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Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

To all the dedicated firefighters risking life and limb as they fight the devastating bushfires that are tearing through extensive parts of Victoria and New South Wales in the New Year 2020, I give my sincere thanks.

In years past, I have observed news of the bushfire season from the comfort of my loungeroom with a measure of sympathy but some sense of detachment, since they have had no real impact on me personally.

This time, it is different.

With our family dog safely on holiday with one of our sons in suburban Melbourne, my wife and I embarked on what we thought would be an easy, enjoyable road trip from Melbourne to spend New Year’s Eve in Sydney, with an overnight stop in Canberra to visit my sister. After a wonderful meal, we received notice of an immediate evacuation order for our son’s Melbourne suburb after a serious fire broke out with no warning on the outskirts of suburban Melbourne. Concerned and worried by not being on scene to assist, we sorted out arrangements for him to evacuate his home along with our dog to a safe haven. Thankfully, fire crews responded quickly and were able to bring the situation under control. In the midst of this, a close relative along with his very young family escaped a severe fire in Bateman’s Bay just before road closures would have left them stranded.

New Year’s Eve dawned for us in Canberra as we made our preparations for the next leg of our journey on to Sydney, but it was not to be the easy road trip we had expected. We woke to the news of enormous fires breaking out across multiple fronts through Gippsland in Victoria and the south coast of New South Wales, further threatened by inland fires. News kept coming to us of friends and family under threat. For us, the most serious was that another of our sons was in serious danger in Eden on the south coast of NSW.

As the heat and the wind fanned the flames on the ground, so too did they fan our panic. Our anxiety levels quickly peaked as we heard from our son the possibility of him fleeing Eden based on scarce information and little knowledge of local conditions. Fearful of them being overcome by flames and smoke out in the bush and having seen footage and heard news of local conditions, we pleaded with him to stay in the area. Thankfully, he obtained more information from local sources and decided the best course of action was to remain. He managed to fill his tank with petrol just before supplies ran out and was able to stock up on food and water through acting early to beat the total chaos of the town in the following hours.

Surrounded by fire in all directions and with roads closed to the north, south and west, he sought refuge in the open space of his caravan park with a last resort available of the beach and the relative safety of the ocean to the east. Our relief at this news was short-lived as more and more news arrived of horrific conditions including the town of Mallacoota being overrun by fire; occupants were forced to seek last refuge on the beach, with no power or communication and limited food and water, compounded by a genuine fear for their lives.

News of multiple deaths and property damage were streaming into our news feeds as we sought any and all information we could find; then we lost contact with our son – all efforts to communicate with him and the people he was with failed for hours for reasons unknown, although not unexpected given the conditions.

The fear we felt was so visceral that it stripped us raw. And yet, we were by now in the comfort and safety of a hotel in the city of Sydney; far from the maelstrom of terror in the heart of these fires. Report after report talked of the choking smoke and heat so intense the fires created their own weather systems. Dry lightning and supercell bushfire thunderstorms and fire tornadoes blasted the surroundings, one so strong it lifted an 8-tonne fire truck off the ground and flipped it on its roof, sadly resulting in the death of a brave volunteer firefighter.

‘A howling monster at the gates of hell’ was a description from one of the people on the ground that embedded itself deep in my mind as I pictured our son amid this apocalypse. Stories continued flooding in, including that of a crew being overrun as they sought refuge from the fire front in the cabin of their truck; thankfully they escaped with their lives, although the truck was destroyed.

Finally, late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, we received a welcome call from our son that he was safe for the time being; weather conditions had eased, and he was in the open at his caravan park. We had also heard that people were being evacuated to Eden, since it was considered one of the safer areas along the coast. Later that night, we heard again from him that he would spend the night at the evacuation centre to be close to the best source of information.

A worried and fitful night was broken by the relief of a phone call early New Year’s Day that a road inland had been opened and that a safe route had been identified to evacuate out of Eden via Canberra; he would soon be on the move. We packed up and left Sydney to head for Canberra, feeling a deep need to be nearby to hug our son and have him safe in our arms. Frequent updates on the road kept us informed and we felt joyous relief as we heard they had passed through the most dangerous parts of their exit route.

For hundreds of kilometres we drove through an eerie, surreal landscape of thick smoke, keeping a close watch on road conditions, since the highway had been cut off by fire just hours earlier. A quick stop in Canberra with a welcome cup of tea and the warmth of a sister’s hug then saw us head to our rendezvous point for dinner with our son. The relief of seeing him safe and sound was sweet indeed.

The list of people dear to us who have been affected by these fires is long; the scale and breadth of the disaster is unprecedented. And yet here I sit, now safe in our Melbourne home and I recognise that the emotional impact of these fires on me is but a blip compared to those who are in it, those still trying to escape, those who have lost loved ones and those who have lost their homes or their livelihoods.

And those who are still battling these fires with every last ounce of strength and will.

You truly are heroes, and I thank you for helping our son find his way safely back to us.