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Australian bushfire: “I panicked when I couldn’t get hold of my family”

It was the middle of the night when Ruby Thomas realised her hometown in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands was surrounded by bushfires, and no one was answering their phones. Below, she shares her story.

Ruby Thomas had set up alerts on her phone to warn her when the bushfires were getting dangerously close to her parents’ home in Bundanoon, a small town in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. The home is nearly 100 miles away from where she lives in Sydney.

Around 10pm on Saturday (4 January), things took a turn for the worse. 

“There were just a million notifications coming in on the app,” Ruby tells Stylist. “I was trying to get through to my mum and [stepdad] Garry for [nearly an hour]. 

“When I couldn’t get hold of anyone… that was when I started to panic.”

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Residents in Bundanoon were given virtually no warning before their homes were surrounded by a large bushfire in the middle of the night. 

Fanned by the 90km per hour winds, the blaze on the south coast travelled 30km to their doorstep in a matter of hours.

Ruby’s mother, Margie Thomas, who has asthma, had left earlier that day to stay with a friend after the smoke became too dangerous, while her stepdad, Garry Weare, had stayed at the house. 

Garry had gone to lay down and was oblivious to the change in conditions.

Australian bushfire: Ruby Thomas.

“There was no time to get out”

“We thought we were safe,” Garry tells Stylist

“Before we knew what was happening, in a matter of half an hour or so, the fire had come right the way around to where we lived and the adjourning ridges. There was virtually no warning, no time to get out.

“My stepdaughter had been watching the fire develop [via the official NSW Rural Fire Service app], and she called me on the landline. I said to Ruby, ‘Hold on, I’m going to have to pack my bags and get out of here’.

“In just a few minutes, [the fire] blew right up to within a whisker of the house.”

When Garry looked out the window, the embers had landed at the bottom of the paddock nearest the house. The grass was bone dry, and the fire was starting to take hold. Garry packed his bag and drove his car a couple of minutes so he would have a “breakout-point” if necessary.

Australian bushfire: Bundanoon before the fires.

“When I saw what was happening I couldn’t believe it but basically it was then a question of: what do I do?” he recalls. “I mean, nothing logically goes through your mind but I was very conscious that I needed to look after my own safety… I always made sure there was a breakout-point so I could get off our land, get up the hill and get the hell out.

“It was terrifying because you don’t have time to think. It was adrenaline, you’re running on the adrenaline. It was the fire against me, and I’m going to try and at least give it a bit of a fight.”

Australian bushfire: Margie and Garry have lived in Bundanoon for 12 years

When Garry came back down to the house, he used a hose pipe to contain the grass fire coming up towards the house and started hitting the flames with wet towels to put them out. “I couldn’t believe it, they just went out progressively and I just made my way down the block.

“The last thing we wanted was for the fire to spread over to the next property because then all of a sudden you’ve got a situation that is going to be well out of control.

“I made a call to the fire service but the man who answered said, ‘There is just so much happening’, so in the end, it was very much a matter of being on my own. So we were very, very lucky.”

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That night, Garry could hear the firefighters trying to contain another fire building up from the east. “All night it was very eerie, all you could hear was the shout of voices, bulldozers, trees going over and yet because it was dark, I couldn’t work out exactly where [the fire] was.

“I stayed up until dawn, and then I checked on my app and it said there was another fire front coming in about three hours.” Fortunately, a change in wind conditions meant the second front didn’t materialise. No one in the area was hurt but four nearby houses were destroyed.

“There are many people who are far worse than we are,” Garry says, adding the damage to the surrounding national park and wildlife has left the local community devastated. “It isn’t just a question of losing your house, that’s only a possession. It’s what is has done to the landscape. That won’t recover in my lifetime. Homes can be replaced. What you can’t replace is the landscape, that will take at least a generation, maybe more.”

Australian bushfire: Bundanoon after

‘You need to be vigilant 24 hours a day’

As of 8 January, this season’s bushfires in eastern Australia have killed more than 28 people, destroyed more than 1,700 homes and more than one billion animals are feared dead, according to a report by The Guardian. The total area burned stands at more than 10.7 million hectares, the equivalent of about 82% of the total land area of England.

Both Ruby’s parents are now back at home but the three remain on high alert. On the day we speak, Bundanoon is expecting another “high risk” day with temperatures around 37 degrees.

“I’m checking in with them every day,” Ruby says. “To be honest, the moment I get a warning, I am calling them and asking if they’ve seen it: what are you planning to do? Are you across all the warnings? It’s hard because you feel like you need to be vigilant 24 hours a day. I’ve been working from home while this is all happening.”

Australian bushfire: Bundanoon after

In Sydney, the blanket of smoke covering the city is a constant reminder of what her family, and others, are facing. The area of smoke resulting from the fires – 1.3 billion acres – has reached as far as South America, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

“I’ve never seen this amount of smoke,” Ruby says. “It gets in your eyes and in your throat and it makes you think about the firefighters: how their eyes must be stinging, their throats must be red raw.”

While recent rainfall has brought hope in some areas, there is not likely to be much greater relief over the next couple of months as the hot and dry weather is predicted to continue through January and February. Meaning, for the foreseeable future, Garry, Margie and Ruby remain on high alert.

“You get up in the morning, and the first thing you do is check the fire reports near you to see how things are going,” Garry says. 

“It’s a new routine for us.”

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Photographer David Yarrow has launched a campaign called #KoalaComeback (below) to help local organisations in Australia working on rebuilding after the bushfires. 

bushfire koala
bushfire koala

This piece was originally published on 18 January 2020

Images: Getty, David Yarrow, supplied