We have watched on in horror as the recent bushfires and their wave of destruction swept across Australia, for most of us we counted our lucky stars that our families, friends, pets and homes were safe. For Rene` and her gorgeous family and their wonderful community, they were not so lucky. Rene` has so generously taken the time to share her heartbreaking and terrifying story and allowed us to see it through her eyes. It is rare that we gain such an honest and heartfelt insight into an experience such as this. Rene` has been so brave with her words and by putting pen to paper and retelling her story, she tells us it has been a positive experience and helped her to begin moving forward. We could not be more humbled by this. We at Oobi are genuinely inspired by this amazing family and the truly beautiful community spirit that shines so brightly throughout the entire story and we hope that by reading Rene’s words you will take a moment to consider what is truly important in life and how nothing should be taken for granted. Thank you so much for sharing your story Rene`. Love, The Big Oobis xxxx
‘Hey Hon, just letting you know that there’s a fire up near the golf course, hubby’s picking up the kids from school so thought you might want to grab Lachlan’. Was the message on the phone from a friend.
My husband, Pete, was home from work that day as he had put his car in for service.
‘I just got a message saying there’s a fire up near the golf course. Should I go and get Lachlan?’ We debated for a bit as we had no smoke, sirens or any indication on the Fires App that anything serious was unfolding and I didn’t want to get in the way of families that had a genuine emergency. I decided to jump in the car and get him. As I hit our main road I could see the smoke plummeting from behind the school and felt the twist in my stomach.
The children had been evacuated into the hall and it was a grab and run situation. The bush alongside the school was burning and it became clear that I had been one of the last parents allowed in. The RFS had arrived and the Police had blocked the main road. I rang my husband to say ‘This is bad’. As I drove out of the school I could see a woman running out of her home, hysterical and I noticed that houses were burning. One belonging to friends of ours.
On the drive home, I contemplated picking up my other son, Cameron, from preschool but thought that there would be other families directly involved with this emergency that would need to get their children and I didn’t want to get in the way. When I got home, there was still no any indication of a fire, the sky was clear and other than a few sirens the drama seemed to be ‘over there’, a safe distance from us.
I decided to call the preschool, to see what would be best for them. I was met with a hushed tone ‘I don’t want to alarm you but the backyard is on fire. If you can get here safely, come and pick him up.’ I grabbed my keys, pulled myself together and jumped in the car. I realised I didn’t have my phone on me so ran back to grab it. My husband offered to go instead as I was getting teary and I insisted I would be back in a sec. As I drove off, leaving him with our son Lachlan and daughter Emilie, I could see helicopters with water buckets flying overhead.
The main road was a nightmare. As I hit it, the last group of children from my son’s school were walking past with the Principal at the tail end. Cars were at a standstill. Drivers were telling me to turn around as the road was blocked and even if I had wanted to I would have been stuck going either way. I eventually made it to the turn off to preschool and I turned into thick billowing smoke. I had to inch the car through, I was pretty much driving by memory. I crawled my way to the preschool and had to guess where to turn into the drive way. I couldn’t see a thing. I went in to get my son. Not long after we left, the preschoolers were evacuated in a fire truck. The smoke was so thick it burned the back of my throat and stung my eyes. I got Cameron in the car and again tried to make my way through the smoke back home. I was cut off by a burning house and I watched the fire jump the road to another home. The wind was so fierce it was blowing the fire across the road and it was erratic. A man stopped me and said ‘You’ll have to turn around, there’s no way you’ll get through here. It’s all burning.’
I had to turn around and head to Yellow Rock. One road in and one road out. There were no options. I decided to head to my friend’s home. As I turned into her street I was stopped by a frantic woman with two little girls. ‘You can’t go down there, the houses are on fire!’ I pulled over to the side of the road, got my son out of his car seat and sat him next to me. I could see the fear in his eyes and so I asked him to be ‘my brave soldier.’ I tried calling my husband but the network was jammed. I had to continue to Yellow Rock.
The smoke was insane and I couldn’t see anything. I would drive a few meters, the smoke would clear but I could see the houses and bush burning either side of us and then I would hit the thick smoke again. I came to the house of another friend and the trees and telegraph poles were all alight so I couldn’t turn in. I pulled over to the side of the road and started to panic, my mind was racing. Where the hell were we supposed to go? Cameron started to cry and I had to pull myself together. I told him we would be ok, as we would find someone who could help us. I pulled the car out again into the smoke. We were crawling along and out of nowhere we hit a kangaroo. It was stunned for a moment and then it hopped away.
I decided I would just have to keep driving and knock on a stranger’s door and ask for help. All the while I was trying to call Pete – anyone! But I couldn’t get a line.
I drove to the main road in Yellow Rock and just picked a random house with a couple standing outside. I asked the lovely man and his wife if they would help me. Men were on their roofs with hoses and other neighbours were rounding up pets. The sky was red and the smoke thickening. The wind was wild and unpredictable, blowing one way and then another. I grabbed Cameron from the car and went into the house, inside were some young mums and their babies. I kept trying to ring Pete but still no success. I eventually asked if I could use the landline and I was able to get a hold of him. I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying as there was this loud, rushing sound in the background and I asked him if it was the wind. He said ‘No, it’s fire’ and the line went dead. I didn’t have the chance to tell him where I was.
