Fight or flight: Australians grapple with difficult decision as bushfires approach
By Jill Gralow
YANDERRA, Australia (Reuters) – It was oppressively hot, above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and the wind was picking up. Bushfires were devastating nearby towns and now threatened Yanderra, a small village with just over 600 people located south of Sydney.
Diane and Ron Baxter bought a block of land here 43 years ago. They’d since built a house and a life, raising two children including a daughter now living next door with her family.
As smoke filled the sky on Saturday and fire embers fell nearby, the Baxters, aged in their 70s, chose to remain and defend their property, rather than doing what their family wanted them to do – leave.
“We left our run a little bit too late to get out and the roads were blocked, but we felt we needed to stay and protect the house anyway,” Diane Baxter told Reuters at her home.
“We just feel at this time in our life we needed to stay with our home,” she said, adding she and her husband couldn’t face having to rebuild their lives.
“It would be very hard to start over again, very hard.”
Fire is a pervasive danger in Australia, but many people choose to stay to defend their properties at considerable risk.
By patrolling their homes, people can put out sparks and embers before they take hold as they likely would in a building left vacant.
But this fire season is proving to be particularly dangerous. On Saturday, fires swept through the town of Balmoral, located just a couple of kilometers from Yanderra, prompting New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian to declare there was “not much left”.
During the past couple of months, more than 900 homes have been lost across the dry continent, according to authorities, even though the southern hemisphere summer has not yet reached its mid-point. At least six people have died.
Authorities understand some people will want to defend their homes and they have developed check-lists which include having protective clothing and making sure a home is adequately prepared and free of flammable debris.
“You have to physically and mentally be able to withstand the onslaught of a fire,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service liaison officer Elizabeth Ellis told Reuters.
“And everybody in the household has to be prepared to do that. Because the worst thing you can do is tail run for it at the last minute.”
The scorching heat from the weekend has subsided, and authorities are using the cooler conditions to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of the next wave of heat, forecast for late in the week.
Matthew Doyle, from the nearby town of Bargo, left his and his partner’s new home on Saturday as the heat intensified and fire approached.
He said that while his “gut feeling” was that he should protect his house, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
A last-minute shift in the wind direction saved the house, but Doyle stood by his decision.
“You can replace everything, except for your lives,” he said.
(Reporting by Jill Gralow in Yanderra; writing by Jonathan Barrett; editing by Richard Pullin)
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