The sun shone brightly on Edgar’s Mission on Sunday February 9th, 2014 as our regular volunteer day swung into top gear. Our dedicated crew toiled away under hot and dusty conditions as paddocks were cleaned of manure, chicken houses were made spick and span and the incessant and oft times boring task of raking and removing every last skerrick of debris about the farm was undertaken. Little did we know my penchant for the latter was soon to be vindicated.
As the afternoon continued on, our first whiff of trouble came when reports filtered through of a fast moving grassfire that had broken out less than forty kilometres to our south at Mickleham and was heading our way. We were to later learn the fire was the result of tree branches falling on power lines.
With a well-earned rest beckoning volunteers to down tools and farewell their new found piggy friends, mixed reports were coming in that the Hume Freeway to Melbourne may be blocked. At this point in time we could barely see the distant smoke that was to soon threaten our lives.
As the last volunteers began their trek home, we turned our attention to the afternoon ritual of feeding our animal friends and locking the chickens into their night time enclosures, all the while looking to the south for any signs of encroaching smoke and keeping an ear out for the newly installed CFA app on our phones to alert of impending danger.
We were comforted by the fact that only weeks before, at our request, we had a visit from a local CFA volunteer who ran through our fire plan and offered some timely advice to ensure our ‘stay and defend’ plan was up to speed should the worst case scenario eventuate, praying all the while this would only be an exercise. And praised we were for keeping the farm so clean and fire fuel free.
As the hours ticked on and the smoke began to kick in, it was time to roll out stage one of our fire plan, again we hoped this was but a drill as the fire was still some distance off.
But before long, fanned by wild and ever-changing winds, reminiscent of Black Saturday, stage two of our fire plan saw amongst other things the larger animals moved to our secure and prepared fire paddocks and soon thereafter as a precautionary move, the first round of evacuations commenced, with some of the resident cats and dogs heading to Melbourne.
It seemed totally incredulous that a fire from the almost Melbourne suburb of Mickleham had not yet been arrested, surely it would be so shortly we thought. Sadly we were wrong.
And then it all started. Constant beeps from our phones told of the fast encroaching fire and we were right in its northerly trek. Fire clothing now donned and eyes poised to the south, the smell of smoke was thick in the air as it stung our eyes and began to assault our airways.
Monitoring the fire from the Vic Emergency website, we could see that properties to our south, many occupied by friends had already been impacted. Just how badly was something we didn’t know nor wished to contemplate.
Cars, trailers and horse floats packed with families and their beloved pets from the southern end of McHargs Road began zipping past. Patrols of the farm commenced immediately as ash and then embers began to blow in. And before too long, a killing blow was dealt as darkness began to descend.
But the real game changer came as the CFA support vehicle burst into our driveway informing that if we planned to evacuate we must “Do so now,” or it would be too late. That I was prepared for but what came next I was not, “If you do plan to stay we hope you are well prepared because we simply do not have enough crews in the area and you will be on your own.” My response was as succinct as it was determined, “We’ll be staying.” To which I was told, “We wish you luck then,” and they were off to spread the warning with residents further up the road.
Running a sanctuary such as ours is not always easy, tough decisions oft times have to be made and there I sat facing one of the toughest decisions I have ever made. In all of our fire plan discussions, it had always been our plan for the team to stay and defend. But now I was presented with the stark reality that we would be on our own. I then began to ask myself if we would indeed be able to defend all the animals.
With choking smoke demanding an answer I could not afford to take the gamble and so I called to Paula, “You’ll have to go, get the truck and take whoever you can and go. Get to the racecourse and come back in the morning when the front has gone.” Little did I know the fire front was to remain a predator for several more days.
Taking the poultry from the top section of the property became the priority as we would not have had the manpower or fire fighting resources to cover them on our own. The baby lambs and kid goats, critical care animals, bunnies, guinea pigs along with the remaining cats and dogs were all to join the Noah’s Ark convoy that was to shortly leave the farm as three vehicles chock full of critters headed out the gate.
Somewhere into the mix of confusion as locals began ‘headin for the hills’ a familiar car pulled into the drive. It was ‘our’ Peter, he had caught the news of the fast encroaching fire and despite being his day off he forsook all else and came to help save his beloved sanctuary.
The next call we took would be critical, the fire had hit the Webster’s property. “Quick ring back and see which way it was heading”, at this point in time we found the CFA apps on our phones sadly wanting in the critical information of just where the fire was, what direction it was heading and how fast it was travelling. The Webster’s farm is less than one kilometre due east as the crow flies from Edgar’s Mission. “It’s heading east” Kyle said, and repeated “it’s heading east”.
