The people of New South Wales have been kept busy with news of devastating fires over recent days. I spent most of my younger years there, in the Lower Blue Mountains, in the friendly bush suburbs of Winmalee and Springwood where ‘the big smoke’ and all the worries of the world seemed so far away. I daresay many inhabitants of our State had not heard these names until five nights ago when they were mentioned repeatedly on national news broadcasts. Those familiar locations of my childhood were brandished on the front pages of Sydney’s weekend newspapers.
Other parts of NSW were badly burnt too – Lithgow and Bells Line of Road further west, Lakes Munmorah and Macquarie and Catherine Hill Bay on the Central and Mid North Coasts, Balmoral Village in the Southern Highlands… I recognised a shopping mall in Winmalee while watching the evening news. It was opposite where my late father had his surgery and residence and had been morphed into a temporary community crisis centre. Busloads of children from nearby schools were being corralled there (footage showed them sitting quietly cross legged on the floor which on any other day was a very busy walkthrough).
The Fire Commissioner showed emotion as he relayed the brave efforts of the professional and volunteer fire fighters – or ‘fireys’ as they are colloquially known.
One of the worst hit streets in Winmalee, Buena Vista Road, was literally round the corner from where I grew up. You have to drive down Singles Ridge Road to get there. I recall riding my pushbike and being attacked by nesting magpies at the age of 10. Now, we on the outskirts of Sydney 60km away from the Lower Blue Mountains can still see and smell smoke, five days after it all started.
There have been tragic stories of loss: people anxiously trying to get back down their street to rescue their beloved family pet. Only to be cut off by the police due to the risks. One couple had only moved into their home on Hawkesbury Road Winmalee on Thursday morning. Then it burned to the ground that same afternoon. The house next door was untouched.
There have been stories of bravery. The one that stood out for me concerned the primary school principal who walked his 550 pupils and staff the 2.5km along a busy road to safety. At the same time knowing that he had lost his house in the fires. He didn’t admit to this until the last of the children were safely delivered to their parents that night.
I am reminded of the fires of 78 when my twin sister and I went to help feed the fire fighters at Springwood Civic Centre (which is now in mid-rebuild). Sandwiches, urns of tea, vanilla slices and lamingtons. Blackened weary faces. And a friend’s wedding in February 1994. We were standing on the balcony of the hotel at her reception in Elizabeth Bay. Charred gum leaves were falling from the sky and were landing at our feet.
Australian actor Steve Bisley recounts his experience of growing up with bushfires at Lake Munmorah in his memoir ‘Stillways’:
When it came, the noise was deafening. It had its own internal wind that pushed it forward like a breath. The radiant heat was so intense that heads of the giant gums exploded, their burnt leaves showering down to ignite everything they touched. Birds streaked across the sky, maddened by the heat. Wild things raced from the bush, burnt and blinded. Vast columns of acrid white smoke billowed a mile high, rising in heat- fuelled thermals to drift in the jet stream.
We stood blasted in a paddock of green and watched the demons dance before us. Great tongues of fire drove us back and back till all we could do was to cower and hope. We thrashed the edges of it with wet hessian bags for small victories. Finally after it had left us, we trod through the X-rayed remnants of the bush, our footfall deadened by a layer of ash, the sour taste of smouldering charcoal on our tongues, to douse the spot fires that flared for days.
The Sydney Morning Herald informs us that there are still 60 fires burning in NSW and 200 properties have been confirmed destroyed in the Blue Mountains alone. More than 500 insurance claims had been lodged for damages in the first 24 hours and there has been 1 death to date (the latter is a miracle given the ferocity and pace of these fires).
Nature beats an unforgiving path. The people of Winmalee and Springwood and the other affected areas of NSW have a lot of rebuilding to do once the dust and ash have settled and the losses have been counted and grieved over.