Life lessons delivered in flame

December-January is fire season in the Blue Mountains. But fire doesn’t follow a calendar and when it arrived on a spring day last year, its very untimeliness delivered some lessons on life that Helen Hedges says she might not have otherwise learned.

Two months ago, with the memories fresh, I posted a blog on Nurse Uncut about my experiences last October 17. I wrote that my morning began with a walk with a friend on Linksview Road, Springwood. The wind was gusting as it usually does in spring. But for brief moments this pattern was broken by stronger wind surges that pooled dry leaves around us. The insect noises seemed louder.

A few hours later the bush I had walked through delivered a catastrophe that changed my attitude to how I live my life, as it no doubt did for many others. The strong wind that had sent leaves swirling around us had damaged power lines and helped spark a conflagration that ultimately destroyed 193 houses.

Back home, after my walk that day, the house was noisier than usual. Pine tree branches were slamming into the roof and windows and there was a howling noise from the garage that sounded like an angry monster. My dog refused to go outside even for a drink of water.

Still, I settled myself for a nap before work that night with my mobile phone next to the bed as an alarm clock. At 14.01 a text message woke me: “NSWRFS EMERGENCY BUSH FIRE WARNING-Linksview Rd. Springwood-Seek shelter as the fire arrives.”

My husband and I had a plan for emergencies. I would take care of the children and the dog and he would take care of the house. In retrospect it wasn’t much of a plan. By 14.15 news reports had students being evacuated from a nearby high school. The fire had burned through 2000 hectares of bush in two hours and 250 fire fighters were battling the blaze in the Winmalee/Springwood area.

As I drove to collect my daughter from school traffic was moving normally, but at the school I could sense composed panic in the administration office.

Now helicopters were roaring above us delivering warning messages. I decided I needed to get home to pick up my dog. I also knew that my husband, who has a medical condition that restricts his movement, would have to be physically removed from our burning house to keep him alive. He can be stubborn sometimes.

As we got close to our gate, the right side of the bush was flame-red, angry and hot, pushed by strong winds. I simply did not expect such a dramatic sight. This was October, fires happened in December and January, if at all, in our section of the mountains.

I was unable to go back to our street as fire fighters had prevented traffic in that direction. I feared for my husband and my dog. I settled in a safe area and a couple of hours later, after numerous attempts to reach home by phone, my husband responded to tell me that he was safe. Our dog was also safe, curled up under the bed. We lost 14 pine trees and the side shrubs and part of the back fence was burnt. Luckily, my house remained intact.

That day’s experience made me much more reflective about what is important in life. In October I had no time to pack anything, we got caught out because there was no indication beforehand of what to expect. I don’t think even the Rural Fire Service was prepared because it happened too quickly. They couldn’t have done more than they did.

Since then I have become more aware of many things. I certainly didn’t rush into the Boxing Day sales this year to buy stuff I don’t need. There are more important things, like spending time with my husband. I’ve de-cluttered my house; I’ve had my dog’s long hair shaved for safety. We have put a fire extinguisher in the front of the house, cut down a few trees and generally been more aware of safety. We are re-connecting with neighbours, where before relationships were strained.

Now what is important, like our family photos and the older kids’ degrees, is wrapped and kept in a suitcase ready to go if it happens again. For a couple of days after October 17 we were worrying that we didn’t know what would happen next. Then I realised that we never really know what will happen next.

Just as I have become much more reflective and appreciative of what I have, I have also accepted that nobody can prepare for everything that might happen in life, whether they live near the sea in places like Thailand where you have tsunamis, or in the mountains of Australia where you have fire.

Helen Hedges is an RN and Credentialed Mental Health Nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead