07 January, 2020

Our slice of the fight for Wingello

On Saturday 4 January 2020, the little village of Wingello (the secret Southern entrance to the Southern Highlands, NSW) was prepared for a threat of fire from the massive Currowan Fire lurking across the massive Shoalhaven Gorge.
It wasn't just smoke and embers!
Everyone was sure that the most likely occurrence would be for the Southerly change to hit the fire and blow embers across the gorge and start spot fires in the forest behind Wingello. An estimated 1/3 of the village remained to defend their homes and the two fire trucks of the local fire brigade were ready to do their best. The Forestry workers were ready to defend the Wingello State Forest.
I had sent out a stern message reminding all those that intended to defend to make sure they were properly ready. I think it was straight forward enough.
Tomorrow and Sunday will be at Extreme risk. The New Year's Eve 90 second change in the air from clear to thick brown smoke was our preview. When the change comes through tomorrow night it will be worse, even if the fire doesn't come.
Did you have trouble breathing? Leave.
Are you prepared if we get Ember attack? That means having a fuel powered pump, plenty of water, hoses, protective gear, sealed eye protection, breathing mask, good hat. If not, leave.
Do you intend staying on your own? If we get an ember attack, you may be putting out the one in front of you and more start behind you. If you succumb to smoke or trip, no-one will be able to help. Leave.
Do you have huge trees close to the house? If they catch you won't be able to save the house.
Is the way from your house to a safe spot covered by trees? (e.g. ANY of the roads in and out of Wingello). Then you have NO BACKUP. If you can't defend your house you won't get away. Leave.
We had a great gift in the dry run on New Year's Eve. That very rapid change from normal to armageddon was in 90 seconds. Make sure you and those with you are ready for what we experienced, but thicker smoke, louder noise, more wind, flames dropping from the sky.
Re-evaluate your fire plan.
The ember spotting and killing brigade.
We prepared pretty well. Over a number of meetings around the family dinner table and guided by Rudy, our father in law with his years of fire fighting experience, we developed a plan to defend against an ember attack at home and the shop. We had the right gear including goggles, smoke masks, gloves, wool/cotton clothes, lights and more. Hoses, water, buckets, generator and water pump were all ready.
Four of the older children (aged 28 down to 16) were tasked with defending and the shop and the rest of us at home. The 9 and 12 year old boys were told to go from window to window inside the house looking out for embers. We used hoses to water down everything in sight.

At 6:50pm we saw the huge cloud rising from the direction of the Currowan fire. We had read about pyrocumulus clouds where massive fires had the power to create their own weather patterns.
And looking at sky, there it was! That meant that the whole fire defence thing became a bit more chancey. As we watched it was moving and it looked like it was heading towards Bundanoon.
The huge puffy cloud

Just Add smoke
By 7:15 a huge smoke cloud ringed the bottom of the puffy cloud formation and it moved slowly and ominously towards us.
At 8:10 the sky was clear except for the coming cloud and then by 8:18 the smoke rolled in. By 8:25 it was pitch black! Smoke filled the air and you had to wear goggles and a mask or you would be blind and coughing in very short order.
James in his gear showing the smoke filled main street
We patrolled the outside of the house and shop and kept everything wet.
At 9:05 we were noticing lots of quite large burnt leaves and bark falling everywhere, but no embers yet. One advantage of it being very dark was that glowing embers were easier to spot. It was still quite hot (35C or 94F) so the Southerly hadn't brought much cooling.
Then at around 10:00 we saw fire trucks racing down Forest Road. Then another. Then by 10:07 we had a collection of 7 fire trucks lining our street."That's ominous," we thought, "Wingello only has 2 trucks."

This doesn't look good.

Red is worse than purple
At 10:11 the night sky turned purple and by 10:30 it was a very angry red. Accompanying the angry red sky was a very loud roaring sound like a freight train. That meant the forest was not just on fire, it was a roaring blaze, just out of sight.

