“We need a plan, now!”

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the fires in Australia. It’s been a pretty rough season. If you’ll allow, I’m going to digress from my usual edtech conference commentary and devote my column this month to my personal experience in this matter.

At the start of December, Australia’s bush fires were just starting to make the news in Canada. A few times my sisters would contact me to ask if they should worry. They were concerned because my Mom & Dad were coming over from Canada for a visit. “Nah, she’ll be right” I would say. “All those fires are way up north, nothing near me.”

Occasionally in the local newspapers, there would be articles from the NSW Rural Fire Service about making a bush fire plan. But those are more for people living way out there. And on the local Wollondilly Facebook groups, there would be some notes from time to time about the fires and how bad it was.

But they were talking about places pretty far away.

The Green Wattle Creek fire

Still, there was one fire though that I kept tabs on as my parents’ visit neared. It started from a lightning strike in late November, and it was somewhat close, but I was sure it was nothing to be concerned about. On December 1st, it still had to cross a lake and burn through about 40 km of bush land, so I wasn’t too concerned. My mind was on my new job starting on the 2nd and my parents’ arrival a week away.

By December 3rd, the Green Wattle Creek fire had grown, and by the 5th, my town was being included in the “Watch and Act” area. My first week at the new job was filled with very smokey commutes to work. Still, it was pretty far off, and most of the smoke in the city was from the much larger Gosphers Mountain fire. However, that weekend burning embers floating through the air carried the fire across Lake Burragorang. It was getting closer.

Smoke at Granville Station, Dec 4
Smoke at Granville Station, Afternoon of Dec 4th. There is no filter here, this is the actual colour of the sky.

But it was still far off. Even at this pace, the fire had a lot of ground to cover before I felt threatened. I screen captured the fire map from my RFS app and sent it to my sisters. I drew a redline from Thirlmere to Buxton. “If it crosses this red line, I’ll worry and we’ll start getting a plan together.”

On the 15th, I boarded a plane to Uluru with the folks. It had been burning around Thirlmere, but that was probably back burning. It was under control. I might have checked the app a few times, but it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.

We returned on the 18th of December. The fire was at my red line. I sighed thinking we might have to start reading up on bush fire plans. But it still wasn’t high on my list of concerns as I lay my head down that night. I had emails to return, conference proposals to plan, and even a note to Stu about plans for ELearningWorld in 2020.

The fire was still something like 10 km away. Maybe it was around Buxton. But that’s still far enough away.

December 19th

That Thursday morning there was much to do. We had a quick turn around with washing of clothes from Uluru and repacking for Perth on Saturday. My wife was sleeping in, catching up on some rest before joining the fray. My mother and father were enjoying tea and the newspaper on the front porch. And true to my word, I was finishing up an email to about a conference co-proposal.

The air that morning was thick with smoke, it was probably the worst we’d had. But the wind shifted around 11:30 and the air was clearing. Good luck I thought.

In hindsight, the wind shifting is not always good news when there’s a fire nearby.

At noon, my phone buzzed. It was a text from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service; “Seek shelter as the fire arrives”.

As I contemplated what that meant, the phone rang. It was a robot voice telling me I was in imminent danger. And seconds later, my work phone received the warning SMS text again.

I went to the patio door. Perhaps I was in denial because my first sense of fear wasn’t from the texts or phone calls. My first sense of fear was from seeing a thousand flies swarming my patio door. I thought they were bees at first, there were so many and the buzz was so loud. A literal cloud of flies, in panic, looking for a safe place. Seeing these insects panic gave me a deep, eerie feeling of dread.

I went out on the back lawn and looked west to see a large plume of smoke rising.

The Green Wattle Creek fire
The Green Wattle Creek fire burning on the edge of Bargo.
This fire moved from Buxton to Bargo in less than an hour.
I can’t recall, but my wife said she could hear the roar of it when she went out the front.

It was here.

I went in to wake my wife, as my mother came in to tell me she had come to a similar conclusion watching looking out from the front porch. My wife didn’t believe me at first; I don’t blame her, waking up to “we need to evacuate” is jarring. The bedside phone interrupted – that robot was calling back.

I went to the shed to grab the pet carriers and while there, I received a text from my wife: “RFS app says Bargo too late to leave”.

I walked out to the driveway and looked back at the house. How could we be so foolish? And what do we do now? In a trance, I looked and wondered where we were supposed to shelter.

My neighbour Pete broke the trance. “How’s your plan coming?”