‘Oh thank god, we have been spared’ was all I could think until the reality hit that our saving grace would be another’s worst nightmare. And that nightmare was to be had by our dear friend on her property on Willowmavin Road that she shares with many rescued sheep, goats and dogs. I just felt ill.
It was only later I was to learn that this fire would cut the exit path of Paula and the team, rolling fiercely across the road before them, causing them to stop in their tracks and head further north to find a back way into town. But we were by no means out of the woods.
Not long after this my friend called to confirm the fire had hit her property. She had done her best to move the sheep and goats out of harm’s way and with CFA crews and support teams present her best course of action was to evacuate with the dogs. So she too headed to safety.
I am not quite sure at what point Sunday became Monday because there was no defining sleep that heralded a new day. The first round of our fire rotation that was supposed to give the three remaining members of our team some respite was implemented late Sunday evening (one hour on two hours off) but I am sure the others like myself slept, if you could call it that, with one eye (and in my case both) firmly open.
The office became my make shift bedroom for two reasons. The first being my bedroom had become a poultry haven for chickens and ducks (they were having a ball). The second, from the vantage point of my yoga mat bed and newspaper eye shade (the light remaining on in case an emergency dash was warranted and also to alert if we were to lose power) I had a clear view to the south to see best should our enemy make good her assault.
In what was to become a ritual for the ensuing nights we all took a look together around the farm before retiring so we had a zero point to record any changes during the night. The next person on duty was able to check the log of the person preceding them to note any changes that needed to be monitored.
With the daylight of Monday came an incredible smoke haze, dust filled the air from the many vehicles that sped back and forth up ‘our’ dirt road, McHargs Road, a road that was to be frequently mentioned on the airways in the coming days as a hot spot for fires in the area along with its cross road Diggings Road. Ash was to prove a menace and a reminder that our stalker sat a short distance away, toying with us, waiting to pounce.
But we were alive, still here and pretty much unscathed but incredibly exhausted, sleep had been no one’s friend last night and it showed. If one stood too long, knees would buckle and heads would nod. As we tried to piece together what had happened around us in the preceding 24 hours calls, both incoming and outgoing calls gave a picture that was as grim as it was hopeful.
My nose was to become sore from the pressure of the face mask that provided some relief from the choking smoke but this was a small price to pay for the cleaner air it provided and we thanked our lucky stars we were not battling under searing heat so our fire protection clothing was not too burdensome but my boots had managed to give me blisters.
Police road blocks prevented those who had evacuated from returning while intrepid residents sought alternate routes and back roads to check on stock and properties. But not all could return.
I recall one distressed caller who asked if we could advise on the status of a property where her horses were agisted, I recall nervously relaying that I thought the fire had not made it that far but would check at the first safe opportunity. It was awful, I felt her horror and angst but there was little more I could do, to leave our property at that point in time would have been placing our animals and my personal safety at risk.
If Sunday’s fire was quick and merciless, Monday’s was slow, cruel and refusing to die. By mid-morning little had changed and we knew the fire refused to submit, but today the local CFA fire crews had been joined by many interstate teams and more from within the state had joined the number.
Further comforted we were that two water bombing helicopters were in the area along with spotter planes. Although their presence was a constant reminder of the danger we faced we knew we would not be alone this time.
Just as I was about head off to check on the caller’s horses a look to the sky in the south caused concern, which was echoed by the beeps from my phone and confirmed when Kyle called to say, “You’d better come and look at this.” The Vic Emergency website showed several fires had just started in Diggings Road, fanned by a southerly wind.
Over the years I never paid much attention to the wind speed and directions obligatorily offered at the end of weather bulletins, but this fire was to change all that. With each news bulletin, we listened intently to not only wind strength but direction. Today she was a southerly. Not good. And I would have been heading directly into her wicked hot path. And so a sickening game of cat and mouse began as we watched and waited for the fire to hit.
As more residents from the south evacuated, once again they slowed down as they neared our front gate, tossing our way the warning, “It’s metres from our house, and you had better get out”. Next it was the CFA who called in to advise the fire had surged again with more ferocity and their advice was, “It’s heading your way. You had better leave now, or it will be too late.” Not long thereafter, it was the police who called in informing they too were evacuating the area as the fire would impact in the next half hour.
But I had saved each and every one of the animals I saw before me and I was not about to abandon them now for I truly believed if we stayed we could defend them but if we left we could not.
