‘The CFS arrived like avenging angels…’
SAMHC Featured Blogger:
December 20, 2019
Walking down to the supermarket, there seemed to be more fire engines and police cars going through the town than usual. We’re used to them because there are often car accidents on the winding roads coming up to Lobethal.
But an hour later, I knew this was different.
My husband Graeme decided to stay in Lobethal given that all the bushfire information told us we should.
But later that day, when we saw fire on the hill over the road and heard a house blow up a couple of streets over from Main Street, solid black smoke pouring into the air, we decided to go to stay with friends who lived further out of Lobethal.
We hadn’t been there long before we all decided to evacuate to Mt Torrens. When we discovered the evacuation centre to be so hot and crowded, we decided not to stay.
The police advised us not to go home, so we headed to Kenton Valley where our friend, Craig, was on his own as his wife Di was in Melbourne. Craig, who has lived on the property all his life, told us that if the wind changed, the fire could come over the ridge in minutes. As he was speaking, the property looked serene and safe.
Around 5pm Graeme and I went into Birdwood to get some dinner. Travelling back to Kenton Valley, we were a little concerned about the thick white smoke. But we had no idea what we were in for.
Craig and Graeme monitored the bushfire from the edge of the property overlooking the valley which was covered in low-hanging, white smoke. I was standing inside the house looking out of the large window, still not too worried. I looked away briefly and when I looked back flames were snaking across the paddocks directly to the house. I realised what a serious situation we were in!
For 45 minutes, Craig and Graeme fought the fire which now surrounded the house on three sides. So close on one side that it was about to set the pine trees alight which would have been the end of the house. It was maybe 20 metres away. I felt like I could touch it.
I heard Graeme yelling for Craig who was fighting the fire on the other side of the house. Then saw them both tearing across to put it out.
They had the hoses pumping bore water and all I could do was wet towels to block smoke coming in, fill water bottles, find wool blankets for protection, and prepare for the worst.
Finally, the CFS arrived like avenging angels and put out most of the flames before they ran out of water. The house was safe.
We stood outside in the roaring wind and watched the fire travelling further across the valley and through the hills. The vineyard across the road was burning. What sounded like rain was simply the sound of a greedy fire devouring everything in its path.
Throughout the night, the boys kept watch as the flames, like a birthday candle that can re-light, kept popping up. I eventually slept what I now realise was the deep sleep of shock.
December 21, 2019
The next morning, with the property now blackened with a firebreak and safe, we left to go home to Lobethal. We travelled through burnt land, saw singed sheep, cattle and alpacas huddled together on the occasional bit of unburnt land.
Trees were still burning on the side of the road and, weirdly, a mighty gum tree was still standing with its base on fire inside. A huge gum tree across the road was being sawn up by volunteers, so we manoeuvred our cars onto the paddocks, and drove through ash several feet thick until we could get back onto the road.
We arrived home to find our house just as we had left it. I was fully expecting it to be gone.
Later that day, we went to Mt Barker to find internet coverage so we could contact family and friends. Each of our phones began to ping with messages. It was so touching that so many people cared for us.
The fire ground map showed Lobethal surrounded by fire. Seeing the losses for myself made it so sadly real.
I am so proud of all the firefighters who, day after day, put themselves at risk, and of my husband Graeme and our dear friend Craig who fought so valiantly. I know, without a shadow of doubt, if we had not gone to Craig’s house, he and Di would have lost their home.
I am so proud of the Hills community who show so much love and support for each other.
I am so glad to be alive.
Our family was concerned for us and frightened to come and stay for Christmas. Our daughter was desperate to find accommodation for us all to stay in. In her mind, the fires were still raging.
But for those of us who had seen the worst, there was a strange sense of calm. We didn’t want to leave our community and could think of nothing worse than staying somewhere else. We just wanted to be in our homes and our town where we belonged, spending Christmas with our families.
There were still sirens and fire engines tearing through Main Street every day but they didn’t engender fear, more a sense that we were being looked after. We were safe.
Family who arrived from Melbourne were shocked by what they saw. Trees were still burning and hanging over the roads and some stock was loose. Driving through Woodside and into Lobethal and seeing how close the fire had come to the centre of town, they couldn’t believe we had survived.
I went shopping at our local supermarket and so many of us were walking the aisles in a daze.
One lady said she couldn’t remember what she needed. I said neither could I, even though I had a list in front of me. We laughed.
All through the supermarket, people were sharing their stories. Such a sense of community.
Last report there were 82 houses lost and another just gone in Gumeracha. Hundreds of hectares of crops and land lost and countless numbers of cars and farm equipment gone.
Our daughter has asked several times if we will move back to the plains. Our answer is a definite “no”. Here, we can be seen. Here, we have community. We do not want to return to the anonymity of suburban life where we hardly spoke to our neighbours, or they to us.
This morning the air is full of the song of so many birds that have come in to town to find refuge in the trees. It’s a busy, happy sound. A sound of hope for the future. We’re blessed.
All of the family arrived from different directions through fire-ravaged countryside.
