Enroute to spend a family holiday with my parents at Guerella Bay on the south coast of New South Wales (in eastern Australia), my wife and son and I stayed with my lifelong friend Harry and his family. Harry is a fire ecologist and environmental educator. Like myself, my family, and indeed many Australians, he has a deep and abiding love of the Australian bush, forged through diverse lived experiences living in the bush, and studying and relating to the elemental forces that shape and condition our lives on the Australian continent. He had been counselling me during the previous weeks regarding his deep concern at the severity of the 2019 bushfire season; and encouraging me to take very seriously my considerations of whether it was a good idea to spend our summer holiday at Guerella this year or not. His concerns were informed by his recent experiences supporting the Rural Fire Service in the Wolomi fires and on the mid-North Coast around his own family’s holiday house in the bush. He told me of crews of firefighters arriving at a house to wet it down and save it from the fire-front that was still many kilometres away; only to watch as the house exploded into flames as they approached it, as a result of the sheer heat in the fire system and tinder-dry conditions following Australia’s driest and hottest year ever recorded. I took my dear friend’s words to heart and sensed that he was right; that this may well be the year that bushfire would come to Guerella; something we had vaguely imagined and talked of throughout my life.
My grandfather began a relationship for our family with this place when he bought a bush block from an old fisherman in the 1950s, prior to the existence of the road that has connected all the coastal settlements between Batemans Bay and Moruya throughout my life. When the only house at Guerella bay then was the fisherman’s shack he bought. The shack remains to this day. It is reminiscent of a bushranger’s hideout, with a fireplace, chimney and terrace made of stones collected from the beach. Rib-bones from a whale that beached here in the 1930s or 40s rest like magical silver-grey rainbows, with a patina akin to both stone and wood but somehow distinct to both; demarcating on the terrace where the domestic space meets the wild, and the intertwined reality of the places natural and human histories. My cousins recently set aside the ancient hand-cut slabs of ‘iron-bark’ hardwood cladding, so as to replace the asbestos ceiling and 80-plus year old tin roof of the shack; but the towering spotted-gum trees that surround it have not changed, other than growing gradually older and more and more monumental since my mother and aunts were playing under them here as young girls.
Now this family relationship with this place has spanned four generations. In this relatively short time cohabiting with families of goannas, echidnas and countless species of birds, we have come to love and belong to these rocky coves and shady forests. This belonging comes charged with an awareness of the immeasurably greater connections and vast knowledge that the Yuin first-nation people inhabit, through their more than 60 thousand years of continuous belonging to this country. So, despite the increasing threats of bushfire, more extreme storms, and rising sea-levels; we are here for the long haul, weathering the storms, fishing, and walking on and caring for country.
Following Christmas and some days of relatively normal summer holidaying playing beach cricket with my son and my dad on the same beach and in the same way that my dad had done with my brother and I some 35 years ago, we began to prepare for the severe bushfire conditions forecast for Tuesday December the 31st. My wife and I helped my parents to remove leaf-litter from all around the house, to make plugs from socks, plastic bags and sand to plug the downpipes on the gutters, and to remove to the safety of a neighbour’s brick house a selection of the most beloved and irreplaceable of my parent’s artworks.
We elected to stay at Guerella rather than evacuate. This decision was arrived at through discussion amidst us all and informed by my mother having had confirmed at a recent meeting with fire services that the beach is probably as safe a place as any. My recollection of photos from Californian fires some years ago, of highways choked with cars of people attempting to evacuate, with walls of flames all around, made me feel that even in the worst-case scenario of a fire storm, we would be safer on the beach and able to shelter in the water, rather than being in a car away from a body of water, and indeed away from our beloved home.
