Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What it was like on Isaac's Ridge that day

This time last year my sister lost her home to fire. A bush lovin' woman, the fires took away all her musical instruments, family heirlooms, tools, vehicles, etc, etc. Ohh, that was a cool house in the forest with its bush poles and magenta/turquoise rooms. There are still good memories of the place. But Annie, being a perpetual renter like the rest of us, was quite uninsured against catastrophe. So was her landlord, as it turns out.

Here is an extract of Annie's compo letter to the guvmint. She wrote it a month or so later. It's interesting reading, if only to learn from the chaos that happens when wildfire engulfs a small town. If you have built (or you rent) a gorgeous hippy house that has not been 'passed' by the local council, at least let the fireys know where your house/shack/yurt/shed is. Make them put you on the map. Today.

To whom it may concern,

My name is Annie. I rented a house on Caves Rd,  Margaret River for a period of six and a half years, paying the rent to XXXX, who’s responsibility it was to maintain the property and collect the rent.  In July 2011 Scotty moved in and October 2011 Rachel moved in and shared the house with me.
During this time I was aware that the property wasn’t fire prepared and I often requested help from the landlord  to clear the trees from around the house and the power lines, and also to repair the extremely degraded and eroded driveway, which was the only escape route in the case of a fire or emergency.
No help was ever forthcoming, and the fire risk became so extreme with the trees around the power lines that I decided to buy my own chainsaw, learn how to use it and with the help of good friends, began clearing the trees myself.  I got a friend to cut down four 40 foot trees from around the power lines and I had several huge bonfires in winter, however I barely dented the surface.  I went to see the fire chief XXXX at the XXXX Fire Brigade to see if any help was available to make the property safer.  He rightly said that the task of a controlled burn in such a highly fuelled area was extremely difficult and that it would have endangered the neighbours’ properties, so I was sent on my way with no real solution.  I would like to stress that I agreed with the fireys, and hold no grudge. 

When the fire on November 23rd came through I was out at Sebbes Rd, servicing a car as I am a self-employed mobile mechanic.  I got a call around 12 from my housemate Scotty.  I arrived at the house around 12.30pm, after a call from my landlord asking if I was out yet.   The fire was approaching rapidly from the north, the wind was swirling horribly and I knew it was bad, but for some stupid reason, optimistically thought I’d be back the next day and everything would be fine.
 I grabbed 2 washing baskets, 2 blankets, 2 pillows, a swag, and the first lot of paperwork I saw.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find my birth certificate. The fire was closing in. I rounded up my housemates, Scotty and Rachel, and my sister Jess and her fiancĂ© Dan (who had come to check we were alright), and bolted up the hill for safety.
We all got out safely and headed for Jess’ house on Gnarawary Rd, where we were evacuated from (again) later in the evening, heading to town to stay for several days at our friend Katie’s house.
I found out that my house was destroyed by ringing my neighbour.

To this day I have not received a fire warning text message from FESA or DEC.  The authorities didn’t even realise there was a house there until 5 days later, when Scotty spoke to someone from the Shire. We were completely unsupported by FESA to defend the house and property. Even in the aftermath of the fire, they were unaware of the house being destroyed and our lives put in peril.  When we went to check out the damage 2 days later, there were still spot fires on the property and no support from the fire authorities.
 While I understand the stress and workload the authorities must have been under, this experience has left me feeling abandoned and distrustful that the population can be protected from this extreme fire threat that the South west of Western Australia faces currently.   

Since the loss of my rental, I have been staying in the backyard of a friend’s place in an old van that survived the fire. I lost the majority of my tools in the fire, as I had recently moved out of an industrial unit I was renting and had stored my tools under the house as there was no other storage room.
 I am currently homeless relying on the generosity of others.
Enclosed is a list of the possessions that I have lost, not including the family heirlooms which are obviously priceless and irreplaceable.  Scotty and Rachael also lost everything they owned.

Yours sincerely,


  1. Good post - it raises some very topical issues. I sympathise with Annie but unfortunately Margaret River was a real wake up call for everyone. Being obviously more paranoid I have never trusted the authorities to handle this. In truth it's just not possible for them to do so. If you want to live in such beautiful terrain with nature (often at less cost) you live by her rules. It's a risk we all take but we take it because we hate the 'burbs more. We like being a bit feral and that means you live outside of society's safety net. I know you are very aware of this ST. The issue of property owners not taking appropriate care of their properties is another issue and I agree, they need to me much more proactive and accountable. Many blocks on our hill are overgrown thanks to absent investors who help put my life at risk.

    Last weekend a policeman and a fireman appeared at my door. At first I thought my significant other had drowned himself. Rather, they were going door to door on the hill on which I live, amongst the karris, asking people about their emergency evacuation plans etc etc. They were nervous, I could tell. They know if a fire goes through this town there is one narrow bridge and a hell of a lot of panicked people. Like with Annie's property, escape routes are narrow and options are limited. Sure, the authorites are covering their arses but they are also trying to get through to people just how critical this issue is. It's too big for them as well.

    The fireman and the policeman were a bit overwhelmed by my detailed analysis of the risk and my options (poor guys had heaps of other people to see too). I have now moved my smaller art works to storage in Albany, this weekend I will be backing up my digital stuff on another hard drive, packing my journals in sealed boxes ready to move also. We have spent weeks burning off, the cars will be serviced, we have bags ready to pack and big plastic crates ready to go if we need to throw ouselves into the estuary (about 0.5 km to our backs) with 2 dogs, our papers and a few clothes. BUT, in a couple of weeks this town's population will swell to 15,000+, many of these people will be sharing this hill and its close environs. They have probably thought little about this and will simply add to the congestion of narrow roads if we all have to flee.

    I have been looking at other properties all year. If we get through the summer unscathed I will be doubling my efforts to get out of here - to a flat open paddock I/we can mow short and grow lots of vegies on. That's how strongly I feel about this issue.

  2. Scary stuff. We live on a hillside next to a bush block - absent owners & hasn't been burnt off for years - when we built we had to address certain fire standards so we've been very aware of the potential risks & maintain a low garden zone around the house etc - but I have no idea how we'd go if a fire went through.

    I'd just finished reading an article in Insidestory, 'The disturbing logic of "stay or go" ' by Tom Griffiths, which is a fascinating and disturbing analysis of bushfire policies in Australia - and then your post ... reminders of just how dangerous bush fires are.

  3. Thanks for both of your comments. It seems to be the season to be thinking about wildfires.
    I think Michelle, that the main reason for the emphasis in departmental failings in Annie's letter was that it was a claim for compensation. That said, we do fall outside that safety net by living in the bush. Isaac's Ridge was a scary spot for a long time previously, which is why she spent so much time trying to do something about it, including asking the local fire chief to do a controlled burn there. But it wouldn't have made any difference anyway. I remember her sleeping with the windows open, so she could smell smoke if there was a fire around, and just get out. Staying was never an option.
    One of the more frightening things about her letter, I thought, was the revelation that the authorities didn't even know her house was there until five days later.

  4. Yes, that last bit was very frightening. And so was the bit about her sleeping with the window open. You do get very sensitised to smoke. If someone has a cigarette on this hill I know about it.

    Re compensation: it's often those who can't afford insurance that need compensation the most but probably don't get it. Money begets money alright.