Wye River, Australia – First came the smoke. Dark, menacing, ominous. Then the sky turned orange.
“I just knew it was going to hit us,” says Peter Jacobs, who lives near the Australian coastal town of Wye River, three hours southwest of Melbourne.
It is Christmas Day, and for the Jacobs family that usually means a celebration and feasting on a sumptuous seafood lunch.
But not last year. Scorching flames were tearing through the rugged bush surrounding their home, fanned by hot winds that left little time for life and death decisions.
“My heart started to race and I knew it; I said to myself, ‘Peter, this is it.'”
Like many Australians who find themselves in the path of one of the hundreds of fires that ravage this dry country every summer, the Jacobs faced an unenviable choice.
Stay and fight the flames or flee. Choose the first option and you may save your home. Get it wrong and the results can be deadly.
In Australia, authorities can’t force residents to evacuate when a fire is approaching, unlike in many other countries.
For decades, many people have tried to defend their homes. Now the official advice is that people should leave, and leave early.
Authorities credit that advice with saving lives in the Wye River fire. While 116 homes were destroyed, every resident survived.
“To not lose lives was the most important thing,” Roy Moriarty, the captain of Wye River’s volunteer fire brigade, told Al Jazeera.
“It wouldn’t have worried me if every house had gone in Wye River if it meant we didn’t lose somebody’s life.”
‘Not losing lives’
Craig Lapsley, Victoria’s emergency management commissioner, attributed the fact that no lives were lost to a community plan that asked people to leave as the fire was coming.
“We didn’t lose a life; we didn’t see anyone injured. We’ve lost infrastructure that can be replaced, and will be replaced,” he says.
“But we’ve walked out of there because there was a plan, there was a community commitment and a community approach to achieve an outcome – that’s a great outcome.”
The same could not be said for another fire that ravaged the state of Victoria in February 2009, on what is now known as “Black Saturday”.
Scorching temperatures of 47 degrees Celsius combined with fierce winds to produce a raging inferno that wiped out whole towns not far from Melbourne.
In Australia’s worst ever bushfire disaster, 173 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed.
Many of those who lost their lives died while trying to protect their properties. Others were caught as they desperately tried to outrun the flames, having left their escape too late.
Many of Jim Baruta’s neighbours in St Andrews, northeast of Melbourne, perished. He survived by sheltering in a homemade bunker.
The scene he encountered when he emerged still haunts him. Burned cars lay on the side of the road. Baruta knew that there must be bodies inside.
“I thought … ‘You will never get this picture out of your mind,'” he says.
Homeowners can spend many hours and thousands of dollars planning for a fire, from installing water pumps to building underground bunkers, but those tasked with putting out the flames still maintain that fire fighting should be left to the people trained to do so.
Peter Marshall is the national secretary of the United Firefighters Union, which represents 13,000 firefighters across Australia. He says the previous advice that residents could engage in active firefighting activities to defend their property was ill-conceived and wrong.
“It takes an enormous amount of training to condition firefighters to deal with … the psychological effects as well as the physical effects of engaging in a firefight. You can’t have a fire plan that conditions people to do that,” he says.
But the emotional bond to the family home can be strong. During the Christmas Day fire in Wye River, authorities repeatedly urged residents to leave.
But Jacobs was confident that he and his family could protect their home. They started their water pumps and got their hoses ready.
Then, as the flames approached, Jacobs realised his family could be in grave danger. He decided he would stay, while his family would drive to safety.
But when his daughter Molly refused to leave without him, Jacobs knew the only option was for them all to leave together. It was a tough call under great duress.
That night, Jacobs, a former volunteer firefighter, stayed with a friend in the Surf Life Saving volunteer club as the whole town was engulfed in flames.
“We watched all the houses burn,” he says. “I think it was about 3 o’clock in the morning [when] we watched [the friend’s] house burn. It was devastating.”
Jacobs’ home survived the fire. But a spot beneath a small bridge that would have served as a refuge of last resort was scorched.
Despite his narrow escape on Christmas Day, Jacobs remains committed to defending his home in the event of another fire.
“My heart is here. I refuse to leave my heart,” he says. “I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I would like to live.”
From the 101 East documentary “In the Line of Fire”. Watch the full film here.
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