My first visit to Mudgee was memorable notably because I mistakenly thought as I looked out across the beautiful country, that my pounding heart was a panic attack. Later I realised I had experienced an overwhelming sense of belonging and that I was standing on the land of my future home.
For the following two decades I often visited Mudgee with my children and dreamt of living here – far away from the inner suburb of Sydney that we had called home. Despite spending 20 years in one spot, I never really got used to the confinement and the noise of the city and the fact that we all lived so close but never made an effort to get to know one another. Everyone was too busy and nobody seemed to care.
I longed for a place with space, clean air, less noise and I wanted to ‘belong’ somewhere and be part of something. For me that place turned out to be Mudgee.
I moved here just under eight years ago. Working from my home in the middle of a paddock 40 kilometres from town limited my ability to meet people, but I met one person and then another and pretty soon had a wonderful group of friends and was included in local events and gatherings, sharing many meals and much laughter at my home and at the homes of others.
Only once did I feel like an interloper. It was a couple of years ago on Christmas Eve. It was stinking hot and I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough cold drinks for my family who, at that point, were hurtling up the highway on their way to spend Christmas with me. So I went to the local pub to buy a couple of bags of ice but was surprised when I was told the ice was only for sale to locals.
I bit my tongue to prevent any regretful words from tumbling out of my mouth – rare for me, and as I drove away still feeling the sting of rejection, I wondered what constituted being ‘local’, especially given I had uprooted myself, left my young adult children behind in Sydney along with my family and friends; had taken a punt on making a new life for myself in a place I call ‘paradise’ and had every intention of staying put.
Fast forward to February 12. The actions of many people I know and many people I don’t know, made me feel more a part of this community than any moment before. A group of selfless, generous, supportive and highly skilled men and women took up arms to fight a fire that started across the road from my home.
That Sunday was a frightening day even before the fire began. Who will ever forget the wind and the heat? The kind of day that makes you feel crazy and fearful.
I had just arrived back after cutting short a visit with my Mum in Sydney because I felt nervous about being away from home in such dreadful conditions. I quickly closed the blinds and curtains after unpacking the car and was soaking up the cool of the darkened house when the power went out.
Shortly after, my neighbours came to alert me to the potential danger that was unfolding and as I looked from the verandah across my front paddock, which would soon turn into a refuelling spot for helicopters, I saw clouds of smoke billowing furiously and a lone tree ignite, sending flames flaring skyward. A small voice inside me said, “This doesn’t look good.”
The next thing I told myself was not to panic.
You might have a fire plan, you might know exactly what needs to be done in case of a fire emergency but until you are faced with it and the evidence of the imminent danger fills your lungs and stings your eyes, you don’t know for sure what you will do or how you will react.
I had my legal documents and passport in one folder, my house deeds and insurance policy in another, photo negatives in yet another and four boxes of photos from when my children were babies - all ready to roll, so they went in the car first. Next I grabbed my laptop and phone remembering to also get the chargers.
My empty suitcase was lying on the laundry floor, so I up-ended the clean washing basket into it. Later I discovered that I had three nighties, seven pairs of undies and the most random collection of mismatched clothing you could ever imagine. I’m still not sure what I thought I might do with an apron! I forgot to get shoes and left the house wearing a pair of thongs, which promptly broke the second day away from home. On that same trip to the car I grabbed the dog bed and also the dog food from where I had left it on the kitchen bench, waiting to be put away after the Sydney trip.
I was panting from the heat and the physical exertion and it felt like my heart was pounding in my head, but I knew I had very limited time to get things done, so raced over to let the chooks out while telling myself that despite being over 60, seriously unfit and attempting to run like Usain Bolt, I was not going to have a heart attack, not today.
I got back to the house and the Fire Captain came to tell me to evacuate, only to be beaten to my front door by my beautiful neighbours who wouldn’t leave without knowing I was also on my way out.
Even with the fire raging ahead of them and not knowing what the day and night might bring, these gorgeous people were kind, caring and reassuring. They reached out and touched my heart.
Over the following days I had moments of worry – the smoke made sure of that. We told each other that our homes were just stuff and people were much more important. That is absolutely true when push comes to shove, but our ‘stuff’ is the evidence of the life we have lived, the memories, the moments of shared happiness, our unique journey.
During the time I was away from home I learned a bit about fires and what else I can do to help protect myself in future but I also learned about the people in my community - an army of volunteers who put their lives on hold to be fire fighters.
Generosity was everywhere. Shop owners and businesses donated all kinds of things throughout the week. Friends and strangers opened their homes to those of us who were not able to return to ours. Every single person in this community and from communities far beyond ours, stepped up, did what they could and then some. Yes, they did this for the community as a whole, but they also did it for me. To keep me safe and preserve the home I have created. The home I want to spend the rest of my days in. They did this so I could continue to live in my little piece of paradise and I shall be forever grateful that they are the kind of people they are. It is such an honour and a privilege to be one of those people being looked after. From the bottom of my heart I give thanks. Deborah Kirby-Parsons, Kains Flat local.