Remember to Pack the Fruit Bowl
By Tara Goulding
The Australian bushfire season of 2019-20 is unprecedented. As I write this, more than 46 million acres have been burned nationwide, at least 33 people and over a billion animals have lost their lives, and more than 8000 homes, buildings and businesses have been destroyed – and we’re only halfway through summer.
I live in Mangrove Mountain (pop. 715), a small town in the rural western side of the Central Coast NSW, about an hour north of Sydney. My bushfire story starts on 12 November 2019, when the Gospers Mountain fire (originating in the Wollemi National Park from a lightning strike) was growing towards the Central Coast. The conditions on this particular day were declared to be CATASTROPHIC, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend the whole day locked inside our home with ABC News Radio blasting and my phone with the RFS Fires Near Me app open and firmly in my grip the entire day. The smoke was terrible, and I even brought my little chicken inside to sit in the cool aircon with me so his lungs didn’t get contaminated from the burnt particles.
The good news is nothing bad happened that day, but it set the tone for the next few weeks of anticipating what seemed like the inevitable arrival of the fire. Community meetings held by the Rural Fire Service advised that the Gospers Mountain fire was predicted to reach us sometime at the end of the next week, around 21-23 November.
I made a business decision to cancel all massage appointments for the week and relocate myself and our animals (one rooster, three ducks, one bunny) to the safety of my parents’ home in Sydney.
Thankfully all my clients were understanding and made me promise I’d stay safe, however it was a tough decision to make based on ‘what ifs’ – my bank balance certainly felt the effects of a week’s worth of cancellations, that’s for sure. But, there wasn’t really any other option – because my work is based on home visits and I obviously don’t have my phone on while working, if there was an emergency at home I wouldn’t know about it straight away, and even then I’d still need time to get home (if I could) to bundle up the animals and take them to safety. Cancelling all work that week was definitely the safest decision I could have made, though as it turns out, I made that decision way too early – the fire did not reach us as predicted (yay!) and I could have worked as usual that week. But as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and that was a lesson learnt – don’t make big decisions too early, wait until the day before if I need to cancel, clients will understand (and too bad if they don’t).
A second community RFS meeting was held, with residents from the area spilling out of our local hall, and we were told that the fire’s arrival was “a matter of when, not if”. We had prepared our home as much as we could and we had to wait it out. Fast forward to 26 November, and the Three Mile fire had started from lightning strikes on our side of the nearby river. No problem, it’s still a little distance away, and our neighbour is home so he will let us know if anything happens. As I was getting ready to leave for work, more fires popped up on the Fires Near Me app, and according to the map, I was surrounded.
Initiate panic mode!
I’d been on high-alert for a couple of weeks by now, and this tipped me over the edge. Cue me cancelling work with an hour’s notice, hubby rushing home urgently, me running around the house like crazy making sure we had all our valuables, and when the fires closest to us were extinguished quickly and all was well again, cue a double-strength gin+tonic to calm my frazzled nerves.
All was fine for another week or so until 3 December. We’d had a bit of a family medical emergency a couple of days prior, pushing the threat of the fires down a notch on the list of priorities. The Three Mile fire was growing and heading towards us, and at 7.30pm, we got the emergency alert from RFS via text and phone call. Within the hour we’d packed up the animals and were on the way to a friend’s home. The smoke was incredibly thick and stinky.
As we were leaving our town, we saw a lot of other residents also heading in the same direction, lots of red and blue lights, blocked streets, and a weird glow in the distance. It was surreal. We felt relief that we had finally left and no longer needed to live in anticipation of wondering when it would happen. I could deal with the business side of things in the morning; tonight was for settling down in our friend’s loungeroom, eating ice-cream and playing boardgames to take our mind off things.
The next morning I headed down to Sydney with the animals – our friends were amazing, but they don’t have a grassed backyard and our animals needed space. I set off on a (very smelly!) two-hour journey to my parent’s house, where I stayed for the next 12 days. I had all my work equipment with me, and I did return to the Central Coast a couple of times for group bookings (and to see hubby). All other massage appointments were cancelled the day before they were scheduled for, because I learnt my lesson from last time and didn’t want to pre-empt the situation until I needed to. During this time, our little town made the news a couple of times – I was getting messages and emails from clients checking to see if I was ok, which was so lovely. It really made me realise the unique relationship that develops between therapist and client – it’s not just about the massage. Our neighbour, who decided to stay, was giving us updates from the ground about what was going on.
During our evacuation, there were two occasions when we were particularly anxious, as there was the very real chance that we may not have a home to return to. As it turns out, the Three Mile fire came to within 100m of reaching our property, and it was only due to the wind changing direction earlier than predicted that it didn’t actually reach us – how’s that for luck?!
We returned home on 16 December. Driving back was a bit weird, I’d never driven through bushfire regions before and wasn’t sure what to expect. All the trees etc. are still there, but they are a weird burnt brown colour and the ground cover is black. You can literally see a line on the ground where the edge of the fire front was. When I officially returned to work, all my clients wanted to talk about was the fires. It was nice having other locals to talk to about what happened, kind of like a debriefing, but I admit it did get too much. After spending a month in a constant state of anxiety, I really needed to not have to tell my story over and over again, however nice it was to be asked.
The Impact to My Business
I can’t pretend the fires didn’t have an effect on my business. The holiday period between Christmas and early January is generally a really busy time for me as a Massage Therapist. A lot of Sydney-siders travel up here for holidays, and because a lot of other therapists take that time off, I get a lot of work at this time – particularly groups of friends/family all wanting massages. It’s not unusual for me to spend an entire day at a holiday home massaging. However, this holiday season was particularly quiet – sure, there were still some people who ventured up this way, but bookings that had been made in advance had to be cancelled due to the holiday properties being damaged or inaccessible with closed roads, fallen power lines, etc. While it hurt my business, I was also quietly grateful for the extra time it gave me to decompress after all the stress.
Life has pretty much returned to normal for us. Our experience was very lucky compared to many others, something that I’m very grateful for.
If I’ve learnt any lessons from this experience, I think they would be:
- You don’t need to make big business decisions quickly – clients will understand if you need to cancel last-minute in an emergency, and if they don’t understand then they are not great clients anyway.
- You don’t have to cancel everything – I was still able to travel back to do some work.
- Clients care about you and your wellbeing, even if you don’t know it.
But probably the most important lesson was don’t leave your fruit bowl unattended for 12 days – eww!
About the Author
Tara Goulding has been a Massage Therapist since 2006, in both Parramatta and now Central Coast (NSW). Most of her massage career has been spent as a mobile therapist – she loves being able to offer this convenience to her clients while also offering herself a convenient excuse not to exercise. She lives on a farm with her husband, Star Trek-loving rooster, three ducks, and a revolving door of foster bunnies and guinea pigs.