• Tony Bosworth

Fire reflections – one man’s Bilpin experience

It's been almost a year since Bilpin was evacuated as bush fires advanced. People still find it hard to talk about, but sometimes talking helps too.

Watch the video from ex-RFS fire-fighter John Keeble as he drives back to his Bilpin home the day after being evacuated as fire bore down on the region a year ago this month.

And here’s John's personal story about the worst bush fires most of us have ever experienced…

“I was driving home on Sunday December 22 after the fire hit Bilpin the day and night before and destroyed Tutti Fruitti [the well known café on Bells Line of Road] and other places along the way. We had evacuated the day before, early afternoon, and driven down the hill with the sun slowly disappearing behind all the smoke, and ash falling on North Richmond and Richmond.

“I had to put the car lights on when we got to North Richmond around 3.30pm. We spent the night at the Richmond Club and drove back up on Sunday morning when the road was re-opened.

“As we turned into our road the electrical repair crew were already there. They were on the ball. The poles had been burnt down and we had no power until later in the day. It was also quite cold because I lit the fire and actually toasted some bread on the fire. Notice in the video the smoke at my place, it’s no wonder so many people had lasting effects from that, including myself.

“There were 10 fire trucks in Pup Road on the Saturday night, five at my place including the Kurrajong Heights and Kurrajong trucks. I don't know who the others were but they all did a great job by lighting up all around and doing a back-burn to burn out the ground litter which then reduces the ferocity of the wild fire. There were many instances up here of a raging crown fire with flames twice as high as the trees just dying completely when it got to a previously burnt hazard reduced area.”

We asked John what he was thinking as he drove home, not knowing whether his home had survived.

“My thoughts were of all the wildlife that has been burnt to death because of the stupidity of the politicians sitting in their ivory towers with absolutely no idea of how to manage the bush, but who make the rules for the people that do know but aren’t allowed to practice what they know, so my thoughts were of sorrow for the animals and anger for the politicians.”

In 2000, Mr Keeble bought seven acres of vacant land up at Bilpin and he and his partner lived in a caravan while they built the shed and then lived in the shed for 15 years while they built the house.

“I built the house to withstand fire by the simple principle of not using anything that burns,” he said.

And he knows more than a fair bit about fire. He joined Bilpin RFS when he first moved to the area.

“I did all my training with them, qualified in AF (Advanced Fire fighter) VF (Village Fire fighter) and Rural Fire Driver. I left Bilpin RFS in 2006 and joined Mountain Lagoon RFS and became a Deputy there.”

But in 2009 he resigned in protest at what he saw as the interference of Sydney RFS in local RFS procedures, and he says since then fire matters have got worse, not least because of the amount of leaf litter build up.

“Back in 2006 there was a couple of inches of leaf litter, but since then it has been allowed to build up to eight feet high, over your head if you go for a walk in the bush. It is because of this build up of leaf litter that we had the catastrophic fires last year, it should never have been allowed to happen.

“It is nothing to do with climate change, it is to do with forest management which the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are incapable of doing and the local rural fire brigades are prohibited from doing because of all the red tape involved to do any hazard reduction burns.”

At least at the tail end of this year, when we look outside it is not all dry and humming with heat, there is more dampness in the ground and the air. But it will take more than a year for those devastating bushfires to be forgotten.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share about your experiences during last year's traumatic bush fire period, please get in touch.

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