Monday then became a blur of watching and waiting. I remember sitting at the top of the laneway that slopes westward to our back paddocks. From this position we could see the smoke from the fire behind the ridge as, gently guided by a south westerly wind she was guided around our little haven of hope but knowing fires and winds are fickle things we knew we could not breathe a sigh of relief yet nor for one minute let up on our watch and wait plan.
And so we watched and waited as the water bombing duo of helicopters hovered over a neighbouring dam taking a mere 30 seconds to fill then making post haste to douse the fire with the second copycat chopper doing the same. This went on for several more long hours and all we wanted to do was sleep.
Monday evening came and we were all still there, tired as we were, we knew that so too was the fire and beginning she was to realise that her numbers were up.
So many fire fighting crews were now in our area that now the sight of them no longer gave us a heart stopping OMG moment but a reassuring feel that someone was watching over us and so common were the choppers and spotter planes overhead we could well have been living in a war zone.
Taking this level of comfort on board, we slowly began to venture out checking on neighbouring properties and feeding animals who had remained but had no one to check on them. A few minor scares as spot fires took off but by this time we knew the drill so well that hearts did not race and we simply did what needed to be done.
At one point in the afternoon two of us ventured out to check on our friend’s property in Willowmavin Road; to secure fencing that had been damaged in the fire fighting efforts and ensure all animals were safe. With fencing restored to prevent stock from wandering onto the road, we moved to the back of the property.
With job at hand almost complete, the sight of several CFA trucks heading towards the mission saw us down tools and race for our vehicle that would speed us back home and once again adopt our ready for action plan.
That evening as the orange glow of the fire rimmed the horizon to our south west all throughout our fire watch rotation we could clearly hear the sounds and see the lights of emergency service vehicles and tractors as they battled to create and maintain confinement lines for the fire. So close were these angels of mercy we could even hear their beautiful voices.
The selfless efforts of the CFA members and those in our community who kept us all safe can never be praised enough.
Each year we have always donated to the wonderful cause that is the CFA but from now we will be encouraging others to do likewise. Without the tireless and selfless efforts of these damn fine human beings I could well not be here today to pen this tale.
The days that followed were almost like watching life in the third person. Driving past paddocks once filled with animals reduced to blackened moonscapes of sadness.
Whilst we were often left to wonder what had become of the livestock that once grazed there, sadly other times we were not, as blackened pot-bellied carcases all too graphically told the sorry truth.
The sight of farmers shooting sheep will haunt us forever, so too the images of these gentle animals so hideously and painfully burned, some even losing their hooves, faces so swollen they could not even see, moving zombie like around a fenceless paddock.
How cruel can life be and kind a bullet would become. Seeing these images one comes to realise death is not the worst option, suffering surely is.
Many a time I have sat down to write this piece and many a time I have stopped. So many stories have emerged from the ashes, some good, some not so good – stories that shape our lives, make our lives and sometimes even break our lives. While this is my story, many others will be told and sadly some will remain untold, too painful to relive.
Thankfully no human lives were lost in this tragedy but the livestock losses have been horrific; over 12,000 sheep, 450 cattle and 318 horses, goats, deer and alpacas along with thousands of our beautiful native animals have all perished and figures still rise.
But I know these creatures not as a number but as an individual, a pitiful and confused creature who no doubt was terrified by the firestorm around them, a creature who fled for their life and lost. That we were able to save but a few is in itself a story of hope.
Travelling about the community in the fire’s wake, delivering fodder and supplies to those directly impacted, offering a listening hear to those who needed it and providing assistance where we could, we gleaned a lot, heard many stories but the true picture will never be complete.
However with each snapshot I piece together a puzzle that shows how interconnected we all are. How all creatures cherish their life, feel pain and yearn for the comfort of kindness.
Raw are the memories of the animals who we have seen perished, the injured wildlife who still roam and the families who have lost everything.
But life goes on, the sun coming up each day, the flowers emerging from blackened fields, the people who have bounced back and are out restoring fencing and the incredible goodness of human heart to reach out to help those in need; all poignant reminders that even in the blackest of hours some things still shine through.
I have learned many things from this terrible tragedy that has befallen this community that I have been a part of for twenty odd years, none the least to treat each new day as a gift, celebration of life, to cherish every moment because you never know whether it could be your last and to serve our brethren with a caring word, an outstretched hand and a pure heart for in doing so we evolve to be better, kinder more humane beings and when we do we truly shine.