Friday, October 25, 2013

The bushfire that didn't arrive, but still taught me lessons

First: wow. The Rural Fire Service. Words aren't enough. Their work in the three Blue Mountains bushfires beggars any praise I can offer.

Second: the fires didn't come near me or mine. A big reason for that is the RFS, which held the two fires that worried me (the Mount Victoria “Mount York Road” fire was the greatest concern, the State Mine Fire a close second) to their containment lines in horrific weather.

My nearest neighbours have two young children. Given the warnings that went out on Tuesday, they evacuated at 9:30 am Wednesday. “If you think you need to go, go now” was the message. They did the right thing. Other neighbours were also absent.

So I found myself in an expanse of perhaps 50 or so very bushy acres (neighbours' homes and bush included), quite alone.

One part of my brain was perfectly rational. I can read maps, look at weather, look at terrain, identify where the populated areas are. To burn the place I stood upon, under the prevailing wind, the fire would first have to ravage the north side of Wentworth Falls, a place which would have been very well protected since there's about 1,000 homes there. The RFS would defend that area, regardless of how they feel about my patch of bush.

That's the rational part of my brain.

The other rational part of my brain looked around: everybody else was gone. What did they know that I didn't?

Well, they knew about the risk of ember attack igniting spot-fires ahead of the blaze. That's why was where I was. A small fire started by an ember is something one person might be able to deal with; a fire-storm rushing through a property? My plan was to fight the first, flee the second.

Through the day, I settled into a pattern. Because you can't guarantee connectivity near a fire-ground, I didn't take a computer to check on data. Because mobile data sucks batteries, I didn't rely on that either. I made sure the family at home had all the links to check, and depended on them via phone, ABC 702 in the car, and local reports from my neighbour, who was listening to the chatter on the radio scanner.

My closest friend kept my eye on the clock via SMS. If I lost attention and didn't send a “still okay” message for too long, I'd get a demand for a status update.

And I waited and worried, and because a lot of that waiting and worrying involved stalking around a couple of hundred metres of driveways, re-assessing risks and wondering where burns could be safely ignored, or driving to other places seeking vantage points but still on my own, I think I learned something about myself.

The first lesson was that other people were worrying more, about me, than I was worrying about myself.

The second lesson was that in the circumstances, other people understood me better than I understood myself.

The first is easy to explain: I could see conditions on my particular patch of potential fire-ground, and they couldn't. They could only hear the news reports, the warnings and the suggestions that people get out. I could find a high vantage point – the foot-bridge at Wentworth Falls Station was fit for purpose – and make a simple assessment. “Is the smoke blowing towards me, or past me?” As long as smoke was blowing in other directions, I figured I was not in danger. If the sky darkened, I should run.

The second is more difficult. It took a conversation with a friend who's known me since about 1975 to crystallise it: “If you were watching your dream catch fire, would you have the strength of will to leave it to burn?”

That's a very difficult question to answer. You have to be able to answer it the right way, in the face of a circumstance you haven't yet encountered.

Look at it this way: one little spot fire, I can deal with. A couple of spot fires? Call triple-zero and get to work. What if they started arriving all over, all small, all manageable? What if the escalation from trivial to terror happened without me noticing? At what point would I decide to ignore the adrenalin and the “save everything” urge, and take care of myself instead?

Would I make that decision – would I turn my back, let the dream burn, start the engine and use my escape route – soon enough? Or would I fight until the last second, only to find the last second already past?

Since I never was in danger, I can't actually answer. I suspect there are people who answer that question the wrong way: they suffer injuries or death, because turning away would hurt too much. I understand, now, how that happens. I understand how my heroes in the RFS can become so driven that they perform miracles in the name of service. I honour them all.

But the other lesson I learned, the third one, is about how other people can help make the right decision.

I'm not an easy person to like. Finding myself with a veritable cloud of guardian angels was a completely new experience for me.

It was connections to other people that kept my feet on the ground. I could have receded into a bubble, and if a fire had arrived, perhaps I'd have died in the bubble: only my assessments, only my eyes and muscles and judgement, and a will too weak to leave.

I left earlier than I wanted to (although events proved others' judgement better than my own), because so many people stayed connected to me.

My family at home, speaking every half-hour for eight hours to discuss the latest RFS briefing, the current weather, the fire maps (PS, kudos to Google for its disaster maps, and ditto to the RFS for helping Google make it work in near-real-time).

My neighbour, who after evacuating his family, sought me out four times in the day in person to urge me to leave (and called at least another four times with the same message).

The best friend who demanded text message reports, half-past every hour. And others.

People called me away from the vigil. When I left at my wife's demand, I phoned my neighbour (“Call me tomorrow.”) and texted my best friend (“Oh, good”), and went home, even though I still feared the onset of fire.

It wasn't anything in me that gave me the will to leave: it was others. Their love and friendship had been in front of my eyes for eight hours, while my attention was occupied by other things. Even with attention diverted, though, eight hours is a lot of time to consider the various manifestations that love can take: my family reporting data to me so I can decide what to do; a neighbour's motorcycle arriving at Wentworth Falls Station because he'd worked out where to look for me when I wasn't where he expected me (his “I thought I might find you here” was extremely smug and very welcome!); the friend's clock-reliable text messages.

I learned a lot, in eight hours. And I owe thanks for that.

As well as owing so much more to the volunteers who have worked so hard, and saved so much.

No comments: