The Fire

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Written Late Sunday Night, 19 January

We watched the fires come at us over the hills. We live in Percy Crescent, Chapman, just off Hindmarsh Drive and look North West. We could see heavy smoke in the distance at lunch time. It was a Saturday morning and we were catching up on the weekend papers and expecting the fires to burn in the distance and be a backdrop to a hot, dry weekend.

The fire moved closer and we could see flames in the distance. They looked bright, almost cheerful but distant. The wind was blowing from the west and it looked as though the smoke was passing over new parliament house and that the fires might be traveling that way.

Half an hour later the flames were much more visible and closer. They looked as though they were moving east and would pass us by. The sky to the west was clear and the wind was blowing harder but across our view of the burning pine plantations.

Finally, I decided that maybe things weren't as safe as I had thought. I put on jeans and sneakers and a tee-shirt. Not the sort of clothes normally worn on a hot Saturday morning in a Canberra summer. Shorts and thongs are much more usual.

Feeling a bit foolish, I ran out a hose in the back yard and another in the front. I even got out the ladder and put it up at the front of the house. For the first time since we had bought the place in August I went up and had a look around. The gutters were empty, thanks to the previous owner who knew what he was doing when he had built the house over twenty years ago and who had not let last autumn's leaves gather in dangerous places.

The view from the roof was not alarming, yet. I played around with the hose, working out how to spray the tiles and the trees I could see from my vantage point. The fires were getting closer, but not too close. I still had time to go back down and check with my wife, Lyndsey, what we would do if the fires came closer. She was going to stay out the back and keep the decking wet and I was to get back on the roof and put out flying embers as they landed. Looking back, the ignorance and naivety is almost comical.

Suddenly the wind was blowing like a hurricane and the fire was upon us. The grass on the plain between us and the pine forest was alight. This wasn't supposed to happen. The trees were miles away and grass doesn't burn and spit embers. The equestrian centre was between us and the pine forests, we shouldn't be threatened by bush fire.

Within about what seemed like a minute, the fire moved from the open area across from Kathner Street into the gardens in front of us.

Lyndsey was on the decking in the back garden watching the fire come at us horizontally. The wind and noise was tremendous. Embers, flame and burning plants went past her, eastwards, - into next doors' garden and house which exploded into flames.

I was on the roof hiding from the heat and flames coming over the roof. All I could do was spray water over my jeans, arms and tee-shirt to protect myself from the embers. I remember thinking, "why are my arms black?", and realising as I washed the dirt off them that I was getting covered in a thick layer of ash.

I looked around and saw that the fire had caught hold in the front garden. It had started burning the vegetation strip that runs between our house and the one on the other, western side which, thankfully, had not been touched by the flames.

It was then I noticed that the ladder was not there. It was lying on the ground, where the wind had taken it. I had a choice - stay where I was and be totally useless or jump. A 15-foot drop later saw me crawling around the front garden in agony. I had landed on my left heel and it hurt. I had sensations of bone rubbing against each other, but the fire was burning down the hedge towards the house.

If the fire took hold along the property boundary and reached the bushes under the eaves, it was likely to get into the roof cavity. This was not something I wanted to happen, considering that's how most houses burn down.

I managed to drag myself and my garden hose with its rapidly diminishing flow of water up to the flames and after what seemed an age, doused the fire and stopped it progressing along the hedge.

I then noticed that a bush, just the one in a garden of many, near the front door was burning. After a lot of crawling and untangling of hosepipe I was able to make an effort to put it out. Fortunately, a neighbour from across the street arrived with his hose and helped control the flames that were heading off down the drive towards the house.

I hobbled off round the back of the house where Lyndsey was still trying to keep the decking wet, while she watched trees and next door go up in flames. She told me later she had a fit of the giggles, standing there with a dribble of water coming out of the hose while fires raged and houses were destroyed.

I managed to hop up the stairs to the decking and had a look around. This was the first time I saw what Lyndsey had been through while I was cowering on the roof. The large trees in our garden were bursting into flames, all our fences had gone, electricity cables were sparking in the wind, gas mains were exploding and the paint work on the down pipes of our house was peeling off in the radiant heat from next door.

It wasn't too long before we decided that we had better get out of there. Going was a difficult decision to make. It seemed as though the worst might be over as a lot of the trees and bushes had gone. Next door was burning fiercely but didn't look as though it would spread. On the other hand, I couldn't do much with a foot that was starting to attract attention. I could crawl, hop or fall over. Not much help in a life-threatening situation. We decided to live to fight another day and got out of there. I took my laptop computer, mobile phone a pair of jeans I had just bought, a couple of pairs of underpants and socks. Lyndsey had her wedding ring and handbag. Neither of us had a watch, handkerchief or comb. We didn't expect to find much when we returned.

We got in the car, with me driving - a broken foot doesn't rate much when there are flames to drive through - and headed off to the hospital. We drove down our street past many houses burning like beacons and turned left down Darwinia Terrace. The car on fire on the street corner didn't look out of place, even though it wasn't expected.

We were rather taken aback by the sight of an electricity power pole swinging in the wind in front of us. It didn't have a base and was being held up by the cables. Without much choice, we shot past it up to Hindmash Drive and turned right towards Woden.

That was when we realised just how dark it was. This was four o'clock in the afternoon and it was pitch black. The car headlights were worse than useless because of the thick smoke so I turned them off and drove by the light of burning trees and houses until it cleared.

The traffic up until the Tuggeranong Parkway was heavy in both directions. Traffic lights were out and police and emergency services people were everywhere. From there it was reasonably clear, but still very dark and smokey.

Canberra hospital was busy but didn't look overwhelmed. The staff were amazing and could not have done more. We got there at about 4:30 and left at 11:00pm after two lots of X-rays and an appointment on Monday morning for a CT scan. The social worker had arranged for a hotel room and we finally got to sleep at about 1:00am not knowing if we had a house or just a pile of debris. I didn't sleep much that night.

We decided next morning to try and buy some clothes, but Lyndsey heard people in the car park talking about getting back into Duffy and Chapman. We decided to give it a go and headed off dreading what we might find. After being told that we had to leave the car and walk the last mile or so, we noticed cars going up Kathner from the other direction. We managed to sneak in past fallen power lines and burned-out houses, up our road and into our drive.

The experience of seeing our house sitting there, untouched, will live in us forever. We both burst into tears. It's one thing to say that it's your life that's important, but the thought of losing over 30 years of family history and memories hurts.

It seems that I have shattered my left heel and we have lost our garden. Of the eight neighours around our house, five have lost their homes. We will be looking at empty blocks and reminders of a horrendous experience for months if not years.

At least I have my house, a wife who gets to boss me around for a while, and an injury that will heal.

I don't know why it happened or why we got off so lightly. I do not blame the authorities for anything. Our road is miles from the bush, the fire came over acres of grass in very low humidity and driven by high winds. We saw it approaching from about 15 kilometres away and were stunned that it came so fast. One fire truck per house may have helped but no society can afford such a civil defence.

Maybe there will be changes to the way Canberra manages the way it sits in the bush. Canberra people have already been changed because of the fires. I don't yet know how I have been changed, but the memory of that day in January, will stay around for a while yet.

This story was writen for ABC News On-line and appeared on their website

Bernard and Lyndsey Robertson-Dunn's Canberra bushfire website
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