Out of the ashes

I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, but I’m a bit late and January is almost behind us. Nevertheless, I hope 2020 is a safe and healthy one for us all and the year brings great happiness. I can’t say I’m sorry to see December and January go, it’s been a horrific time for Australians this bushfire season, and quite traumatic for us here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. We’re grateful for the rain that brought some respite to parts of the country, including our own backyard. We received good falls of the wonderful stuff. The fires here are mostly under control as a result, but there are still many burning and we have a lot of hot weather still to come. We can only pray for more rain.

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Photo by Geetanjal Khanna

The memory of our local fires is still raw and I have to admit that I get quite emotional when I see others going through the same drama in other parts of the country. Our family was lucky. We didn’t lose property or suffer any injuries or loss of life like some of our neighbours, but the weeks of mental strain have taken its toll, and we are dealing with the aftermath. We get very twitchy and nervous every time there’s talk of a new flare-up or see news from others who are still in the thick of it.

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Photo by Dion Georgopoulos

Part of the emotional response we now feel comes from having witnessed the selfless efforts of volunteers who battled to keep our community safe. So when we hear of more tragedies involving these heroes, it’s hard not to choke up and grieve. Day after day we watched the brave aircrews passing over our house with water and fire retardant, keeping the fire front at bay. DC10, C-130 and gigantic air-cranes flew so low over the rooftops you could almost see the pilots faces. The American C-130 air-tanker that crashed, killing all three of the American crew, was amongst them. We watched in awe as it flew above the treetops and over our villages. Sadly, they were not the first casualties. Two local firefighters gave their lives just a few kilometres from here; they came to Hill Top to protect our lives and property, instead, they lost their own lives. These losses feel very personal.

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The American air-tanker over Hill Top                                                              Photo by Rick Lee

There have been 33 lost lives so far. Whether they were protecting their properties or helping others protect theirs, every loss is deeply felt. But out of catastrophe come stories that give hope, that make one proud. People come together in the face of adversity, differences are put aside while attention is focused on the common goal, the common enemy. Community comes to the forefront and true colours are evident everywhere in the fighting spirit. The groundswell of support for those in need only goes to prove that we quickly open our arms and hearts to each other when our backs are against the wall.

Every loss is deeply felt

Australians are famous for coming together when needed, but in truth, I believe it’s true of all people. There is inbuilt compassion in all of us, empathy for those in need of help and an urge to run to their aid. This was evident in the many who came from all over Australia to lend a hand, all those who gave up their holidays and came from across the world, Canada, America, New Zealand to stand and fight. Donations have poured in from around the globe, offers of assistance and disaster relief have been overwhelming.

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Photo by Rick Lee

Devastatingly, our wildlife has suffered incredible loss, and if anything can break our hearts it’s the sight of these helpless creatures caught up in the tragedy. It’s estimated that 1.25 billion native animals have perished. Yes, that’s billion with a ‘B’. Some will be pushed to the edge of extinction. Once again, offers of assistance have flooded into organisations that can help. The sad truth is, there’s nothing can be done about the massive losses, but the sight of volunteers coming forward to care for injured wildlife is one to warm the heart. Now we must help regenerate and protect habitat so that our remaining wildlife can survive.

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Photo by Pexels

We’ll get over this crisis and settle back into the routines of life, people always do, but for those who were caught up in the disaster, nothing will ever be quite the same. When I get emotional about what’s happened, I also give thanks, after all, we were some of the lucky ones. When I look around with time to reflect, I recognise that part of my emotional response is not just about the trauma, not just about emerging from a battleground unscathed, but is a sense of pride from seeing the community spirit that emerged, the feeling that we were, are, not alone. Cause enough to choke up and shed tears.

Black Bones, Red Earth set for release February 24th

Life does go on and I’m delighted to say that everything is on track for the release of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. It should already be available for Pre-Order through bookstores in some parts of the world, though it can be slow getting into some catalogues. Look out for it!

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Words are not enough…

Thank-you. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you very much. Words are funny things. There’s estimated to be between 175,000 and 500,000 words in the English language, not including slang and jargon, yet when it comes to expressing our thanks to the people who’ve put their lives at risk to protect us and our property, a simple thank-you hardly seems adequate.

