A Place of Peace on Friday, November 29, 2019 as fires burned.
My hair is still in the pigtails I quickly pushed them into last Thursday. I haven’t showered, have barely slept. It’s been like living in a war zone. How do you make preparations for hundreds of animals to face a fire when you don’t know which direction it is coming?
We needed to prepare to fight the fire because we weren’t going to leave. But when I turned on the tap, it was bone dry. I quickly put in a call to our local water supplier. Council told him he isn’t allowed to supply water anymore. Right. Facing a fire with no water. Awesome. No water at the house at all.
We’ve been in drought for over three years. Everything is tinder dry. I couldn’t begin to think why I couldn’t get water in the face of a fire. We just had to go to plan B.
But my brain was numb. My closest neighbour rang. “You know we’ve got a fire coming,” he said grimly.
“Yes. And we’ve got no water.”
“Fill up buckets,” he said.
Andrew put the water tank on the trailer, attached it to the ute, and pumped water into it from the dam across the property. He filled buckets at the house. We found our mops. We felt a little more prepared. We felt hugely under prepared. All the water sources at the house were dry. No dams, no tanks, no creek.
We had hay for a few days for the animals. I bumped into my other neighbour when I was in town picking up a few things to tide us over. She was suffering from smoke inhalation. Already.
I told her the horses always put their noses to the ground during smoke. Because you can breath there. I had tried it myself, following their lead. If she was in trouble, she could too.
On Friday we got out cat carriers for the cats, I grabbed our passports and that was about it. Our cottage is just dry old timber, over 100 years old. If it went up, I would really miss my books.
We felt incredibly alone. Incredibly terrified. There was no time to think. Just a fire coming over a mountain at any minute.
The kitchen table had our two tiny fire extinguishers, old wooden blankets, cotton sheets to wet down. Everybody was in jeans, boots, cotton hoodies. Our backpacks were ready to throw in the car. No clothes, just wallets and essentials. I always carried a book or two. I don’t know which ones.
We were very worried about any animals along the creek, filled with trees and flammable material in the riparian zone. There were about 45 house sheep living there, including poddies and special needs sheep. We took them to the house yard and opened Andrew’s garden. 45 sheep, 25 goats, and the 12 geese all went to eat what little was in there. Safe. We had the bolt cutters ready to cut fences if they weren’t.
Note: They also drank the water in the buckets, thinking it was for them. Sigh.
We let out all the house area horses into the one paddock. The safest one. These included our senior thoroughbreds, ex-racehorses, and the other rescues, including a lame horse who we’d been rehabilitating for just a year; a neglect case.
And then it happened. I was filling Doris the ute with hay, feeling like I shouldn’t feed out flammable hay, when I heard a noise outside the shed. A fire truck. Tom listened to our fire plan and answered our questions. Yes, the paddock by the house was safest for both animals and us. Yes, the other paddocks had no grass and the animals would be fine. Yes the trees along the creek line were a worry. Remember the heat of the fire is intense.
I told them this was a sanctuary, that the cows and horses and sheep aren’t stock, they are family. He said he would take note and let the others know. They are always trying to save houses first.
Two more fire fighters arrived. They noted we were staying. The mountain on flames was on our land. We had animals. They understood. But they said they had no idea what this fire would do. It was unpredictable. It didn’t behave like a normal fire.
Alisa called. She is a beautiful friend who helped me rescue horses last year. “Do you need help with the animals?”
The tip cats — our most recent rescue effort. We were taking in wild cats trapped at the just-closed Braidwood tip to rehabilitate, desex, and rehome. They were all in bulky enclosures. They needed moving. Alisa would bring a ute. Relief.
But as she and her step dad Phil stood staring at the fire on our back door, the wind came up and Alisa got a call from her husband, fighting the fire. “Get out. Get out now”
It was like a scene from the apocalypse. Orange light and wild winds, the fire creating wind, the wind fuelling the fire. Dust blowing everywhere like a sandstorm.
Andrew and I dragged two sick sheep from their hospital enclosure and stuck them in the back of the ute. All the others could run, including the one lamb, who was strong and quick and had a mother. I was grateful we hadn’t shorn them yet.
Our daughter Tamsin had the house cats ready in their cat carriers. In went the budgies, three large senior dogs, I plonked Gwen, our one legged goose into a box, and Esmeralda, the wild cat with kittens all in an enclosure. and stuffed everyone in the car. Alisa and Phil took the tip cats and Tam (wth the dogs, cats, and goose) back to Phil and Julie’s house. And safety.
I had the two other dogs in the battered old farm ute, plus the two sick sheep I wanted to make sure were safe. I drove to our front gate, noting how calm the herd of brumbies were in our front paddock. I would be safe there. And so would these two sheep.
Our valley filled with smoke. The firefighters were everywhere. Flashing lights, and containment lines made just at our boundary next door, and helicopters and madness. From my view on the hill, I couldn’t see a thing. I kept ringing Andrew, who was calm at the house, ready with bolt cutters and sodden mops and buckets of water. Tam kept ringing us in tears. Are you safe? Are you safe? Please be safe.