About 10 minutes later we realised the fire was coming our way.
"Uh Oh," said Rudy (or words to that effect), "We can't fight that. We HAVE TO LEAVE."
That triggered our escape plan part 1 - retreat to the shop.
We quickly piled into our van, which had already been packed with one bag for each of us as well as backups for all our computer data. As I did a final look around at what I figured was for the last time, I was prompted to reach up and grab our family crucifix and put it in the van. We checked everyone was there and drove to the shop.  Rudy and our mother in law followed in their RV. Behind us the ember storm was raining red all around us and the forest fire was roaring.
As we stopped at the shop everyone rushed out and joined James and Peter in the back yard to defend against ember attack there. Ariel and Sebastian stopped multiple ember attacks at the neighbouring properties too.
I quickly called our neighbour to let him know we had left. He said "OK" and then went on fighting.
We found out on our return that our two neighbours fought non stop to put out embers and spot fires in our area of the street. Those two men were absolutely amazing!
Fire Trucks further up the road

10 minutes later, houses and trees exploding in fire.
At 11:00 we were doing our best to defend the shop and lots of fire trucks were in the main street.
By 11:25 fires were up the street and in trees all around.
Those flames rising higher than the shed meant we had to leave it to the experts

What I was sure was our last look at the shop
At 11:40 we saw flames rising behind the shed behind the shop rising taller than the shed. Knowing the shop was a 100 year wooden building with so many nooks and crannies meant it would never survive a direct fire threat.
So we made the decision to evacuate to the area in front of the fire shed. It was now up to the brave Wingello fire teams to defend the shop if they could.
At 11:44 I took what I considered to be the last photo of the shop I would ever see as we all bundled back in the van.
For a short while we waited in front of the fire shed out of the way and saw fires at the end of Garrett street which adjoins our home street. Explosions and raging fire on what was my street convinced us that we had lost the house for sure.
Leaving a burning village behind us.
We received word that the main road out of Wingello to the highway was safe, so we left at just before midnight and saw houses and trees burning up the road, flames along the railway and were sure we left behind a burned village. But we were amazingly happy as we were alive! We may have lost the shop and home, but all of us were OK.

Mittagong RSL was about 50km (30 miles) away and the Red Cross has established an evacuation centre. We walked into the centre and were greeted with a friendly smile from the Red Cross volunteer who we already knew from church.
"Why are you smiling," she asked, "You told me you have lost everything."
"We're just glad we're all alive!" I answered, 'That is just stuff. We can rebuild."
One our friends was with us and she was very upset as she left behind her partner who was fighting to save their home. The Red Cross quickly brought someone over to help comfort her. Meanwhile we registered as evacuees and waited while they did their bit.
At this point Ariel told us, "Well, if God wants us to stay, the shop will be able to be recovered. Then we'll know he wants us in Wingello." Always be careful making deals with God. Often he over delivers.
A few hours later we received word that our friend's partner was OK and their house was saved. "By the way, the shop's still ok," he mentioned.
"What!" we answered in astonishment. 'We believe you but can you take a photo?"
I'm fine. What were you worried about?
He very kindly sent us a photo. We laughed together and said we had something from which to rebuild. We could all cram into the rooms at the back of the shop while we rebuilt our home. It would be fine.
After our return, we spoke with the captain of our fire brigade and asked him about the shop. He said, "I stationed a truck in front of the shop all night. We weren't going to lose the shop on my watch!"
I will tell more about what the fire brigade did in another post, but that is why we are so proud of our firies. It is because they are ours. Wingello people are the volunteers and they fight to defend the homes of all Wingello. They are not just defending random houses, they defend the homes of those they know and love and take any losses very personally. It is hard not to be proud of these brave men and women that go into danger as we had to leave.
Over achieving on the home saving front -
the canvas covered Yurt unharmed
We ended up discovering the shop was saved without a singe and our home was also saved. Even the Mongolian Yurt we had in the back yard, which is covered in canvas didn't have a singe. It's not so white now and we had drenched it with water before we left, but it and everything else was all as we had left it.
"Fine," said Ariel, "We're meant to be in Wingello."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you, your story left me in tears. So inspiring to read that and that you all stayed so calm. My hat goes off to you and when all is a bit safer again, we will visit your store and spend some of our money there. I am very happy for you that your home and shop survived those horrible and horrendous conditions.
Your friend Richard.