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Photo by Skeeze

The Australian bushfire season has arrived in catastrophic fashion. Catastrophic! Now that’s a word that demands attention. Last weekend, the warning went out to our little community of Hill Top, and surrounding NSW villages, for catastrophic conditions. Temperatures, they predicted, would be in the mid 40c range, and winds would be gusting up to 70kph. The Wattle Creek fire near us had been burning on several fronts for almost a month, and now gathered on our doorstep like the terrifying horsemen of the apocalypse. Apocalypse. Another powerful word, conveying what was to come for the neighbouring village of Balmoral, a village struck only days before, as a fire moved in from the surrounding valleys. The loss of firefighters: Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, later that day, was a body blow to those left to defend the village and one that would shatter our close-knit communities.

Like the Horsemen of the Apocolypse

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Photo by Erkut2

Planning was everything, they told us, as the weekend approached. We must plan to stay and defend our properties, or plan to leave. There could be no change of mind once the fire front was upon us and the roads in and out of our villages would be closed. The narrow cutting through which the road passes out of town would be a death trap if the fire engulfed it. Each had to assess their situation and make the decision early.

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Hill Top village                      Photo by Rick Lee

A critical morning came at the weekend, and with it, an eerie stillness, as firefighters gathered in the village to receive their instructions. Smoke filled the air like a London fog. Had we made the right decision to stay and defend? Perhaps we were stupid not to go, only time would tell. But I couldn’t help feeling, watching these volunteers disperse, that it was the least we could do for ourselves when others were about to risk everything to protect our community.

As the day progressed, we monitored the situation live, receiving updates on scanner radio, watching those in the air make their sweeps across the skyline, helicopters and planes in a bid to control the blaze. Plumes of smoke rose into the stratosphere, bubbling and boiling on the thermal columns of air. Sparks and embers travelled kilometres on the hot winds, causing spot fires to burst out and flare. We waited in trepidation. Trepidation: a word lacking the power to describe our anxiety as the front moved in closer. Then the text message came on our phones: NSWRFS EMERGENCY WARNING – Hill Top – Immediate danger. Seek shelter now as the fire approaches. It is too late to leave.

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Photo by Patricio Hurtado

As it eventuated, we Hill Topians stayed safe, thanks to the efforts of those who came to our aid. The fire front was halted, for then at least, at the village border. Our neighbours were not so lucky. All in all, the village of Balmoral took several massive hits as the fire came at the community from different directions, the winds swirling in across the hills, devastating the small village. The efforts of those fighting the inferno are nothing short of heroic. Heroic; that’s another word that hardly seems to encapsulate the courage of these selfless people. Volunteers, these courageous men and women have come from near and far to help. Having foregone wages, while away from their work and businesses, their families will struggle to get by as a result. Some will take out loans to get over the loss of income.

I have a couple of other words to consider. How about: ironic. Isn’t it bloody ironic that as these heroes go without while protecting us from fire, our government sends millions of dollars’ worth of fireworks up in smoke during a few minutes of New Year’s Eve opulence? How cruel the irony that they can’t find it in their hearts to compensate our wonderful services, but can find multi-millions of dollars for the firey exhibition. They will spend $6.5 million on Sydney’s fireworks alone.

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Photo by Tom Hill

Here’s another word to consider: Arseholes. A perfect description for the Prime Minister who says that the firefighters actually want to be there fighting fires, as if it’s like a weekend getaway to Hawaii, and the politicians who spend their days in parliament like children. No, I take that back. Children don’t spend their entire workday trading catcalls and insults, sneering and belittling each other, finding fault and blame. No, children spend their time learning and being creative, finding solutions to problems instead of causing them. Our politicians have seen this catastrophe coming; they’ve known what to expect for years. So why does so much of our country rely on community volunteers to deal with this annual crisis? Where are the funds for such critical services, and why haven’t they given our incredible heroes the resources they need to do the job of mitigating these fires before they can reach a critical condition?

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Photo by Skeeze

Perhaps someone can create a new word to express our appreciation for the heroes that serve. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious comes to mind. But no, it wouldn’t be right to cheapen our feelings of gratitude with something so glib. Maybe a humble, thank-you, in all its simplicity, is all we can say that truly comes from the heart. Thank-you, each and every one.

Thank-you