voices on the radio, while still professional, were at a slightly different pitch. The coordination of responses to particular addresses more rapid. I was even more impressed. When fire once again neighboured our property I was overwhelmed by the rapid response of fire trucks and community members. I watched on as these incredible individuals, that clearly knew what they were doing, remained calm and worked with the fire to keep property and people safe.
On the radio I’d occasionally hear about property loss, in a slightly lowered tone. I recognised the necessity of the people involved to just move on, there was no time to pause. On the worst day, fortunately for us once the fire front had passed through our street, I listened on to hear familiar addresses have resources dispatched to them. Just like a roll call, every street in Bilpin was called out, under threat, some properties more affected than others. I felt the despair of the impact in all corners of our community and marveled at the coordination of responses across a broadening area.
When a neighbor sent me an image of a local business in flames, such was the disbelief that I fleetingly thought, perhaps it was photo-shopped? To discover that this young family had lost everything, including the Christmas gifts for the kids was heartbreaking. But of perhaps greater impact to me personally, because I didn’t know the family well, was the loss of a local icon, a familiar landmark on the comings and goings of my regular route over 20 years. Also, the recognition of what a slug this was to local businesses, even if they didn’t lose property. Equally there were stories of miraculous and unscathed escapes from loss. I had that familiar mixture of grief and relief.
It’s Christmas Eve eve, and I don’t feel festive at all. I don’t even want to go out, even though there is a reprieve in the weather and it is probably safe to do so. Nothing is organised for Christmas. I was to have family at my house on Christmas day, but I’m not ready. Perhaps it will just be a quiet day at home in mourning. The road may not even be opened by then, and if it is who knows when it will close again, and whether there’ll be any power? I don’t care about organising the seafood and salad and presents. But I do recognize this is an indulgent luxury for me. Not possible for those people with young children who need to maintain the Christmas cheer for their sakes. During this crisis I’ve been grateful not to have to coordinate the care and safety of children and the elderly.
I feel decidedly unable to move, I just want to stay put. I’ve watched my nervous system roller coaster and know that I’m in a slump now. It will take time for us all to rebalance. What matters to me this Christmas is community. I just want to stay close to the incredible people that feel like family now. In the last week I’ve gotten to know people and witness a stream of connection, care and support that in the last 20 years I hadn’t realized was the glue that was always there, and is all that really matters. This is community.