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.
Meanwhile, news reports and graphs tracking fire movement threatened a more serious situation for us by the day. How close would it be by Christmas?
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.
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.
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.
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. The poor banksia has the look of a weird, minimalist Christmas tree.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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