Bushfires and New Beginnings

Published February 7, 2010

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It was the 7th of February 2009, the day that wrote a sad chapter in Australia’s history books, ”Black Saturday”. And we were right there, in Marysville, me and my husband Steve. How did we end up here? Every year when my parents come to Australia to visit us, Steve and I get away for a weekend. This was our romantic weekend away.

It just happened to turn into the weekend from hell (with enough flames to justify the name).

We had spent a fantastic day lazing around when Steve stepped outside of our picturesque River Cottage in the early evening and said: “Kath, you gotta see this!” and I saw a huge dirty orange cloud moving over the hilltop right above our heads. I started shaking. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. We looked at each other, grabbed a few things and ran.

We drove down to the evacuation point in Marysville. It was already filling up with people and everyone was wandering around in shock. The information we gathered was: if you have nothing to stay for, head for Alexandra.

For those who don’t know the area, this is mountainous terrain we are talking about. Marysville is the gateway to Lake Mountain where we go toboganning in the winter. Roads are scarce and windy here and often lead to dead ends. Our plan was to get to the freeway somehow, and back down into Melbourne.

On leaving Marysville the flames came right up to our car, but they didn’t catch up.

Things I had heard and read about bush fires were going round in my head… ‘the most dangerous place to be in a bush fire is the car’…’flames can travel at a speed of 100km/h and more during fires’. Honestly? I was very scared!

We passed Alexandra and made for the village of Yea but about 10mins outside of Yea, the smoke got so dense that we thought we must be heading straight into more fires. So we turned around and stopped at the Molesworth Pub to get some information.

There was a whole bunch of people in the pub already. One man was from Kinglake. Little did we know then that Kinglake had been one of the starting points of the fire and the village with the highest death toll. This guy had burns all over his back and just sat at the bar looking shellshocked.

When prompted he would tell how he was at his home when the flames suddenly came over the hilltop, fast. Without thinking, he ran to his car and fled, crashing into a fire engine on the way out of his driveway. He he simply hadn’t seen it because the smoke was so dense. His car and back got singed but he seemed “ok”. The fire had travelled at 160km/h in some places. Pretty hard to outrun flames spreading at that kind of speed.

There was no power at the pub and candles were spending an eery light. Nobody had any idea what was really going on. It seemed that Alexandra and Yea were both on fire and we were stuck right in the middle. It also seemed that we were reasonably safe for the moment. The locals had an evacuation plan, there was a fire truck nearby and hose pipes and everybody seemed relatively calm.

Actually, I’m almost thankful now that there was no power and that we didn’t get to see the pictures then.

We spent the night wandering around aimlessly. The smoke was everywhere, penetrated everything and seemed to get thicker by the hour. Even in the dead of night when it was pitch black outside you could still see it hanging around the trees out the back, white, like fog.

It seemed that there was no air to breathe.

Whenever I thought “I cannot breathe in here” and went outside it only seemed worse. My eyes were watering. I tried not to think too much and kept calling my parents every couple of hours from somebody’s mobile phone that was still working. Our phones had no reception whatsoever and most others had simply run out of battery. I kept telling myself that bushfires are a normal part of life in Australia and that people rarely die in them. But Carbonmonoxide poisoning seemed a very real threat.

It amazes me now that I managed to keep my calm. But there was one time in the middle of the night when I was tempted to say something to my parents, something along the lines of: ‘If anything happens to us, make sure you look after the kids. And tell them we love them.’ I didn’t and that probably helped to keep me sane. Because it just wouldn’t have done to even consider that we wouldn’t get out of there alive, that we would never get to hold our kids again.

‘We’re doomed – we’re gone.’

The night passed slowly and mainly uneventful. Except for one weird old guy who kept appearing in the pub every so often shouting “We’re doomed, we’re gone” which didn’t help to lift the spirits. Steve and I and a few other people were spread out on the floor trying to get some rest. But I was too scared to close my eyes because I thought I might not wake up again.

There was a lady with some teenage girls who hadn’t heard from her husband. And a young couple with a six-months-old baby. Some teenage kids. Some people just kept drinking at the bar. Others were listening to the car radios outside to glean some information. Eventually the power came on again and with that the airconditioning. The air inside the pub actually improved for a while and seemed almost breathable.

The next morning came and despite gloomy forecasts that we wouldn’t see any daylight for smoke, there was an eery light when I awoke from maybe an hours sleep. Outside the air was completely still and as thick as ever.The TV was on and there was a map of the active fires. The way to Yea and towards the north seemed open.

We decided to hit the road.

We managed to get through to Yea and even got some petrol there (our tank was empty by now). There were people scattered over the village, quite a few had spent the night on the village green. Others were walking around with cups of coffee. Most people were talking on the phone, a lot of them crying.

Someone in the petrol station said he heard that the road to the motorway was ok so we decided to keep going. Seymour is where the road joins the Freeway, 38kms away, nervous kilometres as more people were heading in the opposite direction from us and as we all know now the most dangerous place in a bushfire is on the road. Anything could happen during these 38kms.

But nothing did. We arrived in Seymour before 8 am. The sky was blue and the air clear. Our relief was incredible. We got some breakfast and coffee in a bakery and it felt like the best meal I’ve ever had. Two hours later we were back home.

For the first week after, there was no escaping the press coverage. The stories were all over the papers, the internet, TV… I cried a lot. All these people who had not made it, whole families burned in the flames. Had we really been there? It seemed unreal.

On day 4 after the event, I made a decision. I had been in contact with The Coaching Institute a couple of months beforehand, but had decided that I didn’t have the money to spare to do the course. Now, it was different.
This was my fork in the road, my wake up call, my snap point, however you want to call it.

I was going to take life into my own hands and I wasn’t going to let some small problem like money get in the way. Only eight days later, I arrived at the intake weekend, nervous and insecure. But some time during my first 3 days at TCI, things started to change.

I’m not sure what exactly it was or even if it was anything specific that she said, I just know that suddenly I felt like being struck by lightning. My first instinct was to jump up and run away, then I felt a great peace and calm settling over me.
I was in the right place at the right time. I was doing the right thing. I had started my journey as a coach and it’s the most significant thing I have ever done in my life.

More than that, my relationship with my family has completely changed forever. I’m a better mother, wife and friend. I am making a difference in people’s lives. I have a purpose now. I am very grateful.

As I am writing this, months later, I still get upset. There’s a weird sense of ‘How could we have been that stupid to even go to Marysville on that weekend?’ and also ‘Why did we get out, when others didn’t?’ Despite the fact, that our bush fire experience kicked our life into action and made us so aware of how fickle life is, how precious, the memory of that fearful night still makes me shudder.

I have set new goals for my life.

One of them is to make this world a better place, every day in every way that I am able to. And this starts in my family, in my community and spreads from here. Everything we do counts.
Carpe Diem. Seize the day.