The homeowners decided we should evacuate to a lookout further down the road as it had burnt out from fires only a few weeks ago so it was thought we would be safe down there. We drove down to find around 50 others had also sought shelter. Helicopters would fly past and check on us, doing head counts. We had children and elderly with us, so we put them under a shelter while some of us cleared away the surrounding leaf litter. I have since learnt that someone called 000 for help and they were told they had no personnel to help us. A woman had managed to get a hold of her husband and he called a friend from a fire station in the Western suburbs. They jumped in their truck and drove all the way to us. As soon as I laid eyes on them, I felt we were safe. It was decided that we would move to a property on the edge of the National Park as the surrounding bush had been cleared. One by one, ours cars followed the fire truck to more people who opened their home to us.
(The triangle in the middle is the property.)
The battery on my phone was nearly gone and I tried to get a call out to anyone but still the network was overloaded. I thought I’d take my chances on Facebook and it worked! I updated my status, ‘Can someone ring Pete and tell him I’m at a house in Yellow Rock’. I switched off my phone and started listening to the heartbreaking stories from the people around me. So many had left knowing their houses, cars and pets were gone, many others just didn’t know.
We stayed at the home for around 6 hours. Cameron and I sat at a window and literally watched the fire burn around us. We had face washers over our noses and eyes as the smoke was intense. We shared biscuits and water. We watched the firemen and home owners pump water from the swimming pool and fight the fire.
I had no idea where my husband and children were.
Eventually the Riot squad arrived and took down everyone’s details. I asked if they could contact my husband as he didn’t know where I was and I asked if there was any word on our street. Nothing. It was evident that getting us out was the main priority. The Police had been trying to arrange buses but they were tied up with getting school children to the evacuation centre. It was eventually decided we would be led out by the Police in a convoy. We were under strict instructions not to stop. I can only image how hard that would have been for the people whose homes we were to drive past.
It was pitch black as we left, apart from the smouldering trees. I got word my husband had been informed that I was going to the evacuation centre and he would meet me there. A friendly fire fighter offered my son a helmet and a hose and pointed him in the direction of what was left of a burning tree, so he proudly helped fight the fires. I noticed that the tree my car was parked near had burned and had a few remaining embers. I have no idea how they managed to save us, the home and all our vehicles.
We drove out in single file, top to tail with Police. What I saw still brings tears to my eyes. The homes that had been standing some hours before had a few flickers of flame still burning. Cars and caravans were burnt. Trees were down or burning. Electricity wires were down. Poles and street signs were alight. The streets were littered with fire trucks and police, so we zig zagged our way out. Both my son and I cried our way out, he was wide eyed at all the ‘tree fire showers’.
Reuniting with my husband and children was very emotional. My husband told me to take a deep breath and prepare myself as he didn’t believe we would have a home. He told me that after I left he thought he had better dampen the yard, wet down all our fire wood and fill the gutters of our timber home with water. While doing this he heard our daughter screaming from the backyard. He ran to find her with embers flying around her. He ran back to the front of the house and the fire was there. It was just there. He watched the row of houses across the road simultaneously go up in flames while gas bottles were exploding nearby. The wind was blowing the fire erratically through the trees and bushes, up and down the street. He grabbed the kids and fled to the back fence. He literally threw them over and caught the attention of a neighbour as she was reversing from her drive. The house next door was burning. They threw our two children in the car with her two and fled. That lovely lady lost her home.
We were able to return to our home later that evening. There was no way Pete was going to wait until the next morning so he headed up with my father in law. At about 1am, I got the call ‘We have a home. I have no idea how or why but we have a home’.
Pete and I returned the next morning to find eight homes across from us and the three directly behind us just piles of rubble. We have no fences, bush, gardens, decking or children’s play equipment. We have substantial damage to our home, our tin roof has buckled and burnt, our upstairs bedroom windows are burnt, the cladding is singed. Our home was left wide open when my husband fled so everything we own is covered with ash, our clothes smell. The stench is unbelievable, many items are scorched or singed. But we have a home.
Bringing the children home to our street was hard. We tried to prepare them as best as we could but nothing could prepare them for the devastation. We live in a street where many friendships have formed and many neighbours have taken the children under their wing. Showing them kindness and generosity over the years. It was very hard for our children to understand that not only had these people lost their homes but this also meant we wouldn’t be seeing heir lovely faces daily as they were now living elsewhere.
We have since learnt that after realising their homes were lost, the neighbours stayed to fight the trees and bush that was alight in our yard, as well as extinguishing our deck and fences. Amazing.
(The kids play equipment)
In the days after, the street was a buzz with people chopping and clearing with the threat of a flare up ever present. Strangers cleared our property, cleaned our home, fed us, clothed us, and offered moral support. A major TV network broadcast from the street which offered some light relief. I have since learnt that during the school evacuation the Principal and another teacher learnt they had lost their home, never revealing their loss at any point, continuing to look after the children and staff.
Everyone is slowly returning to a regular day. Back to work, school, the daily ho hum. But every time I turn into our street and see the piles of rubble, it takes my breath away. I drop Lachlan at school and wonder why it still stands. I take Cameron to preschool where their beautiful outdoor area is now a flat block. I visit a friend whose house is one of two left standing on the street. I head to the local shop for milk and come home hours later, after hearing about more fire experiences. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. The support for each other within the community is phenomenal and continues to buoy me. Temporary accommodation, food, clothing, furniture, a shoulder, man power, friendship, camaraderie.
Businesses pooled their resources and threw our street a party. Food, drink, singing, Harley rides, gifts for the kids, face painting, we even created a piece of art work as a group. It was so good to come together to debrief, share stories and most importantly smile and laugh. The kids had a ball!
This is why we live here. And this is why we will stay.