See previous post – Summer Rituals.
A small fire had been burning somewhere west of Canberra for several days.
Places we would later learn called Pierce’s Creek and MacIntyre’s Hut.
Like many Canberrans, we had lost interest in what had been reported for about 10 days (to the extent it had been reported at all) as an insignificant small fire located many kilometers away.
On January 18, 2003 we packed up the car and at about 11am headed to Broulee on the NSW south coast for our annual two week summer holiday. Thousands of locals did likewise every year at this time.
People would joke that the annual exodus from Canberra would facilitate a coup, should anyone be tempted, and could shake off the summer torpor.
As details of what was about to occur leaked slowly (via the few remnant mobile phone owners) into the locals consciousness, it became clear that very few people were prepared for the looming catastrophic events.
Many had gone off on holidays while the skeleton staff was left. It was hot with a searing westerly wind. Many of those without air-conditioning or other ‘keep cool’ strategies had gone to the movies or shopping in air-conditioned luxury to keep cool.
Emerging blinking into what normally would have been the midday summer brightness to encounter the bizarrely unnatural smokey darkness a couple of hours later was for many the very first time that uneasiness began to develop.
Local commercial media (both radio and television) was shamefully delinquent in its non reporting, for regular listeners, the local ABC radio station was the first and only source of information . It was invaluable in all its efforts.
As far as I know, the ABC was the only news organisation to send a reporter to see first hand what was happening in Weston Creek, and to provide any sort of factual reportage.
Social media was in its Facebook infancy and this was pre-twitter. Even mobile phones were far from universal.
People who had their radios on and tuned to other than the local ABC and all/most commercial TV watchers remained uninformed.
For those of us who were elsewhere, news was rare to non-existent. Later on the Saturday, the ABC local radio started transmitting State-wide.
Those who have read the previous post will know that all but one of our two families were waiting anxiously for news from our son.
He was hurrying back to Canberra (hurrying slowly as there was increased traffic of concerned Canberrans trying to get home).
He was supposedly going to try and save to his car, left in our Duffy driveway, and to see first-hand what else he could do.
He made it as far as about Queanbeyan, where a work friend who had just driven passed his and our razed homes, rang him on his mobile with the simple message –
‘there’s no point hurrying‘.
Down at Broulee dinner time was approaching. Bizarrely, the automatic light-sensitive street lighting had fired up at 4PM ESDT, it was so dark and smokey from the ACT fires 180 kilometres away.
Tradition dictated fish & chips was purchased on the first night of our coast holiday.
As the group was incomplete, my son heading back to Canberra, a variation to tradition was agreed upon.
The restaurant in neighbouring Moruya was noted for its pizza. After the car trip to Moruya, pizzas ordered, M & I went across the road for a beer while waiting. As we entered the pub my mobile rang. It was my daughter in Broulee with a short message relayed from my son in Canberra.
‘Dad, “A” just rang and said ‘It’s gone, it’s all gone‘.
Probably in shock I turned to the barman saying ‘you’re serving your first fire-caused homeless person from Canberra’.
After drinking the beers, collecting and paying for the pizzas M & I returned quietly to Broulee.
We all sat on the back verandah as the ash from the Canberra fires fell like black snow around us. At one point I picked at a large piece and commented ‘part of OUR verandah’.
Many drinks were drunk that night.
Next morning, after my wife had indicated she was unprepared to return to devastated Canberra just yet, M and I jumped in his car and began the return trip. After pausing at the Tomikin servo to buy fuel and the Canberra Times newspaper, as I devoured the pictures of the devastation, reality leapt at me as I recognised the photo of the ruins of our house.
About now, and for approximately the next six months, time ceased being linear and I can now only recall an ugly tangled jumble, much like the house.
Hindmarsh Drive had no working traffic lights, electricity infrastructure gone, shocked people behaving impeccably at road crossings, NB. Must suggest a trial no traffic light trial; smokey smell, amazement at extent/randomness of damage, must find our son, house really gone, how/where’s my sister and family, normally two suburbs away in Chapman?
Ring around, find people safe and physically undamaged, check M’s house on Northside, all ok there, catch-up with our son, where to from here, shelter, back to Coast, at least pre-paid accommodation there. Tuesday breakfast, wife looks at me oddly and I realise she’s now ready to go back to Canberra.
Stood gawping at house remnants, unfamiliar car pulls up, older woman alights and gives us a large bottle of cold water. After relating our story, she appears to leave, we resumeret gawping, woman behind us again, shakes and simultaneously presses something into my hand before she leaves.
Distraught woman, feeling unable to help in other ways, was touring fire-ravaged suburbs dispensing bottles of cold water and $100 bills. ‘Have a nice meal at Broulee’ was what she’d said. Anonymous to this day. Thank You!