And then suddenly Julie and Phil’s house wasn’t safe. There were firefighters everywhere there, too. Tam took one look at the flames and wanted to move the animals to another place of safety. But where? Roads were being closed, she couldn’t get home. The names of friends and neighbours with fire problems got longer and longer. Homes were threatened. Some were lost. Land was burnt. It was out of control.
And the fire was heading to town.
There was a fire at the show ground where people were going. She couldn’t go there. But Julie found her a friend in town who’d give her refuge, and when Tam arrived, she noticed the street cat Esmeralda was calm. We take our cue from the animals. Tamsin and the animals would be OK.
The fire seemed to have jumped right over us. Grim faced firefighters drove past me. The fire had exploded in all directions. “A pyrocumulous cloud went up and spread stuff everywhere,” was how one of them said it.
I drove back to the house to help Andrew. He went and checked on the paddocks and woolshed and all the animals, opening gates so they had as much room as possible to run if they needed to. I knew our paddocks wouldn’t burn, even if the bush parts were in flame. There was no grass. But the mountain was alight. The animals were uneasy with all the helicopters and wondering where their usual food was. We feed them twice a day without fail. But not this day.
I only had my phone (no radio) and couldn’t get much information. I had friends sending me updates. And then the electricity went out. Six power poles had burned, we were told. It would be a while.
We were exhausted. Andrew and I took it in turns to sit outside and watch the flames burn across our mountain. Fortunately, the wind stilled. And right next door the fire brigade worked long into the night.
This was no easy fire. The fire hit us on a Friday. On Saturday the wind was up an erratic and danger and unease filled the air as thick as the smoke we were breathing. The fire was moving everywhere around the district.
Tam came home with the much relieved animals and a packet of biscuits. I was too distressed to eat and there was still no electricity. All I ate were those biscuits.
Our senior dog Heyoka has a heart condition and I worried it had been too much. So I was treating her and the sick sheep who stayed in the ute till we needed it. Three of the horses on the high hill had health challenges from the stress — two colics, and a near choke. I called my horse healer friends to assist. Both former students of mine and amazing women with incredible skill in their own right. We had to work fast and these are wild horses so you can’t handle them. Bec (Elemental Equine Therapies) and I both did energy medicine. Fortunately, Prince’s colic and Navaho’s choke resolved quickly and easily. I didn’t leave them till I could see they were relaxed and eating.
The evening colic took longer. Beltane’s normal view of peace had turned into a ring of smoke and fire, with helicopters, and flashing lights and head lights. Our mountain looked like a city view with burning trees looking like city lights. It was horrific. I stood on the mountain with him as the temperature dropped. I eased him with my voice, reassuring him. Sinead (Boyne Equine Health) and I held him, working with energy medicine until he let me in to do physical acupressure, relaxing by the minute. I wasn’t going to leave him until he was eating normally. By this time it was freezing on the mountain and all I had was a towel from the car to wrap myself in. I’d noticed one of the gates we had left open looked closed so I went back to jam it open, reassuring him he could come down to his normal paddock whenever he wanted to. He was safer in the paddock he was in, but horses are smart. He could make his own choices. That seemed to do the final trick. He ate hay gratefully from my hand,
I went home late that Saturday night. I’d prepared the old cottage earlier with candles and figuring out what cold food we could eat without electricity. But I got home to lights and an exhausted Andrew making a meal.
Small mercies. Huge gratitude.
On Sunday the fire reached more of our friends. We were still on red alert with high winds. Still on edge. The animals had all recovered from the stress, and there were no more health dramas. But a smouldering log in our hills flared up in the wind. We called 000 — this fire was too freaky to dismiss anything or take any chances. We had lots of unburnt ground that could still go up.
The firies arrived, but couldn’t reach that burning spot. They assured us there was burnt ground there and it was on their watch list.
The fire was still “watch and alert.” Andrew kept buckets and troughs filled manually. Exhausting and relentless. Our feed vehicle died in the horse paddock. It just stopped. Another challenge. Now we were short a feed vehicle.
It’s Monday, and the fire is again threatening our town and district. We are still on alert. We can’t eat or sleep. Our bodies are feeling the strain. We are so grateful for all the people holding us with thoughts and prayers. We are so grateful to the amazing folk of the fire brigades. It’s really a miracle that we are all still safe, that our old cottage still stands, and all the animals are safe. But the saga continues. We can’t rest until the fire is out. And what’s weird is that it’s freezing cold now. But we don’t dare light a fire! Not even the wood stove.
Please continue your prayers and good thoughts for both A Place of Peace and the town and district of Braidwood. Thank you all so so much for caring.
Feeding rescued horses with fires in the background. Pictured also is the tank of the trailer that Andrew uses to transport water to dry parts of the property.
Images of the Fires
(The arrows are dark in the image above, but click left and right arrows to see more photos in the gallery)