I was awoken early on the 31st by a neighbour coming to inform us that he was leaving. The morning already had a strange twilight yellow glow, reminiscent of the eerie and abnormal atmosphere during an eclipse; the birds flitting around evidently alarmed. Then during our breakfast, the electricity supply cut out. As our house is close to the beach we had decided that we would make our emergency camp there near the water’s edge and as far from the bush that surrounds the small sandy beach as possible. We did this at about 9:30 am, after the police had come around to ensure that we were aware of the evacuation and the clear threat of the approaching bushfire. As we left the house wondering whether it would be burnt to the ground or not, there was a potent commingling of the utterly familiar and the completely novel. This is the very same beach where my earliest memories of playing in the rock pools as a child occurred, and where almost exactly ten summers ago in a beautiful ceremony amidst family and friends my wife and I were married.
As the sky went from gold to yellow amber, to deep orange and then an apocalyptic magenta, it was clear to me as I hugged my nine-year-old son and tried to calm and comfort him that we are all made as vulnerable as young children in the face of such events.
Vulnerability, like fire, is a tremendous force for transformation. It scorches away our protective shells and the clinging’s and defences of our egos, reducing us as in a crucible to our raw essence.
As burning embers began to arrive on the beach in the fierce north-westerly winds, my son took his emotional cue from his mother and grandmother’s obvious sense of alarm and started to cry. I held him close to me, as I had much more often when he was younger and began to sing one of our favourite songs by Rory McLeod.
The winds whipped this way and that and intensified such that they began to throw sand at us from different directions. I became increasingly grateful for the protective goggles and wet handkerchief face mask I had on. I endeavoured to calm my son by saying that the sky will clear soon, and it will be OK. This was the kind of parental optimism that we are prone to provide to our children under grave circumstances, and far from an honest conviction. Though thankfully it helped to pause his sobbing a little, and this in turn helped me to feel better. In hindsight though; it was this shift in his mood that actually was the first light of the dawning grace that was about to save us from bearing witness to a firestorm engulfing our most treasured place. The fierce winds gradually stopped throwing sand and remarkably hot air at us from so many directions at once and began to blow more consistently from the south. Some minutes later the sky to the south became more yellow instead of crimson and my son stopped crying. I now know that the arrival of the southerly change, had it come even a matter of minutes later, would not have performed its miracle of quite literally saving Guerella Bay from being absolutely devastated; as our unfortunate neighbours in Rosedale were, whilst we huddled like frightened animals on our beach.
Once the sky seemed clearer we took shelter from the incessant winds on the picnic tables beside the beach, eating some lunch huddled around the battery-driven ABC radio emergency broadcast, hoping to gain an understanding of what was happening around us. The noise was tremendous as firefighters using helicopters repeatedly filled their water bucket apparatus from the bay in front of our place.
When we returned to our house, my wife’s keen artist’s eyes noticed smoke rising from an old fallen log in the bush directly adjacent to our house. Investigating we found that an ember had arrived on the wind in the leaf-litter in the interior of the log, and it was now perfectly ablaze, looking as though it had been lit by human hands. We put it out with a bucket of water, realising that had we not been there to do so, the blaze would certainly have grown.
I took my son for a walk and we played with a ball to remedy our nerves and encourage a sense of things being a little more ordinary, rather than an endless emergency. We walked up on the big rock in the bay, and from on top we could better see just how close the helicopters were doing their water-bombing, and the evident thick plumes of smoke rising from bush land to the north and west of us. My son and I noticed the lights of a fire engine and actual flames on the isthmus above Jimmy’s Island at South Rosedale.
We decided it all felt too uncertain and unsafe to sleep at our house that night, so we elected to accept an invitation to stay with some kind neighbours who live in a stone house. We passed New Year’s Eve with them eating a candlelit dinner, and though all very aware of the rather surreal circumstances, enjoyed the simple human home-base of sharing stories and food. Our son fell asleep in his mother’s embrace as soon as he had finished his meal.
