March 17th was forecast to be hot and windy, with high fire danger and extreme warnings were issued by the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
It was an early morning rise on Saturday 17th March. I had stayed overnight with my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in an airbnb accommodation in Broadmeadows as it was a short ride to Tullamarine airport. They were flying out to Sth Africa and had to check in at 7am. I was then to drive their car back home.
After seeing them through their flight check-in, I continued on to the Victoria Market to have some breakfast and purchase some fresh delicatessen items, meat and fruit. It was a lovely warm, calm and pleasant morning and I thought that surely the weather forecast was wrong.
After a 3.5 hour drive home, I stepped out of the car to feel the heat and the strong winds that were now blowing. It did not cool down much at all so even when I went to bed it was really hot. Instead of the winds dying down they continued to escalate in strength and speed – a most unusual occurrence. As I was tired I had retired early for the night.
Our landline phone had been out of order for four days, but Telstra had said it should be fixed by the following Tuesday. For some reason, I took my mobile phone to our room and placed it on the bedside cupboard (it is usually charged overnight in the kitchen). At 12:40am I heard it ring via viber (using our wifi) as we do not get mobile phone service at home. It rang out but started up again. I could see it was my daughter trying to ring us and assuming that one of the grandchildren had taken ill, I answered it. However, Katherine was trying to tell us that there was grass fire headed to Hawkesdale and that Hawkesdale was being evacuated. In fact, most people had left at 11:00pm. (We are 8kms south of Hawkesdale). Her snapchat was going wild with people’s photos and updates regarding the extent of th evacuation.
This was hard to believe, as we could not smell smoke or see any fire. Fortunately, our power was still on, so I started up our computer to check out Facebook and the Victorian Emergency website. To my horror, there were fire alerts over much of Western Victoria.
The other puzzling factor, was the fact that our pager had not gone off. My husband is a volunteer firefighter with Warrong which is just south of Hawkesdale and in cases of serious fires in our local area, his pager would have gone off. Then….. the pager did go off! I quickly threw some things together, including our passports, a sleeping bag and pillow, jumped in the car to evacuate to my daughter’s house in Warrnambool, whilst my husband donned his CFA firefighting uniform and went to Hawkesdale to help fight the fires.
However, 5 minutes down the road, I remembered my iPad which I desperately needed to keep up to date with the VicEmergency app. I quickly went back inside the house, got my iPad and drove down our drive for the second time. When I reached the end of our driveway, a car had pulled up. It was our neighbours who were coming back to check on us for the second time. They had been to our place an hour earlier and banged and banged on our door trying to wake us up and alert us of the approaching fire. Unfortunately, we had slept right through this. I thanked them and proceeded onto Warrnambool.
It was eerie driving to Warrnambool. There were no other cars on the road (as everyone else had most likely evacuated and reached their destination.) I had the radio on and could hear all the bushfire warnings. Finally I reached Warrnambool and Katherine’s house. There was little sleep to be had as we listened to the radio and watched the app for the latest updates. Facebook updates provided information from those who had evacuated and from some who decided to stay at Hawkesdale. (They evacuated to the recreation reserve at Hawkesdale or to the Hall). From their updates we knew that Hawkesdale had still not been taken. However, I had no idea where my husband Bruce was. He finally messaged me via viber to say he was okay, had been trying to mop up the fires where they had hit on the farms in Greens Lane and put out some of the fires in the windbreaks and trees.
By morning, we were able to watch some of it on the television news. At 10am I decided to drive home and see what of my garden I could water (to save both the garden and our house, should the fire proceed once more). Winds were still fierce and it was still quite warm. At 4pm there was meeting organised by the CFA for community members in our school library. The library was full of community members and representatives from a wide variety of groups. We were briefed on the extent of the fire and some of the options for financial and hardship relief.
The significant role of social media in all this.
Without social media, we may not have known of the impending fire until it was too late as we had no mobile phone service and our landline was out of order.
Snapchat: my daughter’s snapchat feed alerted her to the fires in the district including Terang, Camperdown and Gazette and then to the evacuation of Hawkesdale and the sheer numbers from Hawkesdale who had left. Watching the feed closely she realised she needed to urgently contact us using viber. Fortunately our power was still on for wifi to work. In real time, she was getting photos from people who could see the fierce fires nearby.
Facebook: updates here, enabled us to keep in contact with others who had evacuated and who had stayed in Hawkesdale. A site setup with the sponsorship of the Red Cross allowed us to mark that we were safe.
The Vic Emergency website: kept updating every 2 hours with the latest alerts, incidents and warnings.