Forgot blood pressure drugs, doctor’s visit/prescription, Woden chemist, script filled at cost once pharmacist saw address ‘do you still live at…’, Yes and No’, insurance company queries, abnormally chatty people at Cooleman Court shops, BIL hires generator, insurance assessor appointment, four deaths, sister provides food and lodging, freezer food transferred as needed to fridge, enough generator power for limited devices, continuous gas BBQ meals, improvise boiling eggs on BBQ.
Curtin mate tried to save our house but police refused entry to dangerous Duffy, saving his own and two neighbours thirty minutes later. Local hero deservedly. Pines ‘bombs on sticks’, extraordinary firies, residual of fire demolished fire truck on our street.
Long term alternate housing, another mate’s organised nearby-and-about-to-go-on-sale house, coincidentally owner moving to coast permanently on the Wednesday after fire, mate convinces them to rent to us temporarily, rather than sell.
Stories, heroics, un-preparedness, no mobile phone coverage at Broulee only 180 kilimoters from Nation’s Capital, standing on chair to try to improve signal strength, many Canberra residents on the beach to get a phone signal, memories, kindnesses, $$ from family, friends, clubs, subsequent break-ups of traumatised couples, traumatic start for daughters college year 11, some good news – recently purchased expensive musical instrument safe in musical instrument shop, shops handing out candles and water.
Lessons: hands-free phones need electricity as do automatic garage doors which stranded some people trying to flee, nearby homes are not a clever site at which to store computer backups, when collecting for preservation ‘important documents, best not to store them under your house.
It turns out ‘important documents’ turn out not to be . Faced with ‘proof of identity’, all I had was my driver’s licence.
All official documents, birth/wedding certificates were easily replaced.
Everyone agrees on need to save photos. Faced with their loss, it proved a relatively simple matter to retrieve copies from family and friends. An ex-girlfriend approached the school both our subsequent children had attended and organised new copies of school photos. Forgotten by many is that very often people have given copies of special photos to family and friends. .The 2-for-one developing option of the past proved quite useful.
If you have to choose, save really irreplaceable things, original artworks, children’s doodles, handwoven carpets, etc
Fleeing pre-fire many people packed unnecessary items, previously unknown near-neighbour roaming Duffy taking photos, CD copies of which he later gave to those affected and he also broke into one house to extinguish an over-looked still-smoldering ceiling fire, thus saving a stranger’s house. See pictures below.
Another of my sisters in Singapore organised donations from the local Aussie-expat community, plus she coerced QANTAS into flying in a container-full of donations to Canberra free of charge.
Lyons Recovery Centre, victim verification card (often triggering valuable discounts), potential post-fire visit to our ex-home by the then Prime Minister (fortunately my daughter organised for me to be elsewhere at the PM’s predicted time of touring damage, because she knew I was in no mood). We returned only after he’d Been-along.
Sleeping on floor in rented house, only one mattress, children slept elsewhere. Chinese Takeaway eaten with fork for first time in thirty years; no chop-sticks. No colander either, discovered only when next we needed to strain spaghetti, things missed and not, sometimes irreplaceable things – son’s junior cricket trophies, daughters fun nonsense notes to/from her grandfather, residue of son’s car on driveway, melted alloy car wheels (660C), molten tears running down gentle slope.
Many costs increased opportunistically eg block-clearing charge up from about $3000 pre-fire to $13,000 post. GIO Insurance could not have been more helpful and efficient, unlike horror stories of some other companies. Vultures!
Son organising mattresses for fire-homeless friends placed on girlfriend’s unit’s floor, him cooking for them using contents of her freezer (Farrer had electricity), then standing guard on hill behind Farrer till 2am to check for any further danger, woman who said ‘I filled the bath with water, just like radio said but still don’t know why’.This was months later.
Monster Bushfire Auction on my birthday at Canberra Irish Club. Gift to affected members, things not replaced ‘tinsel’ according to the also affected Rob de Castella. Some Chapman houses eviscerated by the vacuum induced by the fire-storm.
We considered/priced rebuilding (nothing extravagant a modest design with an environmentally green tinge; unaffordable, would require mortgage debt again, selling land, deciding the one we were renting had features we liked, mature trees (we’d be dead before Duffy was reforested.
Oddly, the adjoining pine forest was one of the major reasons I’d bought there 30 years previously, and for 30 years there had been only advantages, now suddenly and catastrophically those trees turned nasty. Replacement house closer to Civic but vaguely still Weston Creek-ish, bigger but slightly older house, bigger block nice helpful neighbours. Knew everyone in the short street.
Purchasing with almost all of the remnant insurance payout and proceeds of Duffy land sale, more stamp-duty, even though involuntary purchase of replacement home, partially covered by the ACT Bushfire Appeal. Again, thanks to the people of Canberra.
The Federal Government did not provide any assistance. ‘It’s only Canberra’. Rodent.
Disjoint normality returns.
Ten year anniversary tomorrow. Son, daughter and I are attending the memorial service in Weston Park, while my wife will not. She says she’s ‘moved on’.