“You never know when it’s your turn, do you?”
Trevor Collis stands with a bucket in his hand, throwing water on a row of spot fires on the fence line. He’s bleary eyed and sooty, having helped keep one of eight current emergency fires in New South Wales from destroying the home of his daughter and her family.
“It’s a bit of a relief,” he says. “You sit here waiting for it for days and when it does come you think ‘You beaut, now it’s gone’. But you feel sorry for the poor people who have lost their homes. And animals of course. Heaps of horses [around here].”
As he talks the smoke swirls in eddies, unable to decide which direction it wants to go. It’s been the theme of the day.
Erratic wind changes had sent the fire at Wrights Creek one way, only to drive it back another way with interest. Not long after lunchtime it roared past the central coast property, then turned around and went back down the other edge.
Collis’s son-in-law, Shane Hilson, points at a line of trees on the edge of his furthest paddock. The ground is black and he says the tops were ablaze just a short time ago but he was prepared and got lucky. A neighbour lost a shed, he says.
Collis says he heard a series of loud bangs over the hill and assumed it was someone’s gas bottles.
Asked if their place is in the clear now, Hilson laughs a little. “There’s nothing left to burn.”
It’s a sentiment voiced more than once on Friday. This small rural community just an hour-and-a-half from Sydney has been on the hook for weeks. Like much of NSW, where fires now stretch the entirety of the coastline, these fires started back in the spring, in unseasonable weather during a devastating drought amid unprecedented fire conditions.
Six people have died and almost 700 homes have been destroyed in NSW bushfires this season. More than 100 fires were burning on Friday, more than half of them out of control.
Up the hill, the driveway of Rob Meggs’s home is ash, the trees are black, a pile of glowing logs sits in a clump like an abandoned campfire.
He’s been in his house 22 years and hasn’t seen anything so big.
“I’ll still continue to live here, now that this has been through it’s probably good for another 50 years,” he says.
Meggs’s large iron shed and adjacent office have crumpled, folding in on themselves and encasing the still-burning fire inside.
The shed was “a hoarder’s heaven”, he says. “It was chockers full of stuff. That might be a release in one way. But my office, that might be a bit more painful. It had some records in there that I won’t be able to replace.”
Meggs keeps a distance from the ruins, saying he thinks all the petrol cans have blown up by now, but there might still be some paint tins to go.
The fact that his house survived is spoken of by some firies on Friday as a sight to behold. His long single-level house with a pool is untouched while the surrounding forest smokes.
It’s eerie, and the smoke hangs thick between the gusts. Residents are weary and jaded, joking with each other, but far from complacent.
Not far from here, five other emergency level fires merged into what tabloids have dubbed a mega blaze, having burned through more than 335,000 hectares. By midnight Wrights Creek would also join.
A group of men hang around the Kulnura’s general store, nursing beers. They say they’re not worried, but they’re also not going to stick around if it goes south.
“You get to a certain point and then you just get the hell out of Dodge,” Steve says.
“I think everyone’s just prepped for a certain level but you can’t go beyond a certain point unless you concrete your whole [home],” says Robbie, from Bucketty, where he’s surrounded by at least half a dozen different fires. “We all live in the bush and it comes with the bush.”
Steve says he spoke to a friend in Grafton who stayed to defend his home but it was overwhelmed by fire and he had to jump in the river to save himself.
“He said he’ll never protect his house ever again,” he says. “He said he’ll just drive away, it was the scariest thing he’s ever been through.
“It’s not worth going over stuff and that’s all it is, it’s stuff.
“But at the same time you’d be really disappointed if your house burnt down because of embers or a spot fire.”
He says the biggest problem for him is the windy single road in and out, through the bush.
“The other thing is, I think everyone is genuinely absolutely pissed off with the government. Because they’ve shortchanged fire services. They knew this was coming. For two years they’ve know this shit was coming and they gutted the budget.
“Volunteers working around the clock. Really? They’re losing all their wages and everything like that.”
Firefighters up here are tired and overstretched. Every property owner says their home – and maybe even themselves – wouldn’t still be here if not for the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and metro firefighters, but in nearly every following breath they ask why so much is up to volunteers.
RFS firefighters Ian Woolley, Eric Lambeck, and David Horan were taking an evening breather on the edge of a property looking west as the rolling hills slowly disappear one by one behind thick brown smoke.
The three men are from the local RFS brigade and spent the day defending the homes of themselves and their neighbours.
The wind has changed again, and now a southerly is pushing the fire back towards Kulnura, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t change again”, Horan says.
“We just hurry up and wait,” Woolley says.
Inside the house Narelle Davis and Jill Gilbert sit at a kitchen bench with a couple of glasses of wine with ice, while some sausages cook on the stove.
They have been on edge and have not slept properly in a week.
Three men sit at the table, two dogs run around the yard, and Mim the kangaroo looks quite at home on a blanket in front of the TV.
Davis raised the kangaroo before releasing her and she normally hangs round in the bush nearby but came back home when the fires came close and the family brought her inside.
Davis grew up here and the house was built to weather a fire.
“Since it started the last three weeks, we’ve even knocked down half my garden … That’s all you can do.”
“It’s not about being relaxed, it’s about being prepared,” says Gilbert, who grew up in the Blue Mountains but now lives over the road.
“And not being naive,” Davis says.
She says they have been warned by the fires there’s a good chance they will be hit both both the Wrights Creek and the Three Mile firefronts at the same time but the winds are all over the place.
“That’s the trouble with Mother Nature, you just don’t know.”