January usually comes and goes in a frantic How could summer holidays already be over, where’s that damn school supply list kind of way. But this year it was different. Very different.
We spent most of January trying to breathe, think and plan. Rest was elusive, though desperately needed after a few tumultuous years, punctuated by the illness of friends, family members. Ourselves. And death. Then there was work – the endless issues, challenges, deadlines, meetings and occasional tussles that seemed to encroach into every nook and cranny of our lives. January was reserved for ‘down time’ but try relaxing in a town with the worst air quality in the world. The sun went into hiding for days, weeks, unable to break through the thick haze that suffocated the capital. We were feeling sick – literally and metaphorically. An escape to the coast was a sure-fire remedy.
For years, the rolling green hills surrounding our seaside getaway had been a constant, thanks to a temperate climate and the moisture that altitude inevitably brings. The rainforest on our property was a haven of sorts, with a seemingly endless water supply, or so we thought. The browning off of the hills by a rule-breaking climate had been so gradual that we started to lose our baseline. Was the land ever as lush, as velvety green as we remembered? Was this the worst we would ever see or only the beginning?
On 4 January our property came under threat when fire crossed the Shoalhaven River, bringing it a change-of-wind away from us. All the things we so loved about our place – the solitude, the elevated location, the single road in and out of the mountain, the fresh water – became potential concerns in the event of a catastrophe. We had been complacent but didn’t realise it until nature forced our hand.
Moments after we arrived at the beach late that afternoon, the sky intensified from bluey-grey to incandescent orange, backlit by an angry sun. The change was instantaneous, the flick of a switch. The wind picked up, showering us with burnt leaves and ashes. As night fell the embers intensified, the rich, oaky smell an ever-present reminder of the fire threat. Then the power went out. In the dark we speculated about the source of smoke: a neighbour’s property? The next town over? Thirty kilometres away? Dry, hot winds howled at over 100kms per hour, the breeze that had often lulled us to sleep mutating into a fierce, chaotic cry. Pumps and generators were put in place.
We couldn’t sleep, our hearts racing and eyes glued to the Rural Fire Service app. We held our breath with each page update. Would the fire reach our line in the sand – a town on the western fringe of our mountain range, the ‘get in the car now’ town? We packed our bags, surprised by our meagre quantities, logistics overruling sentiment: woollens, sturdy boots, torches. Chainsaws were packed into the back of the ute. Fallen trees could be blocking the road out, we thought, as they had in the past.
Page updates eventually tracked the fire north, away from us, though certainty didn’t come until daybreak. That morning, the sun rose over the ocean in an eerie apricot glow, not the pastel pinks and purples that often ushered in a new day. Trapped in the haze was the confusion of the past month, the crescendo of a discomforting few years. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air.
I filled my lungs, conflicted by an overwhelming sense of relief yet concern for those in the fire’s unpredictable path. We learned that day that most of our neighbours had evacuated. Nature doesn’t discriminate. I’m well aware that we were the lucky ones.