I looked over at him, his ute was packed, and he was putting his computer into the back seat. It was parked on an angle on the front lawn for a quick getaway.

“I don’t have a plan, Pete.” I confessed, admitting I was stupid and naive. And instead of being snarky and telling me how foolish I was, Pete, being a good neighbour, shook me back into action with four casual words: “Well, there’s still time.”

A plan, in under 5 minutes

I nodded. The app was telling me it was too late, but Pete’s coolness convinced me. We still had time. Bugging out was better than staying put, and that fire was burning the other side of town. It might move fast – faster than I ever imagined – but we had at least five minutes. Five minutes to conceive and execute a plan. We need a plan, now!

I went back inside and we all started improvising a plan. Our bags from Uluru was half still packed and by the door. Toiletries and some unused clean clothes were still in them. Mom started filling them with the clean laundry we were doing. My wife started herding the cats into the pet carriers while calling out to my father a list of things to get from the safe.

I grabbed a laundry basket and gave myself two minutes to collect every external hard drive and laptop I could. It’s all our photos, and who knows what other information we might need. I also looked in my office for my State Medal. It wasn’t where I thought it was. Too bad, no time to search. I thought about what other irreplaceable items we couldn’t lose. Not much came to mind, lots of “wants” but not many “needs”. If I couldn’t think of it and find it in two minutes, it wasn’t coming.

I went back outside with both sets of car keys and started loading laundry baskets, cats and suitcases into the cars. My parents were talking to Peter by then and I overheard he was staying, prepared to defend his property. And legend he is, we didn’t even have to ask, “I’ll look after yours too.”

I felt an urge to stay, but I knew I was responsible for getting two parents, two cats and a dog to safety (or some fraction of that responsibility, shared with my significant other). But I could at least make Peter’s job easier. Floating burning embers can cause spot fires behind the lines that the firefighters can’t focus on. With the yard so dry, it could easily happen here. I started uncoiling the garden hose on the front lawn so Pete wouldn’t have to wrestle it if he had to put one out.

My wife joined me when she left the house with some more clothes, the pets’ food and the contents of the safe. We were working as a team. I went to the back yard to unravel that hose, and hastily spread out the collection of hose joiners, sprinklers and nozzles for someone to find what they needed quickly.

I knew the fire was approaching from the west. That helped when trying to figure out where we were going; south to the freeway and then northeast. The freeway to the southwest was potentially under threat, and Remembrance Drive to the north was going to be jammed, and certainly under threat (And indeed, the fire burned along that road later that day). She jumped in her car with the dog and a cat, and I jumped in mine with a cat and two anxious Canadians getting the full Aussie Christmas experience.

“Meet at the Coles in Picton and we’ll figure out what we’ll do next,” I told her. And we were off.

From nothing to executed plan – probably not under five, but certainly under 10 minutes.

I felt foolish, terrified, worried, and yet a little bit proud. We did what we had to do and we got the hell out. We were in trouble and we got out of it.

What lessons can we learn?

Often we find ourselves here.

Maybe it’s not as dramatic as a fire bearing down hard on us. But I know everyone that’s reading this has been here – we thought we had time, we were foolish, but the deadline is upon us. And we don’t even have a plan.

You can stand there staring at the smoke plume. Or you can shake off the panic, take a chance, and start executing your best plan that you haven’t even finished constructing.

Our lesson

For us, that meant quickly surveying the situation:

  • We knew our priorities; our lives, the animals, necessities like clothing for the next few days, irreplaceables like photo albums, medications and the contents of the safe.
  • We knew to do what we could to help protect our property.
  • We knew where we could go and how to get there.
  • We suspected we had more time than the app was telling us – although this was a calculated risk, and I wish I didn’t have to gamble with such high stakes. We did what we had to do, but please do not misconstrue this as advice to ignore the information emergency services provide you.
  • We could estimate the direction the fire was likely to spread based on the wind.

And we executed the plan with haste, doing the best we could. We knew when to move on; I didn’t get stuck when there was something I couldn’t find like my State Medal.

And we learnt from our experience. The threat has eased, but we kept somethings still packed and close to the door for a few weeks. We formalised our bug out plan. We made a list of our irreplaceables. We documented the contents of our house to make an insurance claim easier. We finally got the pump hooked up to the rainwater tank. And we learnt the best place to shelter from a fire in our home if the worst happens.

The dog on his lead and two cats in their crates at a picnic shelter.
Evacuated to Camden Fair Grounds.

