The Blue Mountains is a bit of a scary place to be at the moment. The normal morning talk of climbing plans and progress in the garden has been replaced by talk of fire plans and progress reports on blazes, evacuation points and the contents of ‘go bags’. I reckon the ‘go bags’ sound kind of exciting, like something Go Go Gadget or Superman might have, but actually they’re not. They’re the bags you have filled with important documents and photos, left next to the front door in case you’re lucky enough to be home if, or when it comes time to evacuate. Cos goodness knows that when the flames come licking at your verandah you won’t have the presence of mind to grab your birth certificate from that box in the shed.
The past few days have been really tough on so many people up here. For people in Springwood, Dargan and Mt Victoria they have been devastating. Hundreds of homes were burned in the voracious fires which sparked instantaneously in the wild conditions on Thursday. Lives were lost. People are still in shock, coming to terms with their losses or fighting desperately to protect properties which are still being threatened by the fire.
I drove through Winmalee the day after the fires hit, to visit a shed where I store some photos and diaries for safekeeping. It was an eerie experience driving down Hawkesbury Road and seeing that surreal coexistence of catastrophe and life just going on. People were out walking their dogs, kids were on bikes, the usual traffic was edging bumper to bumper into town. But then there were road blocks, their entries guarded by men in green and yellow jackets. There were spot fires smouldering by the traffic lights, the remnants of backburns earlier that morning. There were houses cordoned off, their facades and picket fences untouched but their contents razed from behind. And down closed roads, hidden behind the dewy green gardens of a suburban idyll were the skeletal remains of scores of houses, obliterated by fire. It is a shocking thing to see communities which seem so established shattered so quickly, without warning. Many people were at work when the fire started and came home to be refused access to their houses. Today they are milling around the main road, eating orange quarters provided by a local organisation and waiting to be allowed back into their streets to find out whether their house was one of those spared by the indiscriminate fires.
As the day went on and the conditions picked up the roads began filling with fire engines, the thrum of helicopters ferrying sacks of water whirred overhead and I received a text message from the Rural Fire Service warning me to ‘shelter as the fire approaches’. I decided to leave, seeking refuge in the upper mountains, knowing that I was only driving towards another fire front, one much larger and more ferocious than the one I was leaving.
Where I live I am roughly halfway between the two fires which are still raging. Not directly threatened by either, but very aware of the risk. There is an inferno burning out of control north of me. It had burned 25,000Ha by Saturday and seems impossible to contain. Most residents of the mountains are aware that if the winds blow the wrong way the fire will be coming for us.
I’m worried about losing my home. My house burned down almost exactly 20 years ago in the Sydney bushfires of 1994. I was only ten, and the unfelt emotions of that time still arise when I smell the Australian bush burning. I don’t exactly feel panicky, but I have an underlying unease that makes me want to pack my bags and flee to Sydney until all the fires have been put out. Instead, yesterday, I went climbing in the spooky orange haze and the stinging smoke. It’s impossible to escape from the threat of fire.
Many climbing areas are closed and the blood red sun presides over everything. But we went climbing, and in the stillness and focus of each movement on the hard sandstone, I felt my mind clear. I felt my anxiety ease. I came back to something that is more integral, more innate, more intrinsic to my being than my home or the things I own.
Last night the Reel Rock Film Tour, a travelling climbing film festival, came to Katoomba. Despite the fires the big cinema was almost filled with local climbers and outdoor enthusiasts wanting to share in international stories of the vertical world. The atmosphere was subdued but there was a strong sense of community.
The first movie was called The Sensei. It is a film about Japanese climbing veteran Yuji Hirayama and American powerhouse Daniel Woods forming a partnership to climb new routes on Mt Kinabalu, Borneo. It was a beautiful short film, and in it Hirayama made reference to the earthquakes and tsunamis which hit Japan a few years ago. At the time he wanted to find a way that he, as a climber, could offer some support or inspiration to people who had lost everything. He seemed to think that perhaps by completing his extremely difficult route on Kinabalu he could inspire hope, reignite passion and remind those who were suffering so profoundly of their strength and resilience.
I think that Hirayama was right. He didn’t finish the route that trip, but I don’t think that his message was compromised. Maybe it was even strengthened. By dedicating himself unreservedly to such a lofty goal, without restraint, without expectation, he demonstrated a fortitude that we all have, one that we can lose sight of when faced with a catastrophe of such scope and apparent injustice. Seeing life distilled to its essence – pure simple existence in an indifferent land – reminds us of our scale, helps us regain some kind of perspective. It doesn’t make our problems smaller or easier to manage, but it can change our response. It changes how we feel about being in that situation and it reminds us of our true, authentic values.
Here in the Blue Mountains we are so lucky to have these resources. So many people have homes which are, for lack of a better word spiritual, not physical. Whether this is a connection to the land through bushwalking, climbing or canyoning, or a connection to community through a religious faith or something else, I hope that all those who are suffering in the wake of these fires are finding that inner strength, that internal fire which burns brighter than any one in the bush.