"We learned a lot about torchlight and confusion": former Lancashire resident Bennie Bird speaks out about her experiences of the Australian bush fires

A former Lancashire resident who was caught up in the Australian bushfires has reassured friends she is safe and well and the community is “back on track”.

Friday, 24th January 2020, 6:00 am
Bennie with her late husband, Col John "Dickie" Bird

Bennie Bird, 88, who used to be a member of St Hilda’s Church in Bilsborrow, had moved back to Batemans Bay, about four hours drive south of Sydney in her native Australia, two years ago after her late husband Col John “Dickie” Bird died in 2016.

On January 8 the Lancashire Post revealed how her friends in Billsborrow were concerned for her welfare after not hearing from her for several days.

She had previously written of limited food and water supplies, as well as the sky going “as black as night” with the smoke on New Year’s Eve.

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Firefighters in action in New South Wales

After being made aware of the online article, she contacted the Post to thank readers for their prayers, concern and messages of hope, saying “somehow the seas/land between us seem to shrink at times like these.”

But despite the devastation and destruction around them, she said the Australian fighting spirit was undimmed.

She said: “We have a job to do and we have rolled up the sleeves in all parts of the community and we will get on with it”, adding that people’s reaction to the first article in the Post was “Gee, I hope they didn’t make too much of it .. we will cope you know”.

The fires, which began in Queensland and Northern New South Wales (NSW) before Christmas, came after one of the longest drought periods Australia has experienced, couples with extremely hot weather.

Plumes of smoke from the bush fires

Bennie said: “We had been at level two water restrictions for a month which means very, very careful use of water for all domestic purposes and we still had no rainfalls.

“It firstly cut off our access to Canberra by the Kings Highway, and then also cut off our access to the Sydney side of the Princes Highway.

“As these fires spread it became almost impossible to get food and other supplies, shops shut, petrol ran out in Batemans Bay, newspapers could not get through.

“By New Year’s Day, our administration for this Retirement Village including an Aged Care Facility, was advised to collect all people at 8am into the main building with a ‘go-bag’ (containing what was needed for a day or more including medicines and water).

“During that day the sky darkened, to become black as night but on the whole, people rallied each other taking on various small tasks to meet needs and our short staff put together whatever foods they could; a number of staff were unable to get to work as their homes were in danger and/or access was cut off.

“But by mid-afternoon things looked better and we were able to return to our villas and apartments.

“During the long day the hoses worked continuously on all buildings; above the spotter plane twisted and turned to catch any sight of a breakout or the direction of existing fires; then the chopper came again and again, dipping its bag into the sea and dumping the contents wherever needed.

“Again the “water tractor”, a light aircraft with two floats that contain a chemically-treated pink water was also dropping its loads to smother the fires.

“The sirens of bushfire vehicles, police cars, ambulance coupled with those flying machines was non stop.”

On the Sunday following New Year’s Eve, residents were once again summoned, this time evacuated to a library at the University of Wollongong.

“They were joined by other town residents evacuated from their homes, with families camped in whatever way they could muster - camper vans, tents, and on the beach fronts.

Bennie said: “As an aged care establishment, many of our residents have disabilities and we had just two emergency carers who could get in and stay. Nevertheless, our kitchen managed to put up sandwiches and other finger foods.

“Those of us in villas had already emptied our freezers of anything that might be of use because by this time the power had been cut off completely, though some gas appliances were available in a few places.”

She added: “It was necessary to transport stretchers for many, but most of us were advised to take a blanket and pillow and we discovered a room where we could get some hot water.

“Bennie said local transport businesses responded by rounding up staff and cars to transport residents to the sanctuary.

She said: “It was a short distance but a safari of extraordinary loads as you can imagine - people, beds, clothes, bedding, foods, medications.

“The volunteering was amazing, coming from everyone able to do something; at one stage while we were over there I found myself, at 88, helping a lady with a baby put up a tent because her husband was home fighting to save their property.

“It was a bit of a giggle because if there was a wrong way to do anything you can be sure we did it.”

She added: “On the whole we were warm and had immediate facilities available to us. Many people who we met had lost their homes entirely - no photographs, no furniture, and no clothes other than the smoked and sooty ones they stood in.”

When Bennie and her neighbours returned to their homes, they found they had been kept cool by wetting down processes and were untouched by fire.

She said: “We learned a lot about torchlight, confusion about what time it was because the sky was blackened day and night.

“The sun could be seen as a round red ball, no sight of the moon if it existed at that time.”