Bushfire survivors share what it's like living through extreme weather

ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves

Updated 7 Feb 2019

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Canberra ACT 2003

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"It was a whole-body experience. You've got the smell of the smoke, the sight of it and then it gets dark … between the sound of the fire and the roar of the wind, it was just massive."

Rachel Marks says it's impossible to truly describe the experience of being near an out-of-control bushfire.

It's an experience no-one wants to go through and, if it happens to you, one you'll never forget.

We spoke with three people who've survived them — from a volunteer firefighter who lived through one of the country's worst ever fires, to shack owners who escaped by sheltering on a beach.

Here are their stories of surviving the extremes.

'It was pitch black at 4pm'

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A personal experience with bushfire has effects that last long after the fire threat ends. (ABC Weather: Humyara Mahbub)

It's considered Canberra's worst natural disaster and it took almost everyone by surprise.

On January 18, 2003, four bushfires that had been burning in Brindabella mountains for more than a week combined and roared into Canberra's south-western suburbs, destroying 500 homes and claiming four lives.

Rachel Marks and her husband Adrian knew the fires were bad, but they never thought it would come near their home in Weston Creek.

It was when Rachel heard the emergency siren broadcast on the local ABC Radio station that she realised just how serious it was.

She and Adrian raced home to pack what they could to escape.

"I just grabbed that stuff and chucked it in the car," Rachel says.

"While we were still there, dithering, the power went out. It was pitch black — at four in the afternoon.

"We heard the Duffy service station blow up. We could hear gas bottles from barbecues blowing up.

"It was just a roar … there's this constant, almost threatening sound.

"It was a whole-body experience. You've got the smell of the smoke, the sight of it and then it gets dark … then it turns orange. It's really hot, it's really windy.

"It was my worst nightmare. I could see people with their garden hose, trying to put out their house."

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Chauvel Circle in Chapman, Canberra in January 2003, after the firestorm swept into the suburb on January 18, 2003.(National Library Of Australia: Greg Power)

They eventually made it to Rachel's parents' house in the southern suburbs of Canberra, but still couldn't relax.

"I couldn't sleep that night. I was covered in fear sweat and every time I heard a car go past, I thought 'The ranger's come to tell us to evacuate. It's coming'. It was pretty horrific."

Rachel and Adrian were able to return to their home, which had survived, the next day.

"We were going past people's burnt houses. It felt surreal, like something you'd see in a movie.

"People walking around, dazed, wondering 'What the heck do we do now?'"     

While the fire didn't directly affect Rachel's house, it did affect her life.

She now lives in Victoria, not that far from another national park, and the smell of smoke and sound of helicopters on a hot day takes her straight back to that experience in Canberra.

"Even though it hadn't hit my house, it hit my community, and you pick up what people are feeling."

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