A burned out sign in national park near Northcliffe. Tourism and wildflowers are important to the town's economy (Tom Coull - ABC Local)

A burned out sign in national park near Northcliffe. Tourism and wildflowers are important to the town’s economy (Tom Coull – ABC Local)

In the days that followed the fires that burned around Northcliffe in early February, the town discovered its own strength.

On Friday the 30th of January, lightning ignited a blaze that threatened three towns, burned close to 100,000ha of forest and farmland and took over a week to finally extinguish.

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Along with the rest of the community, Fiona Sinclair suffered the intense fear of uncertainty and waiting. She and they emerged with a renewed strength and belief that the town could shoulder the worst.

Her story differs however in that she knew the gravity of the situation before most because her fire brigade volunteer husband had spent the first Saturday glued to the two way radio.

The couple began to get the sense that the fire would not be contained any time soon.

Media reports were lagging behind at that stage, Fiona says. “I was relaying information from him to the people on the east of Northcliffe.”

Throughout the days that followed, Fiona relayed fire intelligence to friends.

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She conveyed information to her friend in Margaret River whose husband was driving a grader across the road from the farm of the father of another friend in Broome.

This circuitous route, Northcliffe to Broome to Northcliffe to Margaret River, was much more accurate than official accounts, according to Fiona.

Wives of fire fighters became an informal network. “We’d go all around the place so you could track the fire by knowing who was on the ground.”

“I spent days on the phone. Friends were calling for that information.”

In many ways during the fire locals demonstrated that they are resourceful, resilient people, stated Fiona.

“People in town feel that it was the local people who saved us.”

In saying this, she stresses that she is in no way is downplaying or denigrating the role of those who came from elsewhere to help when it was desperately needed.

Fire has threatened the town twice in the last couple of years. Fiona senses that the feeling has strengthened that Northcliffe is a town “that stood up for itself”.

“Local knowledge is indispensible.”

Nobody misses out when fire threatens

There are no quick 10 minute trips to town any more, says Fiona. “You see someone you haven’t seen, you have to listen to their story.”

A shared experience is an “amazing thing”, she says. In her view, those who evacuated still suffered the agony of anxiety even though they were not physically present.

“You have lost a week of your life to anxiety.”

For several reasons, Fiona believes that the anxiety was less for the people in the middle of it than for those on the fringe.

“(Evacuees) couldn’t use their senses to gauge where the fire was at. They only had the media to rely on.”

That information flowed through the filter of official wording which by necessity highlighted what Fiona calls the “worst case scenario”.

“Those of us who were closer and had direct links into people on the ground had information that was perhaps a little less scary.”


“I decided to leave,” said Fiona, a decision made for the sake of her children and so that her husband would not worry about her safety. “That is common for partners of brigade members. They send their partners away.”

During the Babbington fire in 2012 which burned south of the town, Fiona learned not to go too far away. This time, she went to friends 10km north of the town.

Day by day, laid out across the horizon, she had a view of the “most compelling and repelling drama you could imagine.

“It was like watching a panorama of atomic bombs.

“It was horrifying but mesmerising. I felt privileged in some moments to witness such awesome power. It’s so humbling.

“I know the bombers and helicopters are huge on the ground when you see them against those atomic clouds, they look smaller than ants from an aeroplane.

“How on earth is this going to make a difference?

“I’m glad that I didn’t evacuate to another town and lose that tangible thread of my physical senses.”

To back her up, Fiona had a remote finger on the pulse. Her husband was there, a phone call away, controlling the Northcliffe brigade.

“If you don’t have that, you probably are unwise to stay that close,” she said.

Just the same, Fiona strove to control her own need for reassurance, knowing that her husband was coping with the stresses of responsibility and leadership.

“What if something went wrong? What if he sent someone somewhere and they did not come back?” Fiona worried for both his emotional and physical wellbeing.

Picking up the pieces

“When your map, your personal map of life involves a place, and then you think that that place might be gone…” Fiona doesn’t finish the sentence.

“We all had to face the fact that our little place might disappear.”

Stay or go is the catchphrase used to promote readiness in case of emergency: leave or defend. The decision is personal, based on individual situations, says Fiona.

Her view is that townsfolk and farmers are for the most well prepared people who know the risks and are prepared to take responsibility for their own choices in life.

“There’s a general feeling in Northcliffe that people should be able to make the choice to stand up for what they love.”

One house was lost. Pasture and fences, sheds and forest are gone. Yet, said Fiona, “We still have our town.”

If the circumstances are the same, Fiona Sinclair will make the same decision to stay cooee of the next fire. “Anyone who was physically removed had a greater level of anxiety,” she says.

The history of fires in this heavily forested region backs up her assertion of more to come. Northcliffe is more ready.

Sharon Kennedy (Cross Media Reporter) | ABC Online | 9 March, 2015 11:39AM AWST


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