Australia wildfires: 'The worst is yet to come', say firefighters

Residents in the Blue Mountains tell Kathy Marks of homes lost, lucky escapes and the ongoing fear of obliteration

The Blue Mountains

Rebecca Cameron was one of the lucky ones. The flames that destroyed half the houses in her street, Emma Parade, came within a couple of metres of her front door. Only swift action by her next-door neighbour, who pumped water out of his swimming pool, saved her home.

That was last Thursday, when bushfires flared up across New South Wales, amid high winds and baking heat normally only seen in midsummer. But Ms Cameron barely had time to count her blessings, before fire authorities warned of even worse conditions ahead, with forecasts today of temperatures in the high 30s Celsius and wind gusts of up to 100kph.

So she and other residents of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where nearly 200 homes were obliterated last week, spent the day battening down the hatches – hosing their roofs and yards, chopping back combustible native vegetation, and filling every available receptacle (fish tanks, wheelie bins, bathtubs) in case of another fiery onslaught.

The fear in small communities such as Winmalee, where Ms Cameron lives, was that hot winds would whip up massive fires still raging, their combined fronts covering several hundreds of kilometres, as well as sparking new conflagrations. “It’s scary, but I grew up in the mountains, and you get used to it,” she said, giving her charred front garden another drenching.

Down the road, Ron Fuller surveyed the ruins of his three-bedroom home, which he built 23 years ago on a ridge overlooking the picturesque Grose Valley. His 19-year-old son, Harry, was the only one home when fire ripped through the valley last week, raining lethal embers on Winmalee. Harry grabbed the family’s laptops and his bass guitar, jumped in his car and fled.

“There was thick black smoke all around, and the winds were just ripping the trees out of the ground. It was incredible,” said Harry, wandering through the wreckage of his bedroom. Ron was systematically sifting rubble in the hope of finding some of his wife’s jewellery.

Across the Blue Mountains, residents were weighing advice by the commissioner of the state’s Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, to leave by this morning. Mr Fitzsimmons warned that conditions would be “about as bad as it gets”, adding: “There is a very real potential for more loss of homes and loss of life.” A 63-year-old died of a heart attack last week while defending his house on the Central Coast, north of Sydney.

While cooler weather on Tuesday allowed fire crews to carry out defensive back-burning operations, they were unable to slow the advance of the major fires. Hundreds of tankers and engines were sent in from around the state in readiness for today, while extra firefighters were drafted in from Melbourne and Queensland.

Despite a light drizzle, the air in Winmalee was smoky, and ash swirled in the air. Three nursing homes in the nearby hamlet of Springwood were evacuated, and in the main street shoppers coughed and rubbed their eyes. All Blue Mountains schools will be closed today.

Ron Fuller and his son search through the rubble of their home Ron Fuller and his son search through the rubble of their home

 

In Emma Parade, 83-year-old Margaret Schutte was filling buckets and moving wooden furniture inside. She planned to pack bags for herself and her husband, Jan, 85, and turn the car around in the driveway, so they could make a quick getaway. “I’m frightened, and my husband is very affected,” she said. “He said the street [with its rows of ruined houses] looks just like a war zone. It looks like when he was a little boy growing up in Holland during the war.”

The couple moved to Winmalee six years ago from Wentworth Falls, higher up the mountains, because of the frequent bushfires there. “We thought we’d be better protected here,” said Margaret. “But we’ve had enough. We want to move into town, perhaps into a retirement village.”

The Fullers are already planning to rebuild in the same spot, and looking to the future. “We can have a whole new life, build something different, facing in a different direction, with more sunshine,” said Ron.

Like many other stricken residents, his family would not dream of leaving the mountains. “It’s no different to living in a floodplain – you know a flood’s going to come through some time,” he said. “If you live in the bush, you know the bush is going to burn some time.”

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat