It’s been a week I’ll never forget, a week Australia won’t ever forget. We’ve seen a lot of the country go up in flames in the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen.
So when Steve & I were caught in the middle of it, I felt I needed to write about what we went through so we could share a true account of what actually happened to us.
If anything, this post is something I’m writing for myself to remind me how lucky we have been, unlike many other Australians who have lost loved ones and their homes.
Why were we stuck in the bushfires in Australia?
We loved our walks along Old Bar Beach everyday.
We had been pet sitting for six weeks in the small coastal town of Old Bar which is a 20 minute drive from the regional town of Taree. To put it into perspective, it’s also an hour’s drive from Forster and Port Macquarie and 3h30m from Sydney.
The town is really small but welcoming and we got used to seeing a lot of the same people everyday whilst we walked the dog on the beach, which we really loved. Funnily enough our time there was coming to an end and we were supposed to leave on the day the fire hit the town.
Two weeks before during the previous bush fires.
Two weeks earlier we had caught the remains of some of the Australia bush fire nearby. We woke up for about a week with a thick haze of smoke in the air everyday. Usually by lunchtime it would disappear and reappear by 10pm due to the change of the winds.
One day we found ash covering our entire car but we never thought it was going to be anything serious for us to worry about.
Why did Steve’s mum and aunty get caught in the bushfires in Australia too?
In the tow truck seeing the bush fire enfold in Crowdy Bay National Park.
A week before we were leaving Old Bar we had planned to go to check out the nearby Crowdy Bay National Park. People had raved to us about how beautiful the beaches were there and we never got the opportunity to go and visit until that weekend.
But, it was on that weekend we noticed the dog had a paralysis tick on him so we rushed him to the vet. He spent the night there getting treatment so we decided to spend the weekend looking after him instead.
During our final week in Old Bar, I drove up towards the park only to realise it was experiencing a huge bush fire again. So when I went to turn around, the car broke down on the highway.
I couldn’t believe how amazing people were as they pushed my car off the road straight away. I then had countless people stop and offer me help whilst I waited for the NRMA to turn up.
It turned out our car was written off and we were stranded in Old Bar. Worst of all, we had no way of packing up our stuff to leave the town or be able to make it to our next pet sit.
So Steve’s mum and aunty decided they would both drive up the next day to drop one of their cars off for us which was a two hour drive for them. It was that day when the fire got out of control.
When the skies turned black from the bush fires
We spent that day having lunch at the nearby cafe like it was a normal Friday, and it was afterwards that we bumped into a British family. They asked us if we had been diverted too as the highway had been closed because of the bushfires in Australia. We raced back home and put the TV on and couldn’t believe what we were seeing; Port Macquarie had turned into a sea of orange skies. It looked horrendous.
So we decided to wait it out, to keep watching the news and see if the roads would re-open again.
When we took the dog out for his afternoon walk along the beach, the sky had completely turned. It looked quite amazing to see the various colours in the sky, that we just stood there wondering how everyone was getting on in Port Macquarie.
But we didn’t actually think we’d be in danger. I think you just never think it’s going to happen to you because these are scenes you see on the news on TV or in a movie, not right in front of you.
Within twenty minutes of returning to the house, the pet’s owner – who had just returned to Sydney from overseas – contacted us and said there were text messages being sent to evacuate Old Bar.
We looked outside again and our jaws hit the floor. Armageddon looked to be in front of us.
Daylight had literally turned to darkness and as we saw everyone frantically getting in their cars and leave, we knew we had to do the same.
That’s the thing with these bushfires in Australia, they move so quickly that we didn’t know how long we had to find safety.
We spoke to neighbours who told us they wouldn’t leave their homes, that they would fight til the end to protect their property. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. I looked up at the sky and thought to myself; “I hope to God this street doesn’t go up in flames”.
So we rushed indoors and finished the rest of our packing so we could leave the entire town if we needed to. It’s a very weird feeling having to pack a small rucksack with my most valuable items in, knowing that the rest of my stuff might burn in the fire.
After speaking with the pet owner, she suggested we go to Club Old Bar which had become the evacuation centre.
The evacuation centre
When we arrived at Club Old Bar we received a text message saying the only road in and out of the town had been closed and it was too late to leave.
We were stuck in this town regardless of what we were going to be faced with.
There were around 30 people at the club over night, not 350.
As we approached the entrance of the club – which wasn’t busy at all – we got stopped straight away because we obviously took the dog with us. No dogs were allowed in regardless of how few people were there, and we weren’t given any advice on where to go. I didn’t understand it – this wasn’t supposed to be operating as a club, this was now an evacuation centre. I never thought they would stick with this rule during the entire ordeal.
We later found out that the Taree Club were letting people in with their pets and we heard reports of their even being a pet snake included. So why couldn’t Club Old Bar do the same? We later regretted having not made a beeline for that club instead.
So we sat outside the club and as the winds picked up, the conditions got cold fast. We sat around and spoke to others but none of us felt too scared at that point. The weird thing is, most people around the club carried on like it was a normal night. There was no panic or anything which made us feel like it was going to be a safe place for us.
However, one lady was starting to panic due to her anxiety who was also sat outside with her dog. She was 88 years old and was wearing just a t shirt and shorts. A couple sat with us had given her a big coat to put around her shoulders and seemed to be the only people taking care of her. I suggested we look after her dog whilst she went indoors but as you can imagine, she didn’t want to leave it.
I thought it was crazy how the management wouldn’t let her go inside with her small dog. Thankfully, in the end a local lady who lived over the road took her into her home for safety. I have no idea how she would have spent all night outside otherwise. We heard in the morning that old lady’s home burnt down overnight.
You see people in Old Bar are actually super friendly and will help you regardless of there being any fires. We were just shocked by the management of this club as it didn’t match up with the rest of the locals in the town.
When the power went out, the sky filled with red flames.
Then the power went out across the town. It was in this moment we started to realise how crazy a situation we were in. The whole sky lit up in bright red flames from the fires in the near distance. Everyone stopped in their tracks and it was in this moment we all went silent.
It was around 12am by this point. Whilst Steve & I sat outside, his mum and aunty were inside. We went back in, hoping the staff would let the dog in with us but they said we should go and sleep in our car with the dog or leave him in the car and come inside. I couldn’t believe it.
So we went to the car parked outside the club. This was probably one of the moments I won’t forget. As we tried to stop ourselves from falling asleep, we were worried we would wake up with flames around us. After about 20 minutes, Steve had had enough and we planned to sneak the dog in, which we successfully did.
We made a beeline for the back of the club to an empty room which had some sofas for Steve’s mum and aunty to sleep on because everyone either sat on hard chairs or slept on the floor. The Salvation Army couldn’t arrive because the roads were cut off and understandably there was no bedding to offer.
There were around 30 people or so who stayed at the club that night – not 350. The pet owners had all left, and I’m not sure where they all went. I know one family turned up with a young child and a cat in a cage only to be turned away because of their pet – I’m not sure what they did in the end.
That night we all tried to get around three hours of drifting in and out of sleep. Every few minutes, one of us would get up and look outside the window to see where the fire was. It kept getting closer.
The day the bushfires in Australia reached Old Bar
This is what we were faced within the morning.
By the morning a few staff had seen we had the dog with us but no one said anything. Even a member of staff came over to us who I thought was going to kick us out because it was clear the dog was sat on my lap. He actually came over to tell us randomly about his previous corporate career working in various countries.
I thought it was bizarre but I’ve noticed people will generally talk to anyone about anything in situations like this as a coping mechanism. We assumed he was the manager and realised that they must have got some sense about finally operating as an evacuation centre and not as a club (we actually found out much later he was indeed the head of this club).
The club at its busiest during the bush fire.
The club was now getting busy with people and this was the moment we got told to leave. When I asked to speak with a manager, I asked her where we could go with the helicopters and fire approaching. She told us to our car. I wish I knew that guy we spoke to earlier was in fact the actual boss of this club who had no problems with the dog being inside just hours earlier.
So I posted the videos on Twitter which went viral because who in their right mind sends people to sit in their car when they’ve come to seek safety at an evacuation centre from a huge fire?
I did this not only because what they did was wrong, but because elderly people especially shouldn’t have to sit outside in thick smoke when they’ve come to seek safety just because they are pet owners. I wanted to make a stand because it should never happen again. I even saw an old couple leave because the smoke was at its worst as the fire approached.
We saw this couple leave right when the fire was approaching us.
We were told the reason why we weren’t allowed to bring pets in is because you can’t serve food 10m near animals. When we moved to the beer garden out the back of the club to escape the smoke, we found a couple of empty rooms which were at least 10m away they could have easily put us in, even when they were at their most busiest.
There weren’t any vets on site and we were never once informed of there being one. I later saw many dogs locked in cars outside in the Club’s carpark.
The power went out again and someone from SES came out to tell us to limit going back into the club to use the bathroom because they didn’t want anyone getting sick inside because of the smoke. When I asked him; What about us? Are you OK with us getting sick out here? He said it was our choice. Again, I was in shock.
People had to leave their dogs outside whilst the air filled with smoke.
We started to see helicopters fly over the club and into the fire and I wondered what we were going to do. We had nowhere to go that I thought we were going to have to run to the beach and start swimming if it got really bad.
This is how close the fire got to us. Four helicopters and a seaplane managed to divert it from hitting us with water bombs.
And so after a terrifying experience, by the evening the incredible fire fighters, helicopters and seaplanes had diverted the fire just moments away from us. We couldn’t believe how heroic they had been.
This is how close the fire got to us.
When we decided to return to the place we were staying in, we were faced with no power throughout the night and in the coming days.
That night none of us really slept again. Smoke wasn’t leaving the town any time soon and we all kept waking up in the night, thinking the fires were going to reach us again.
The morning after
The only road in and out of Old Bar was closed for a couple of days.
By the morning, we decided to drive around the town and just at the end of our street the bush land was black. It was quite a shocking site to witness.
We drove down the only road that takes you in and out of the town to find someone who had been standing there all night to divert traffic. We couldn’t believe how amazing he had been. He told us the trees had started falling down so they were having to cut them down to reduce any risks.
So we went back into town to find Coles had reopened. We ran in and like most people, everyone was frantically trying to buy as much food as possible. It was crazy. Within hours I heard this Coles had to close because the power went out again. People were forced to leave their shopping trollies because the tills weren’t working. I have no idea what these people did for food in the end.
Coles had to send customers away due to a power cut.
When we returned to the car, the battery was flat. We then tried to find someone who could jump start it which actually didn’t take too long because people are generally really helpful in this town. Lots of people were stopping to talk to each other. We had loads of people talk to us, all giving each other updates on any news we heard.
We lined up waiting for the road to re-open.
Once we got the car sorted, we spent the next several hours hoping for the main road to reopen and even lined up along with everyone else, who were trying to get out. It was Sunday by this point. We heard by Tuesday the bushfires in Australia were going to worsen because of the high temperatures and extreme winds. We knew we needed to get out of there asap.
When the roads finally opened
Around 9pm we went to check on the road and thankfully it had reopened. Steve’s aunty’s car was out of fuel and the only petrol station in town was closed because it was so close to the fires.
We made a plan to head over to Taree which was a 20 minute drive away to fill up some cans with fuel and head back to Old Bar. During this drive we saw loads of fires still burning that we hoped the road wouldn’t be closed when we were trying to get back.
Steve had to fill up cans of fuel to fill up his aunty’s car.
When we returned we thought Steve’s mum and aunty would want to wait until the morning to leave because we were all so exhausted. They didn’t. We made a mad dash and left the town as soon as possible. We also took the dog with us as we made a plan with his owner for her to pick him up in Newcastle the following day.
When we approached the highway, I wondered if it was actually open because it just looked so dark. There were zero cars on it which surprised us all because it had been closed for days.
The next two hour drive was surreal. Driving on a motorway with no cars on it in itself was a weird experience. Throw in the thick smoke, bushfires in Australia still burning by the side of the road, dead animals all over it and kangaroos jumping out at us, and this is what it was like.
We got home around 1am all relieved and thankful to be away from what we had just been through.
The following day we woke up to turn the news on. It’s a weird thing watching the news from where we had just come from. It was the first time we had seen anything about the fires since it started and we then spent the next two days in disbelief about what we’d been through and seen.
Were the bushfires in Australia about to get worse?
We heard the bushfires were heading down to the Central Coast – which is where we had driven to – and onto Sydney in the following day. Apparently we were going to be faced with much worse than what we had already seen. I couldn’t believe it.
So Steve went out to grab us supplies because we now know how to prepare. He bought torches, masks and plenty of dry food for the just in case moment.
It was a surreal thing whilst we walked the dog on that day his owner picked him up. As we walked down the beach, everyone was carrying on as normal. People were out running or surfing and all we could think of was how watching the bushfires in Australia on TV is nothing at all like being there in it. Even when we heard helicopters in the sky, we feared the fires might be approaching us again.
We’re glad to be safe but what we went through is barely anything compared to others who lost their loved ones and homes from the bushfires in Australia. We can’t even begin to imagine what that must be like for anyone who is going through this.
We were told one story of a woman who had to jump in the river with her pets with a blanket over them for three hours whilst fire balls were dropping from the sky and her house was burning down. To go through something like this is unthinkable and truely courageous.
Seeing as it’s still Spring, we have no idea how bad these bushfires in Australia will get in the coming months. Make sure you download the Fires Near Me app so you can check where they are. When the warnings say to have a plan, make sure you have a plan in place. This means make sure you know where the evacuation centres are to go to and if you have pets, make sure wherever you are going accepts them as well.
This is just a small snippet into what we went through and I know many reading this will think that what we experienced was nothing at all because it wasn’t more serious, but for us it was an experience we won’t ever forget.
If you want to help everyone going through the awful bushfires in Australia, you can donate to the Rural Fire Service here.