Walking through fire for family

Abi walking Geordie along South Arm Rd in the light of the following car carrying the sheep and chooks.

Abi walking Geordie along South Arm Rd in the light of the following car carrying the sheep and chooks.

The firestorm that devastated Williams Hill Rd on November 8 missed our house by a whisker, though its long fiery tentacles wrapped themselves around the property.

Desperate efforts by friends and neighbours over the next couple of days saved the house and the outbuildings, though the fences were damaged and all pick in the paddocks destroyed.

There was no warning. The fire was as unexpected as it was deadly. When we saw the pall of flame-coloured black smoke above the rise behind the house we didn't stop to ask questions. We bundled up the four cats, two dogs, the computers, photos and medication, and left. The two sheep were free-ranging and would have to fend for themselves as would the chooks. We were under instructions to leave the four horses and the alpaca in their paddock: rescue was on its way.

Unfortunately, the fire outran the rescue and when the helpers arrived with floats a few minutes later, Williams Hill Rd was barricaded by police. No one could get through.

We desperately hoped our house might be spared and the free-ranging animals would survive, but we were distraught at the thought of the horses locked in their paddock - for them there could be no escape and they would surely die in terror.

We are not real farmers; our animals are not livestock with a dollar value. They are nearly all rescue animals. More than pets, they are members of the family, even those that live in the paddock. They know their names, they are used to cuddles and conversations.

But horses are flighty animals, quick to panic. They would feel the change in air pressure, choke on the smoke, smell the danger. Raymond the alpaca - the paddock protector - could not help them against such a monster. And their humans were nowhere in sight.

Later that evening we heard that the barricade was no longer manned, so all the helpers once again 'gathered to the fray'.

Williams Hill Rd is narrow and winding with no room for turning. It was too dangerous to take floats towards the fire but the Pathfinder was more manoeuvrable and we took a calculated risk.

The sheep were only too happy to jump into the back of the Pathfinder, and it was a moment's work to knock the roosting chooks off the top of the trailer into the trailer itself, pull up the tarp and hitch the trailer to the car.

Friends took the first load out. Then down to the horse paddock. No time for saddles and bridles, or even to find enough lead ropes. To save the horses we had to rely on the trust and bonding that had been built up over the years. Despite their better judgment, those horses walked calmly through fire because their humans told them it would be alright...

It was a 2 km stretch to the intersection. The horses and alpaca with their humans walking beside them plodded through the smoke on the stoney corrugated road, with fire licking the edges and crackling up the trees.

Ahead a neighbour's abandoned car was well alight with the wind fanning the flames across the road. We had to get the horses up to a trot to run through the fiery barrier.

The two oldest horses were floated out to temporary safety at Newee Creek - then Valla when Newee Creek seemed threatened. The float was then to return for the two youngest.

But it was all too much for the alpaca. He broke away and was last seen running down South Arm Rd towards the full force of the fire. There was nothing we could do for him. We just had to let him go and hope for the best.

The two younger horses walked along the bitumen road towards Bowraville beside their humans while a friend drove behind at 4 kph providing some sort of light.

Emergency vehicles with flashing lights rushed at us out of the dark, heading into the fire that we were leaving.

Neighbours along the way offered water, paddocks, help. With damaged hooves and blistered feet, horses and humans trudged the whole 8 km to Bowraville before they found the float - blocked behind another barricade on the edge of town.

Abi and Geordie plodding their way through Bowraville at midnight.

Abi and Geordie plodding their way through Bowraville at midnight.

The first horse was floated easily enough, but Geordie, untrained and terrified, refused to get on and had to be walked another 5 kms through Bowraville to a friend's refuge behind the racecourse. All up, an epic walk of 15 kms some of it through fire in the middle of the night to get the horses to safety.

Next morning, with paddocks still on fire, who should come sauntering down the driveway with more than his usual smug expression, but an exhausted Raymond the alpaca. After a night running through fires he'd found his way home.

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