This month I am breaking with the tradition of writing a technical animal health article.
Instead, I thought I would share my recent experience during the St. Patrick’s Day bushfires in southwest Victoria.
It had been a pleasantly warm day, probably too warm for many, but I’ve always liked warmer temperatures and to get up to 30oC in March was a nice surprise.
My husband was away at a conference in NSW so my 16-month-old daughter and I had spent the day tottering around the park.
After the usual bath-bottle-book-bed routine, she was sleeping soundly in her cot by 7.30 pm.
It was a hot evening and after feeding out hay for our cows and horse, I idly checked our outside thermometer. It was still 33oC.
They had forecast a Severe Fire Danger Rating and given the wind that was whistling around our house I wasn’t surprised.
At about 8.30–9 pm my phone beeped. It was an Advice warning on the Vic Emergency app detailing a fire in Terang.
As I was scrolling through the app, my phone beeped again. And again. New fires in Terang and Camperdown.
Nothing to worry about I thought; they were expecting this, right? More beeps on the phone. The frequency of the alerts was increasing and at 9.30 pm we lost power.
We often lose power in storms so I wasn’t overly worried. Glancing through our bathroom window I glimpsed a red glow on the horizon.
I called my husband, telling him I was going to pack a few things in case we needed to leave. To be honest, I never really believed I would and my pace and urgency was casual to say the least.
The battery on my phone was nearly dead so I ambled outside to charge it from my car. I was met with a panoramic red glow surrounding our property.
Our house sits on the edge of a steep gully with only one way in and out. The towering pine trees at the end of our drive were silhouetted against the volcanic sky.
Flecks of ash were caught in the beam of my head torch and the smell of smoke was increasingly choking — think Mordor from Lord of the Rings.
By 10 pm the Camperdown fire had an Emergency Warning and there were now fires in Scotts Creek and Jancourt. There were now 31 different incidents within 10 km of our house. Things were happening quickly.
More beeps on the phone, signalling new fires and upgraded alerts. There was debris flying everywhere and now I could also see flames on the horizon at the end of the driveway. No time to waste!
I called my neighbour over the gully nearer Cobden and made the decision to leave. Nappy bag, portacot, pram, my clothes bag, baby food, blankets and torches — check.
Two very excitable Jack Russells and one freaked out cat. Oh, and a sleepy baby. All bundled into the car.
As I drove out the driveway, narrowly missing flying branches and debris, I wondered if this would be the last time.
In Cobden, there were people everywhere, it was chaos. Thankfully we were directed to a relief centre where, amazingly, volunteers were already organising food and hot drinks.
Community spirit never ceases to amaze me. More beeps on the phone. The road to our house was now closed and leaving wouldn’t have been an option.
By midnight, there were 64 incidents within 10 km of our house and at least five Emergency Warnings. This was a living nightmare.
Reality was beginning to sink in for many. Some people were crying out and shouting; others were silent and shocked. All were dealing with what was happening in their own way.
It was still so warm and the winds continued to howl. Several trees were down in the Cobden township and smaller branches littered the pavements.
By 1 am my daughter was very hyperactive so I drove around town, in the hope she would fall asleep in the car. After an hour and half of driving I tentatively turned off the ignition. She didn’t stir.
I let the dogs out on a leash and then tried to get a bit of shut-eye in the back of the car. By this time it was 3.30 am.
Another beep on my phone, checking the app, my heart sank and tears filled my eyes. A new bush fire had been reported at the end of our driveway.
The ground and trees were so dry and we had 30 rolls of hay under the pine trees. I felt we were gone for sure. Despite being cramped in the back of my car with my 16-month-old daughter, two dogs, a cat and a handful of stuff, I suddenly felt very alone.
At the time of writing this we are four days after the bushfires that ripped through our rural communities. I am sitting in my office at home.
I feel hugely thankful that our house survived unscathed, as did our livestock. Our neighbours’ paddock had caught fire during the early hours of Sunday morning, most likely the result of an ember from the main fire front.
But the feeling of gratitude is somewhat masked by the feeling of guilt. Others have not been so fortunate and have lost their homes and livelihoods.
There are no words that I can express to comfort these victims of the fire. But one thing should be remembered: in contrast to the fires that rampaged on Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday, there was no loss of human life during the St. Patrick’s Day fires.
For this we are indebted to our Emergency Services, many of whom are volunteers and farmers themselves.
Real-time live communication and forward planning by response groups and volunteers also contributed to the efficiency of evacuation and communication.
The after-effects of this disaster will be prolonged. Property restoration, supply of fodder and animal health issues are inevitable, along with the emotional and physical exhaustion that can be forgotten during the recovery phase.
The community effort has been overwhelming and nothing short of amazing. Local government, industry bodies, organisations and volunteer groups have rallied to organise a united response to those who have been affected, directly and indirectly.
Saturday, March 17, 2018 was a long night for our community. For many it is one that will never be forgotten.
• Gemma Chuck is an adviser with Apiam Animal Health.