A Firey’s Story

23 January 2020 Lucy Baranowski

A Firey’s Story

Lucy Baranowski is a writer, beekeeper, volunteer firefighter and mother-of-four who lives with her husband in Kurrajong Heights, NSW. She blogs at Four Times the Madness.

The leaves in the crown of the trees suddenly rustled. All faces of the crew snapped up to the sky. We looked at each other, faces of stress and fatigue. The wind change was here. We knew it was forecast, but we didn’t know what impact it would have.

That day I refer to as “that Saturday”. I don’t remember the specific date. The fire was encroaching on Kurrajong Heights. After weeks of this bastard fire jumping containment lines, making a mockery of our firefighting strategies, the Gospers Mountain fire was coming for us. It was born of a lightning strike deep in the wilderness, burning slowly and quietly until it transformed into a hungry raging beast.

We had held a large community meeting a few days earlier where we shared as much information as we possibly could and encouraged everyone to have a fire plan. Above all, we urged people who weren’t prepared to stay and fight to just bloody leave the mountain.

I’m what some call a hopeless romantic for Kurrajong Heights, the community I’ve called home most of my life. We live among the most beautiful bushland in the world. My four children attend the same schools I did as a child. My parents still reside in the home that I was raised in; my husband and I live on an adjoining property, allowing our children to free-range back and forth.

Ever since I was really little, I remember my dad rushing around when he got a call from his fire brigade to respond to an incident. I never really appreciated the magnitude of what Dad was doing, or where he was going. Mum was always there, passing him socks, holding a boot, telling him “be careful” and “I love you”.

Mobile phones weren’t a “thing” back then, so for everyone left at home it was hours of radio silence. Mum paced the floor until Dad eventually walked back through the door. He would have the smells of bushfire on his clothes. It wasn’t an uncomfortable or scary smell. I actually quite liked it – maybe because those distinct traces of ash and flames on Dad’s clothing matched the look of pride and fatigue on his face.

His Rural Fire Service uniform still hangs on the same hooks by the garage door. Now mine does, too. Joining the local RFS brigade in 2013 was a massive step for me. With a young family, I was nervous to volunteer. I wondered if it was the right time. My advice: yes! It’s always a good time to do something for your community. Our future relies on volunteering and kindness. And long gone is the idea that a woman doesn’t belong on a fire truck; women are very much encouraged to join the service.

The RFS offers substantial training, and I’ve gained local knowledge, self-worth and camaraderie. I am bloody glad I took that leap of faith. I was destined to be a firefighter.

My husband is also a volunteer RFS firefighter. With four children, we never travel together on the same truck. It’s part of the job to think of any potential danger that we might face. Some firefighters never return home – it’s a gut-wrenching reality for many families.

On “that Saturday”, I was tasked with a property on the most northern side of Kurrajong Heights. Heading out on a truck for any incident with your brigade family prompts mixed emotions. You’re never certain what you are about to witness. You have to have courage and a belief that you will all make it home. You trust your crew mates; with every flash of a red and blue light you morph into a team of strength and grit.

The ridge lines were laid out in front of us. We had prime position to see where the fire would impact first, where the fire would greet us and show us what it was made of.

Our truck was parked nose out, meaning that if we had to flee, we were ready. Hoses were rolled out and pumps connected to both the truck and a pool on the property we were tasked to protect. You can never have enough water. We watched the plumes of smoke from a distance. We felt the hot northwesterly winds in our faces. We noted the relative humidity dropping dramatically as each hour passed; the rising temperature made us all hyper aware. We hydrated ourselves, maintained radio contact, and texted our families to let them know where we were. We thought we were ready. We should have known this fire was renowned for its bad attitude, its ability to keep everyone guessing, and its power to do whatever it wanted. It was hungry, and nasty. 

As the southerly wind blew over our shoulders, we watched as it shifted the flames in the distance. One community’s blessings of a weather change means another is about to suffer. Bilpin was about to take the brunt. We held our breath. Our township had been spared, but our sister village was about to hurt, and hurt it did.

We couldn’t leave our post. We couldn’t leave our mountain unprotected. We were forced to sit, and wait, and watch. It was terrifying, knowing there was nothing we could do while our friends up the road took a hammering. We watched as each ridge line went up like a nightmare sunrise. The fire was crowning well above the trees. It jumped, erratically, without concern. Even our seasoned crew mates were holding their heads in their hands, each taking a moment to absorb the destruction unfolding before us. We spent hours on that ridge top, watching, waiting, not able to do a bloody thing but listen to the familiar voices over the radios and wonder. The fire tormented so many people that day, in all different ways.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were stood down, and quietly made our way back to our station. Warm, clean, supportive faces awaited us. They had food and cold drinks. Tears welled. Not knowing what damage was still being done to Bilpin, feeling major guilt and helplessness, looking at the faces of the incident controllers at the station, shocked at the sound of the radios blaring and all the questions without answers – I felt myself breaking. Every aspect felt so wrong.

I didn’t sleep well that night. None of us did. Knowing that our RFS brothers and sisters were still out on the fireground, while the fire tore the landscape apart, was hard to accept. But the next day, we all got up, put on our uniforms and headed back out. That’s the reality of volunteering for the RFS: we’ve got guts and we don’t stop.

Now that the fire has been put to bed, we try to find some normality among the blackened backdrop of our bushlands. The fire has burnt more than 512,000 hectares, with homes and untold numbers of wildlife lost. As our townships start the clean-up and the support of those impacted by the Gospers Mountain fire, this is where the work really begins. The emotional toll on the firefighters, the support staff, the truckies, the caterers – there are so many who survived through this campaign. The media has moved on to the next fires, while those communities left in the charcoal and dust seem forgotten. We will stick together; a new level of connection has been born out of the flames.

The Blue Mountains is a wonderful piece of the Australian puzzle. The landscape may be scorched, but the people stand tall, waiting for our amazing tourism industry to kick back into gear. We have so much to offer to those who are brave enough to drive through the blackened scenery, so come meet the most brave, kind and clever folk you’ll ever meet.
Apple pies, cider, orchards, fruit picking, crusty sourdough, fresh harvested honey, bloody good food – Bilpin and surrounding townships are waiting to show you what “incredible” looks, feels, smells and tastes like. Catch a glimpse of strength and friendship, and fill your stomach and heart with nourishment and warmth.

Article first published in The Big Issue edition 604.