As I drifted in a semi-conscious awareness of how good it felt to be at rest in bed, as the new decade dawned on the east coast of Australia, our friend and host Annie came in apologising for waking us up. She informed us that some exhausted neighbours were looking for any volunteers to come and help them to contain a fire that they had been fighting all night, down in the gully behind our place. I leapt up and dressed and found myself power-walking up the hill, still in a daze of surprise at how quickly I had managed to go from asleep to out the door, in what must have been the record fastest time in my entire 45 years.
It was sobering to see the fire was right there in the bush, only 400 meters behind our place and all of the other houses of our neighbours along our road in Guerella. I met my neighbour Frank Totterdell on the road, and with him and a rotating team of assembled neighbours we continued carrying buckets down into the gully and extinguishing whatever trees and bushes were ablaze. Our closest neighbour Glen and his son Kai and a few of his mates had all spent the whole night fighting the fire with sticks, tanks of water strapped to a quad-bike, rakes, and buckets. Thanks largely to their efforts through the night they had been critical in establishing the containment lines.
Just as it appeared that we had managed to control and extinguish most of the fire, especially along its southern edge, I thought I would investigate lower into the gully as I was curious where the fire had begun from ember attacks. I soon noticed that there was an ancient old ironbark tree with smoke pluming out of it crown. I was perplexed that there was no visible fire, recalling the old adage from Bob Marley, that “you won’t see smoke without fire.” Closer up, I could see that there was a crevice opening to the interior of the tree that tireless armies of white ants had slowly hollowed-out over many years. Looking into this crevice was like looking through a window into the high-speed commotion of an inferno. We attempted to throw some buckets of water into the crack in the tree, but the reality of the situation made a mockery of our efforts. Very clearly without high pressure hoses there was no way of stopping the fires high intensity destruction of this magnificent old tree.
I realised I was becoming light-headed from not having had any breakfast, and so returned home. I’d just got inside the door and begun taking my protective gear off when there were three loud bangs on the front door. My mother and I were startled at the clear difference between the ordinary door-knocking that guests or visitors do and this slamming that the firefighter was now employing to proclaim his intention to speak with us. He marched in and asked if we knew the whereabouts of a tree on fire that had been reported. I said I did and got my shirt back on, offering to accompany him to show him and his colleagues the location of the ironbark now masquerading as an impressive 20-meter-high roman-candle fire-show. Riding in the fire-truck with the four firefighters all dressed in their high-tech yellow fireproof gear and helmets, I was gladdened that I lived in a country where the state had at its disposal enough resources to furnish emergency services with such well-equipped and purpose-specific machines.
As we drove out along the road through Guerella, the firey sitting next to me said “You guys dodged a bullet”. I nodded in agreement, and he added; “Out there it is absolute carnage”. The look on his face was one of wrinkled incredulity, as he was still clearly actively struggling to come to terms with everything that he had seen and experienced in the past 24 hours. Sensing the import of his despairing grimace was my first real confirmation of how intensely the surrounding region had been and was being impacted by the fires.
The firey who had smashed on our front door followed me into the scrub to inspect the tree. His swift conclusion was that “Even if we had a chopper with a few thousand litres of water and foam we still couldn’t put that out, no chance”. He told us to keep an eye on it and let them know what it does. I walked home through the blackened ground and spotted-gums to have the breakfast (or lunch?) that I still hadn’t managed to have.
I returned later on with my dad, to monitor what the tree was doing and see whether it had fallen and taken the fire in its crown beyond the containment lines we had established on the southern perimeter of the fire. On my way into the gully I came across Glen and was met with the vision of his son Kai and his two mates reversing a firetruck through the scrub. Glen related to me that after the three young fellas had been fighting fires all night and all through the morning, both in Rosedale and Mogo and here at Guerella, they had returned to discover that the Rosedale house of one of the young blokes was nothing but ashes and rubble. Apparently as the young fellas paused to take stock of their mate’s loss, they noticed a firetruck sitting idle in the street in front of the empty space where the young man’s house had stood. They then discovered that it had keys in the ignition and running on a potent mix of highly-charged grief and boundless youthful energy multiplied by adrenaline, they decided to continue their firefighting endeavours equipped with more than the quad-bikes and sticks they had been using for the last 24 hours. So here they were, completing the task of wetting down everything that was still alight or smouldering in the gully fire adjacent to Kai and his dad Glen’s home. Having done so they continued on their way in the beautiful red fire-engine.
Later we heard that sometime later the lads were hailed down by the police. On realising that the occupants of the truck were not RFS workers, the police had a moment of surprise and confusion, but without drawing breath, the life-and-death nature of their immediate concern overrode any lesser worrying about what three plain-clothed young men in their early twenties were doing driving a firetruck, they asked the youngsters if they could please go immediately to a nearby house and assist in trying to save it from being consumed by flames. Apparently after the boys had put the truck to further good use assisting in saving the house, the police suggested that they might be well-advised to return it to the Rural Fire Service before nightfall.
In the afternoon my dad and I joined Frank and his sister Sue Totterdell working on containing and monitoring the fire on its southern edge, higher up the gully. We bore witness to one half of the giant ironbark come crashing down into the forest, as the blaze weakened it to the point where its weight overcame its structural integrity.
The coming days continued in more or less the same vein: monitoring and extinguishing spot fires, assessing the damage, sharing the work and stories with neighbours, further bracing and preparing for a forecasted return of severe bushfire danger for Saturday the 4th. It was tragic to slowly learn of the level of devastation that had been wrought on the region, and extraordinary to the point of being uncanny that Rosedale and Malua Bay to the north, Mogo to the west, and Broulee to the south, had all been severely impacted; the cardinal points around us were a ring of devastation. In between learning of friends and neighbours who had lost their entire homes; simultaneously we were enjoying a highly interconnected and generous community spirit that was suddenly the bed-rock of our daily life. Almost in equal measure to our disconnectedness to a power supply, phone signal, or internet connectivity; our connections with our neighbours and everyone we came across were super charged with a novel openness and honesty, and a spirit of generosity and shared circumstances. The entire region was without power for the entire next week. We were conscious that my brother who lives in Chicago, and my wife’s family in Argentina, and indeed most of our friends and family around Australia and the world, would be extremely worried about us. My cousins Genna and Kim and their daughter Jessie stopped by as they departed from as intense a week camping at North Durras, as did another friend Hannah, to check we were OK and take news of our being alive and well up the car-clogged highways, as they joined tens of thousands of people attempting to evacuate. We later learned Hannah’s trip to Sydney had taken her 24 hours, (a trip that ordinarily takes 4 or 5 hours).
There was a feeling for me that all these experiences had somehow transported me to a new awareness or that collectively we had entered a new reality. Somewhat similar to the generalised though localised non-ordinary reality that people experience at a five-day festival; where social norms are discarded and transmuted, and even though this occurs for a short period of time; somehow on departure from the experience one also senses just how the experience has perhaps changed everyone permanently, and that nothing can erase the shared evolution; that the world is no longer what it was.
When I lived in Japan for many years I came to realise that the Zen spirit of the Japanese people has grown out of lived awareness that at any given moment a tsunami, earthquake, typhoon, or volcanic eruption can transform their surroundings into a very different experience. Carrying this knowledge that the earth beneath our feet can open up or shake violently from side to side, or that great walls of fire or waves of water can arrive in a matter of moments, brings with it a deep humility and respect for nature. I feel it has also gifted the Japanese with an extraordinary tenacity to live in such a way that maximises gratitude and love, knowing that all of our experience is born out of emptiness and returns there at each moment, and that what the next instant brings is always a surprise.
My experiences this summer have me feeling that the Earth is calling us all to become Zen warriors. To awaken from our stupors of complacency and illusions and begin to live our responsibility for caring for country, and for our participation in and relationship with the biosphere.
By Be Ward, 2020
If you or your loved ones have been impacted by Bushfires and need help, please go to The Australian Government, Department of Social Services Information & Support page here