23 december 2019

'This is how I die': the day the bushfires came to Balmoral

The southern highlands hamlet was savaged by a blaze that one resident said was ‘a thinking fire, like it was alive’

Michael McGowan and Helen Davidson, The Guardian, Mon 23 Dec 2019

As the flames approached Justin and Helena’s Balmoral home from two directions on Saturday afternoon, they still held out some hope of saving it.

“I thought a 50-50 chance,” Justin tells the Guardian. “First it was [coming] from the south and I thought, ‘we expected this, we can handle it’. Then it started coming in from the east and it was ‘OK, now it’s harder but still maybe’.”

But as the couple and their 16-year-old son, Gabriel, battled to protect their home it seemed determined to outsmart them.

“It was a thinking fire,” Helena said. “Like it was alive.”

As flames dozens of metres high bore down on them they ran desperately through thick, choking smoke to put out the spot fires that kept breaking out around them. Then, suddenly, the fire was behind them too, blowing in from a third direction, and they were overwhelmed.

“I looked around and suddenly there it was behind us, like it had caught us in a pincer movement,” he says. “I probably knew then it was too much.”

“The heat, I can’t describe it. It would have burned your beard off.”

He ran to the laundry to climb onto the roof, one last desperate attempt to fight it off, but as he opened the door what Helena called “a ball of fire” burst through. It was in the house then, and the three of them ran for it together.

As they made their escape, the windows they’d had checked by two fire captains before the blaze came through were smashing around them. “It was ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,’ glass breaking behind us,” Helena says.

A few kilometres down the road, 67-year-old Steve Harrison was having his own harrowing brush with the brutal fire that tore through this part of NSW over the weekend.

Harrison, a professional potter, had prepared his home the best he could, wrapping his windows in aluminium foil – “like a giant garlic bread” – and installing sprinklers on the walls and roof. As the flames approached, he did one last check around his property and jumped in the car to leave.

“But the garden was already on fire, the driveway was on fire, the road was on fire, I thought ‘I’m not getting out of here’,” he said.

Instead he ran to a “coffin-sized” shelter he’d fashioned out of fireproof ceramic fibres the day before, and scuttled inside. Huddled inside his makeshift kiln he watched as his pottery shed – the third he’s had destroyed by fire since moving here – burned around him. He dared not look at his house until the fire had passed. When he did, he was shocked to see it still standing.

“It was eerie. The light was this metallic, luminous glow. Burning leaves were falling around me. The smoke was so thick I could hardly breathe. I just watched it as it came over me. I was shit scared. I thought ‘this is how I die’.”

And so this is Balmoral now. This tiny, usually picturesque village with a population of about 400 in the southern highlands just south of Sydney, where 18 homes were destroyed on Saturday, is now another pitstop in the travelling bushfire emergency that has claimed nine lives and more than 900 buildings since November.

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