And so Christmas in the Blue Mountains village of Blackheath has come to an end. The saddest, happiest, strangest and scariest festive season I’ve experienced in the twenty years we have lived here.

In mid December my husband Rob and I attended a delightful nativity play at the New Ivanhoe Hotel and we all joined in the carol singing. It was very sweet, and funny to recognize people in the amateur cast, who described themselves as ‘local yokels’.

Then there were the celebrations for the Blackheath railway station….. 150 years. A time for the village to celebrate, but such a hot day and fires threatening many areas. For this reason the indigenous smoking ceremony was replaced by a water ceremony, which included a grateful audience being sprinkled by a water soaked gum branch.

THE BLACKHEATHEN CHOIR

Meanwhile, news reports and graphs tracking fire movement threatened a more serious situation for us by the day.

IN THE FIRING LINE

We watched and waited. And then, after creeping through valleys and leaping up cliff faces creating havoc, the fire was almost upon us. From the door of our studio Rob and I found ourselves confronting a surreal, nightmarish sight.

Christmas crisis...the smoke cloud approaches.
FROM THE STUDIO STEPS

That blue sky soon vanished and instead of a familiar chorus of birdsong all we could hear were sirens and helicopters. We had done all we could to prepare and defend our little piece of paradise. Some of our neighbours chose to leave, which was understandable, but we made the difficult decision to stay…. unless ordered to leave by police.

Buckets of water were placed everwhere, undergrowth had been cleared, trees cut back and the petrol pump primed. Despite all this we feared we might lose our new home before we had even moved in. At one point the wind uncharacteristically changed direction to the east. Rob had to quickly put an extension on the pump hose to cover the deck side of the house. Thank goodness he had the fittings.

Prolonged surges of adrenaline are utterly exhausting. We both slept through a 2.30am text message warning us to leave, and woke to charred leaves and ash everywhere. So much for our hours of vigilance the day before.

BURNT OFFERINGS

THE PROSPECT OF LEAVING…AND COMMUNITY LOSS!

Oh good grief, the stress of packing in case we did have to evacuate…what to take? Wandering how I’d cope if the fire came sweeping in instead of just spotting as I (so naively) imagined. Then hearing of the damage to much loved places; the Blackheath lookouts, the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens, the Ziz-Zag Railway, the glow-worm tunnel at Newnes, the botanical gardens at Mount Tomah. Worrying about friends in a similar or worse situation to ourselves. As to the wildlife….I have no words.

There was a terrible beauty in many of the images captured. Someone pointed out the burning heart on this ravaged gum at the Rhododendron Gardens.

PHOTO BY JULIA HANLEY

An eerie photo of a burnt banksia was taken in Hat Hill Road, Blackheath by my friend Rosie Wood. At Rosie pointed out, at least the seeds will fall and germinate when rain finally comes. Oddly enough, fire is required for germination of banksias, one of those amazing, evolutionary adaptations.

burned landscape in Hat Hill Road, Christmas 2019.
BURNT BANKSIA IN NEARBY HAT HILL ROAD (Photo by Rosie Wood)

REPRIEVE IN THE CRISIS

But then, there was a blessed cool change that kept the danger at bay. It allowed us the happiness of enjoying a first Christmas in the house after-all; makeshift but blissful….and feeling safe thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of so many firefighters; volunteers most of them.

Enjoying Christmas during the fire cris of 2019
A DAY TO REMEMBER

Rob designed the house and has worked tirelessly as builder’s labourer with his dedicated team of tradies. I feared that to lose it might be more than even this tough fellow could cope with, although sadly, many people have faced just such a tragedy. It is a measure of his joy that he willingly wore this silly Santa hat, which was far too small!

Christmas dinner during the fire crisis of 2019
MY HERO BOB-THE-BUILDER – A HAPPY AND RELIEVED MAN (FOR NOW AT LEAST )
Rural Fire Brigade, angels during the Christmas crisis.
GUARDIAN ANGELS

And how special were all those messages and calls of support from family, friends and neighbours. Last but not least the calls from tradies; worried for their own places but also emotionally invested in ours.

It has been a Christmas never to be forgotten, for so many reasons.

READY FOR 2020

28 DECEMBER – Another heatwave begins, predicted to last several days. With the immediate fire threat over I can try to save the garden. The watering cans and builders’ buckets assembled to fight fire can now be used on struggling plants. We are on water restrictions and hosing is banned. I could use our tank water, but we might need it in the days and weeks to come.

Bucket brigade for a Christmas Crisis
DOING WHAT WE CAN

Let’s hope 2020 brings rain to help our farmers and give respite to our firefighters and their support teams. With the prospect of ever hotter and earlier summers, Rob now feels he should the join the Rural Fire Brigade. This causes me more angst, even though I completely understand and admire his urge to help.

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12 Comments
  1. Sending wishes for a speedy end to this reign of terror. Stay strong and resilient as only Australians can be. Blessings for the New Year. Andrew

    • Pauline

      Thanks Andrew. A reign of terror…that’s a perfect description. Thanks for your kind thoughts and happy New Year to you too.

  2. A frightening time. Glad it’s over and hope the next hot spell passes without fire. Here in the UK we suffer with excess water, any fires are tiny by comparison.

    • Pauline

      Yes, you have had some dreadful floods. Australia is now in for another few days of extreme heat, which will be a challenge for our tired firefighters.

  3. Oh Pauline. What can we say. I’ve watched the dreadful fires that are both powerful and unrelenting. I have been to the Blue Mountains and thought it beautiful. I have photos of the Three Sisters and enjoyed sending them to my 2 sisters deciding which one I was. I am praying for a bit of rain for Australia. In Ireland we have so much and just wish we could parcel a bit for you. Rest assured that the world is all praying for rain to put out the fires and help the farmers devastated by the infernos. I can’t bear to think of the terrified animals. Stay safe. When I next Sydney in March, I will, hopefully, see a bit of green starting to grow amongst the ravages of the fires. Nature is wonderful and it will grow back but at what price to all affected? Mind one another.
    Lorraine

    • Pauline

      It will take so long to recover Lorraine, and the economic hit for tourist areas, including Sydney, is dreadful. We so need visitors, so thanks for not cancelling your trip.

  4. A poignant account of what it is like from the inside. It is hard to take in the massive scale of the tragedy.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Janet. Yes, so sad for so many…. people and wildlife alike.

  5. Beautifully written , poignant and hopeful and slightly exhausting to read it.

    The places you mentioned , close to my heart .

    I had to scamper through on friday and sunday last week to visit rellos further west.

    Thankyou for this memory .

    Be safe !

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your lovely comments Garrie. Lots of people were nearly caught during those awful days. Things looking much better now thankfully.

  6. I got really behind over Christmas and New Year with no internet access, so have just seen this for the first time as I try to catch up. I have been tracking the news daily since the start of these terrifying fires, but I could feel my heart rate increase as I read this post. Well written, but so pleased you’re all still safe – for the moment.

    • Pauline

      Yes, pretty scary I have to say. Has given us all cause to think about global warming!

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