This is not strictly a travel story. Nor, unfortunately, was any boarding of a plane involved. But there was a destination and a focus on packing my travel bag – making decisions on what to pack – what to take, what to leave behind. Too much to pack, too little room, too little time.

I took flight with my husband from a bush fire bearing down towards my home from a nearby bush reserve this week. A wild fire that has now burnt out more than 225 hectares of pristine bushland ten minutes walk from my house – threatening surrounding communities – out of control, and uncontained.

The Park includes 577 hectares of beautiful natural bush and exquisite beaches – a habitat for native flora and fauna – extending 11.5 kilometres along the Western Australian coastline. 

Fleeing in our hastily packed up cars in the middle of the night

Bushfires are a fact of life in the Australian summer. We live with the threat every year, and we are warned to have a bushfire plan. The decision to stay and defend (our property) or leave is the utmost decision in a plan.

Our plan has always been to abandon our home and leave for the safety of the nearest Evacuation Centre – or, in the worst situation if our town was cut off by fires, to dash to our nearby beach where hopefully we could be rescued from sea.

But I admit that when a Fire and Emergency Alert message beeped on our mobile phones around 2 o’clock in Tuesday morning, there was confusion and shock, and a slight feeling of paralysis setting in. Was this for real?

A quick look from our balcony reinforced the urgency of the situation. We could see the fire blazing away in our bush regional park, only a 20 minute walk from our home. Apologies for the quality of the photo I snapped No time to sort settings for a night shot.

Important documents were already in a container

As part of our bushfire plan , we have our most important documents including our passports, in a big plastic container. So that was first out to the garage. Easy. Then the plan fell apart. It was grab what we could think of first, along with anything in our way as we fled to our two cars in the garage! How dangerous was our delay to fill our cars with as much stuff as possible? We couldn’t afford a marathon effort. This had to be a 100 metres dash!

Medication was the top priority. I’ve only begun taking a daily med in the last few months – a tiny little pill essential for my life. It’s in the fridge and comes with a special travel pack that is kept in the freezer. They were reunited and taken straight to the car!

Our ‘weekender’ bags are always at the ready for impromptu travel to the big city or wanders to other regional areas. No time to drag out the suitcases.

Small paintings, my old weekend travel bag and other hastily collected things packed into my car boot

I raced to my wardrobe for an armful of clothes, hoping they weren’t the ones waiting for me to reduce back to size ten again! No time to check.

Two books by my bedside table got lucky – my reasoning being that I still hadn’t read them and they were useful in pressing down my clothes in my bag, making more room!

Jewellery went next because it was close by in my bedroom – afterwards I found that boxes of 1970’s junk jewellery ‘escaped to safety’, leaving behind my good jewellery!

I went for our albums of hard copy photos that can’t be replaced. Nine of them are kept in the one place, so they went into the car. There were at least seven more I forgot about, including one owned by my husband’s grandfather full of photographs he took in the 1920’s and 1930’s. That’s now in the box of documents for any future emergency flights!

Where were my back-up photos on USB’s. Hubby said he had some in the ‘document’ box – but backing up my thousands of digital photos is always on my ‘to do’ list. And I never store them on the Cloud. Had we lost the house, I would have been retrieving as much as I could from friends and family, facebook postings, etc. Clearly, back ups are now on my New Year’s resolution list!

A few paintings that hung on walls en route to the garage went into the car. Not favourite paintings, just paintings that were easy to grab. Were they important to go? Probably not. There was a lot of grabbing going on in our quick pack-up. Considered thought was out the window!

Hubby’s car – we had a car fridge, but no time to pack it!

I learnt a lot of lessons in this quick pack up:

Lesson 1: Packing four pairs of jeans and no socks is not a good idea!

Lesson 2: Packing makeup and hairdryer, and forgetting my toothbrush and toothpaste .. not a good idea

Lesson 3: Full marks for packing the passports and other important documents. Deducted marks for: Forgeting my purse/wallet with all my identifications and cards – medicare, etc.

Lesson 4: Remember to turn off the gas on leaving (we forgot). A friend afterwards suggested I should have turned off the water in case pipes burst. Hello – it was a fire bearing down! A flooded house might have been an advantage.

Lesson 5: Somehow, squeeze in the store of Covid masks and toilet rolls we have built up in the last two years – we failed on this one. To be fair, we did have a small bag of them in the cars, but they were there before we evacuated and not part of the emergency pack-up (toilet rolls on long Australian drives with toilets hundreds of kilometres apart are a must). Take the hand wash stores too! And PANADOL: We are only allowed to buy one packet at a time in chemists currently.

My Takayama mascot doll made it out

Lesson 6: Why did I pack my small 2019 Japanese Takayama mascot doll from Takayama and leave Robbie: the massive baby doll my aunty won for me in a Patons and Baldwins wool factory staff raffle over 60 years ago? Maybe because he now reminds me of that huge scary doll in the Korean drama Squid Game. Who wants those eyes staring at you from the passenger seat as you flee a deadly fire in the middle of the night!

60 year old plus Robbie got left behind

We each took a car – in my case, it was a new car bought only a few weeks ago, and I’m still learning its Star Trek futuristic type operation. Would you believe I still didn’t have down pat how to start and stop this keyless vehicle. It has no simple knobs and dials! Oh, for my old familiar VW! I don’t like driving at night on country roads at the best of times, so driving in an unfamiliar car in an emergency flight was not ideal.

The biggest danger on the road at night here are kangaroos and other wild critters, suddenly emerging from the roadside. I once had a six foot tall kangaroo collide with my car, skimming across my bonnet with a quick ‘good morning’ glance at me through the windscreen as he slipped towards the other side. Remarkably, we both lived to tell the tale!

Have you ever seen the aftermath of an emu hit by a car? Feathers everywhere! Luckily, none on this journey.

However, I did spot a fox narrowly missed by my hubby’s car ahead of me during our flight. I really didn’t need this sort of ‘adventure and danger’ during this unexpected travel in the night!

At times, I pulled over to the side of the road as fire engines roared towards my town – units came from as far away as Perth, three hours drive north, to back up our local volunteer bush fire fighters.

My mobile phone captures fire engines racing to the fire when I pulled over to the side of the road

Finally, we reached the Evacuation Centre in a neighbouring town. It had been set up at the local recreation centre which includes a 50 metre swimming pool. If only I had thought to take my bathers!

I’ve never been in an Evac centre, so it was an interesting ‘destination’.

Volunteers were on hand to look after us well with coffee, food and toiletries – and to keep us up to date with the fire’s progress. Full marks to them. They were fabulous.

At the evacuees centre in the creche room

First evacuation question for you – what does W/M mean on a breakfast bacon and egg sandwich packet provided to evacuees? Our next door neighbours were with us at the Evac centre and we all put forward the same suggestion – ‘With mustard’? Now really – mustard with bacon and eggs? Not likely. Had we lost our commonsense in our panic? Turned out it meant ‘wholemeal’. Of course! A little language learning is always good when you travel!

A box full of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste were provided. Obviously, I’m not the only evacuee who forgets them! Soap and towels too if we needed to shower.

Evacuees were provided with packs of toothbrushes and toothpaste

Mattresses were put out in a gymnasium for those who wanted to sleep. We felt quite unable to sleep, so were directed to the centre’s children’s creche, surrounded by toys and doll houses – sitting around tiny tables – surreal!

A night in a creche!

Finally, many hours later, we were allowed to return home. The fire was still raging in the bush reserve – battled by more than 200 firefighters. But the winds were favourable for my town, and the fire was heading in another direction towards a neighbouring community of Eagle Bay.

Air support had been brought in – water bombers, spotter planes – back and forth over our home for two days. It sounded like a scene from Mash.

We took the opportunity to repack our cars in a more orderly way in case the fire – still uncontained – became a threat again. Essentials we’d forgot went in – non essentials went out.

Investigations into the fire are ongoing – it is being treated as suspicious. And fire fighters remain at the scene as I write, ensuring it is out and mopping up. Alerts have been downgraded. Did someone deliberately light it in one of our State’s most beautiful little reserves – a habitat for many wild animals, birds, and exquisite wildflowers?

It may be some weeks before I can go in there to see what’s left. I regularly trek through the reserve with my camera, and it will be a sad day for me when I can return to see the damage. Areas of bushland wiped out by the fire will take years to regenerate. And the lives of many wild creatures will have been lost.

The lives of many animals including our kangaroos will have been lost in the fire
A family of tawny frogmouths – nesting season is just completing
The fire swept through this area – I don’t know currently what is left
What is left of the bushland here?
This will all have been lost in the fire
A habitat for white tail cockatoos – I photographed this one in the reserve recently
Wrens I photographed in the reserve last Spring
This may be in ashes now
The fire raged through this area towards our neighbouring town of Eagle Bay – in the distance in this photo
A photo released by Fire and Emergency of the fire devastation – the reserve is still closed to the public

Thankfully, the bush fire never reached our home, and our flight was a good exercise in evacuation. We were disorganised and not prepared. But we realised that, even in our panic, some basics of packing for all our travel trips in the past, did kick in.

This is a trip we don’t really want to do again in a hurry – but our ’emergency evacuation travel plan’ will be a lot more streamlined and thought out after this. At least, I hope so.

NOTE: Photos of the reserve and its wildlife have been taken by me on my various walks in the past. Photos of the pack-up were taken after I returned home. My promised Part 2 of my story on Matsumoto has been delayed.

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