How we cheated flames of deathAs much as pictures tell their thousand words, personal accounts like this one allows us to understand.
Gary Hughes | February 09, 2009
THEY warn you it comes fast. But the word "fast" doesn't come anywhere near describing it.
It comes at you like a runaway train. One minute you are preparing. The next you are fighting for your home. Then you are fighting for your life.
But it is not minutes that come between. It's more like seconds. The firestorm moves faster than you can think, let alone react.
For 25 years, we had lived on our hilltop in St Andrews, in the hills northeast of Melbourne.
You prepare like they tell you every summer.
You clear. You slash. You prime your fire pump. For 25 years, fires were something that you watched in the distance.
We had been watching the massive plume of smoke from the fire near Kilmore all afternoon; secure in the knowledge it was too far away to pose a danger.
Then suddenly there is smoke and flames across the valley, about a kilometre to the northwest, being driven towards you by the wind. Not too bad, you think.
I rush around the side of the house to start the petrol-powered fire pump to begin spraying the house, just in case.
When I get there, I suddenly see flames rushing towards the house from the west. The tongues of flame are in our front paddock, racing up the hill towards us across grass stubble I thought safe because it had been slashed.
In the seconds it takes me to register the flames, they are into a small stand of trees 50m from the house. Heat and embers drive at me like an open blast furnace. I run to shelter inside, like they tell you, until the fire front passes.
Inside are my wife, a 13-year-old girl we care for, and a menagerie of animals "rescued" over the year by our veterinary-student daughter.
They call it "ember attack". Those words don't do it justice.
It is a fiery hailstorm from hell driving relentlessly at you. The wind and driving embers explore, like claws of a predator, every tiny gap in the house. Embers are blowing through the cracks around the closed doors and windows.
We frantically wipe at them with wet towels. We are fighting for all we own. We still have hope.
The house begins to fill with smoke. The smoke alarms start to scream. The smoke gets thicker.
I go outside to see if the fire front has passed. One of our two cars under a carport is burning. I rush inside to get keys for the second and reverse it out into an open area in front of the house to save it.
That simple act will save our lives. I rush back around the side of the house, where plastic plant pots are in flames. I turn on a garden hose. Nothing comes out.
I look back along its length and see where the flames have melted it. I try to pick up one of the carefully positioned plastic buckets of water I've left around the house. Its metal handle pulls away from the melted sides.
I rush back inside the house. The smoke is much thicker. I see flames behind the louvres of a door into a storage room, off the kitchen. I open the door and there is a fire burning fiercely.
I realise the house is gone. We are now fighting for our lives.
We retreat to the last room in the house, at the end of the building furthest from where the firestorm hit. We slam the door, shutting the room off from the rest of the house. The room is quickly filling with smoke. It's black, toxic smoke, different from the superheated smoke outside.
We start coughing and gasping for air. Life is rapidly beginning to narrow to a grim, but inevitable choice. Die from the toxic smoke inside. Die from the firestorm outside.
The room we are in has french doors opening on to the front veranda. Somewhere out of the chaos of thoughts surfaces recent media bushfire training I had done with the CFA. When there's nothing else, a car might save you.
I run the 30 or 40 steps to the car through the blast furnace. I wrench open the door to start the engine and turn on the airconditioning, as the CFA tells you, before going back for the others.
The key isn't in the ignition. Where in hell did I put it? I rush back to the house. By now the black, toxic smoke is so thick I can barely see the others. Everyone is coughing. Gasping. Choking. My wife is calling for one of our two small dogs, the gentle, loyal Gizmo, who has fled in terror.
I grope in my wife's handbag for her set of car keys. The smoke is so thick I can't see far enough to look into the bag. I find them by touch, thanks to a plastic spider key chain our daughter gave her as a joke. Our lives are saved by a plastic spider. I tell my wife time has run out. We have to get to the car. The choices have narrowed to just one option, just one slim chance to live.
Clutching the second of our two small dogs, we run to the car. I feel the radiant heat burning the back of my hand. The CFA training comes back again. Radiant heat kills.
The three of us are inside the car. I turn the key. It starts. We turn on the airconditioning and I reverse a little further away from the burning building. The flames are wrapped around the full fuel tank of the other car and I worry about it exploding.
We watch our home - our lives, everything we own - blazing fiercely just metres away. The heat builds. We try to drive down our driveway, but fallen branches block the way. I reverse back towards the house, but my wife warns me about sheets of red-hot roofing metal blowing towards us.
I drive back down, pushing the car through the branches. Further down the 400m drive, the flames have passed. But at the bottom, trees are burning.
We sit in the open, motor running and airconditioner turned on full. Behind us our home is aflame. We calmly watch from our hilltop, trapped in the sanctuary of our car, as first the house of one neighbour, then another, then another goes up in flames. One takes an agonisingly slow time to go, as the flames take a tenuous grip at one end and work their way slowly along the roof. Another at the bottom of our hill, more than a 100 years old and made of imported North American timber, explodes quickly in a plume of dark smoke.
All the while the car is being buffeted and battered by gale-force winds and bombarded by a hail of blackened material. It sounds like rocks hitting the car.
The house of our nearest neighbour, David, who owns a vineyard, has so far escaped. But a portable office attached to one wall is billowing smoke.
I leave the safety of the car and cross the fence. Where is the CFA, he frantically asks. With the CFA's help, perhaps he can save his house. What's their number, he asks me. I tell him we had already rung 000, before our own house burnt. Too many fires. Too few tankers. I leave him to his torment. I walk back towards our own house in a forlorn hope that by some miracle our missing dog may have survived in some unburned corner of the building.
Our home, everything we were, is a burning, twisted, blackened jumble. Our missing dog, Gizmo, Bobby our grumpy cockatoo, Zena the rescued galah that spoke Greek and imitated my whistle to call the dogs, our free-flying budgie nicknamed Lucky because he escaped a previous bushfire, are all gone. Killed in theinferno that almost claimed us as well.
I return to the car and spot the flashing lights of a CFA tanker through the blackened trees across the road. We drive down the freeway, I pull clear more fallen branches and we reach the main road. I walk across the road to the tanker and tell them if they are quick they might help David save his house. I still don't know if they did. We stop at a police checkpoint down the hill. They ask us where we've come from and what's happening up the road. I tell them there's no longer anything up the road.
We stop at the local CFA station in St Andrews. Two figures sit hunched in chairs, covered by wet towels for their serious burns. More neighbours. We hear that an old friend, two properties from us, is missing. A nurse wraps wet towels around superficial burns on my wife's leg and my hand.
We drive to my brother's house, which fate had spared, on the other side of St Andrews.The thought occurs to me, where do you start when you've lost everything, even a way to identify yourself. Then I realise, of course, it doesn't matter. We escaped with our lives. Just. So many others didn't.
Gary Hughes is a senior writer for The Australian
10 February 2009
cheating the flames of death
Gary Hughes' account in The Australian is worth a read. CFA is the Country Fire Authority, a fire brigade staffed by volunteers.