We weren’t sure that the whole family would turn up on Christmas day. They were coming from interstate, Roxby Downs and the Adelaide plains so we were so happy they did.
It was a wonderful day filled with love and laughter, and happy children.
The sirens were still going and there were still fires burning – but not near us.
Traditionally, our house is covered in lights to support the Lobethal Lights events. We did wonder whether we should turn them off out of respect. The pageant had been cancelled and people were not coming up at night as they usually did, but we decided to keep them going for our grandchildren and the few people who may brave the drive. I don’t know why, but coloured lights bring so much joy to not only me but to so many people. We needed to share the joy.
A small family was standing outside our fence looking at the lights and inflatable Santa. I asked them if they would like their little boy to come in and have his photo taken. They said they would. He was maybe three-years-old and so excited. Our four-year-old granddaughter Mia very kindly offered to be in the photo with him. It was quite funny. They were pretty disappointed that the lights in Lobethal were mostly not on so this was at least a nice memory for them to have.
All throughout the hills, different parts of the bush are healing. The bright emerald green of new growth that clings to the trunks of trees is wonderful. A testament to how our country can heal.
I still haven’t seen the ponies that used to be in a paddock on the way to Cudlee Creek. I feel things will feel a little more normal if they return. I look each time as we head to Adelaide via that road. I really hope that when that area starts to heal and provide grazing land, they will be back.
3 weeks after the fire
It has amazed me how quickly the fencing is being replaced along the paddocks heading out to Woodside. Burnt stumps are now replaced with lovely fresh posts and wire stretching all the way to the Onkaparinga Valley Road.
The farmers have been watering the land and the feed is returning, so the cattle are back in their paddocks.
One of the dams has been enlarged to maybe three times its size, perhaps to ensure there is more water available should there be another fire.
I have watched the progress of the rebuilding of the dam. There is something that appeals to me about its smooth walls. It seems like one minute it looked like just a road. The next that road turned into a smooth, high slope which will contain a much larger amount of water. I look at it each time we come home, waiting for the other side to be completed.
I guess all these things give me confidence that life is moving on. I know there is a lot of healing to do for people though and that is going to take a long time.
4 weeks later
Sadly, the fire and the damage it has caused seem harder to accept.
I look up a driveway that was once lined with majestic trees and now all I see are blackened stumps of the trees that have had to be removed. I realised the two-storey house is gone and the gardens destroyed.
Many of the houses on the outskirts of Lobethal were hidden by huge trees and shrubs and now as the dead trees are removed we can see that so many didn’t escape the fire.
The burnt houses are slowly subsiding into the ground. The metal roofs collapse a little more each day. One house that I thought was intact because the outside is still standing is in actual fact a shell. If you look through the front door you can see that the house is burnt out and empty. The people there had a strawberry farm and also a rustic pizza café. It’s all gone.
The man who owned property near the strawberry farm had created a bit of a tourist attraction with his quirky fitting of the backs of cars to his big shed – they looked like someone had driven straight into the wall. That shed and the house near it surrender a little more each day to the weight of the collapsing roof.
The paddocks are healing and what was a soft merging of colours is very quickly turning into green. The animals are grazing again. Then my eye catches a burnt-out tractor or a huge blackened stump of a tree and my breath catches in my throat.
One of my friends was quite distressed by the fact that the colours are merging. When I asked ‘but surely that is a good thing?’, she said, “No, it’s as though nothing has happened!” I think she’s upset because we don’t want people to think it’s all over and everything is fine. The new green covering the burnt out land is like a bandage covering a sore. The sore is still there, underneath.
On a more positive note, there a number of agencies working to help the Hills people.
In Lobethal at the Wool Shed, people can go and get some really good advice and practical help. Further up the road there is an unused shop full of goods for people who need them. We see army trucks and army personnel around the area who are also working with people to get their properties back into shape.
So while this has been a traumatic time for so many of us it has brought with it a stronger sense of community, caring and love. Healing is in progress and there is hope for the future. People in big and small ways are making a difference to those in need. There is a long way to go but the grit and determination of the hills people will not be beaten down. We will heal and move on.
What I want the decision makers to know
- Financial help is moving too slowly
- Too much red tape in accessing funds and paperwork is complicated and overwhelming for people who need to access it.
- People want to know where all the money is that has been raised through various groups and concerts etc.
- There needs to be a softer approach to helping people access support. Even though there is some good advice available, people have found it daunting to be pounced on by three people at once when going to the Woolshed for help only to find in many cases they may not meet the criteria.
- Most Australians will not seek help for their mental health until they break. There will be an ongoing need for counselling. Their needs may grow, rather than diminish. How is the government going to provide ongoing mental health support?
By Jody Drechsler
Jody Drechsler is Information Coordinator at the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, a mother of four and grandmother to 11. She and her husband Graeme have lived in Lobethal for eight years, following a “Hills change”. She loves the sense of community there and says “we’ve made more friends in the past eight years than we did in the last 20.”
Jody says she and Graeme will never move back to the plains: “This is our forever place.”
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