Your lesson

So you’re facing a jam with no plan. A client who’s moved up their training day? A last-minute conference Call for Proposal? A crashed LMS with no backups and an assessment due? Time to come up with one, now!

Survey the situation – what exactly do you need to get you over the line? You need to define the Minimum Viable Product to get you out of this jam. What do you need – not want, not like – but need?

Can you push the deadline? Maybe there’s some wiggle room. Can you buy some time delivering whatever you promised in pieces instead of a whole package?

Execute your plan – do your best in the time you have. Build on what your learnt when you surveyed the situation. Don’t get bogged down by things out of your control.

Improvise! Don’t write a script for that last-minute presentation – just build a slide deck to remind yourself of the key points and improvise your speech; trust that you’re the expert and you can talk off-the-cuff. Not attempting is failure anyway, so go down swinging.

And stay calm! Thank goodness for Peter. Just as panic was starting to grow, I heard a calm voice tell me that I can do this as long as I don’t panic. You might not have a neighbour poke his head over the fence, so might have to be your own calm voice. Just remember, it’s not how you got here, it’s how you’re going to get out.

Learn from this experience – You’re a big dummy. No really, you are. If you need to improvise a plan, you probably knew you needed it earlier and just didn’t do it. You’ve been foolish.

Well, this is a learning experience and it’s a waste if you don’t learn. So stop beating yourself up and figure out what went right and what went wrong.

You probably did a lot of awesome things when executing your five-minute plan; excellent! You know you’re capable and bright. So you have something to build on.

But you also know you’ll be back here again. What went wrong? What couldn’t you get across the line? How did you fail, and how are you going to grow from that fail? What can you bring forward from this experience to the next?

This happens to everyone; there are just times we are caught unprepared. But now, after having navigated it as best you could, now is the time to think about how are you going to turn the five-minute plan into an actual real plan.

Epilogue: So what happened?

We ended up spending the day at the Camden Fair Grounds with quite a few other people who had done the same. In the end, the fire never came close to our house, but we had no way of knowing at the time. We were allowed back around 8 pm. Two days later, Bargo went through it again as temperatures soared and the winds shifted. We were already in Perth by then, but I stressfully watched updates from afar.

I wish I could say everything was fine for little Bargo. The Green Wattle Creek fire did not destroy our town, but some homes were lost. Two firefighters died that day. And the town just on the other ridge, Balmoral, was hit very hard.

I’m sure you’ve heard how tough this summer has been for fires in Australia. It was a very emotional season for me. I am kind of numb from it now, having been on an emotional roller coaster for a few weeks. The 19th was the hardest day I’ve had in a long time.

I swear, that beautiful fire fighting helicopter still brings tears to my eyes. Her name was Gypsy Lady, and she helped save my town.

On a personal note, I want to add my appreciation for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, and the other emergency service workers and volunteers. These people really fought tooth and nail to save people’s homes here in Macarthur and the Southen Highlands. When you drive around our town and neighbouring towns and villages, you can see that it was a literal battle with this fire. These brave souls, most of them volunteers, putting it all out there, it humbles me to see what they have been through. The courage, determination, and duty that they have left me without words to express the depths of my gratitude. True heroes.

And finally, just in case you don’t have your own fire plan yet:

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Scott Huntley

Kenneth "Scott" Huntley is an Instructional Designer with Transport for NSW and WordPress instructor with The Parramatta College. Scott is a Canadian (Nova Scotian) Expat living in the Southern Highlands of Australia. Scott is a Moodle enthusiast and an Internet of Things hobbyist.

3 thoughts on ““We need a plan, now!”

  • 31st January 2020 at 8:51 am
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    While I checked via the net what was going on, your account added much to trying to get an idea of what happened. And yet, I guess only those who lived through it have got that idea. It has been a shocking experience, indeed. I am sorry for the people who lost their lives, and for those who lost property. Many animals and plants were lost, too.

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  • 25th January 2020 at 8:56 pm
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    What an amazing post.
    It comes at a time I am spending two weeks with family in Australia – Queensland and New South Wales – Hervey Bay > Sunshine Coast > Gold Coast > Byron Bay (which is the northernmost part of NSW).
    A wonderful two weeks, but very conscious of the fires “not too far” away (at least by Australian geographic standards!)
    Lots of things to learn from this post.
    But I would also say how sad it is that fire-fighters have lost their lives – people who were brave enough to do something I am not skilled or fit enough to do, and they are just doing it to help others – every bit as much a hero for their country as people who serve in the military etc.

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