Stuff of legend



One woman’s struggle for survival has captured the imagination, writes Karen Kissane in Kinglake.
SHE has a burned bottom and blistered feet, a hacking cough and a voice still husky from smoke. But not so husky she can’t retell the story of her escape from Saturday’s bushfire. In a town full of escape stories, hers has become the most famous. Police and ambulance officers suspect she is a rural myth until they meet her: “Oh my God, you’re Gemma and you’re alive!”
Her real name is not Gemma. She is a barrister and protective of her privacy. She lived in an eyrie of a house surrounded by national park bush high on the ridge of Bald Spur Road, where only one house is left standing. She has been a member of the local CFA for years and it was a combination of that training, her cool head and the courage of a friend that saved her life.
She left the CFA station to return home when she heard a fire front was heading her way.
“Everything happened very quickly. I heard this roaring like 200 jet aeroplanes,” she said. She saw it racing up the valley at the side of her house. She didn’t know it was also coming up the valley on the other side of the house, catching her in a pincer movement. She stayed outside with the hose to douse the ember attack: “It was a massive hailstorm of embers. I was showered with them.”
Almost instantly “everything exploded in flame. It was just metres from me. I had my CFA jacket and I pulled it up to protect my face. I just dropped the hose and ran into a wallaby that had come screaming in at the same time and collided with me.”
Then the second fire hit. “All the windows of the house exploded in and flames were exploding in with them and blowing embers right through the main living area of the house. I thought, ‘I could die here.’ I felt the panic rise but I kept pushing it back down and thinking, ‘I am not going to succumb!’ All I had was three buckets of water and a mop and all I could think of was my wooden wall. I ripped all the calendars and photos off the wall and tried to mop that surface so that wouldn’t ignite.”
She saw that where the wall joined the ceiling was catching: “I was trying to slosh water up onto the join where I could see fire. I realised it was completely futile because it was happening in more than one place. That’s where you need a hose in the house.” She wanted to watch the ceiling to judge when she should dash out to avoid it falling on her, but the smoke was thick and full of toxic fumes.
She remembered that chimneys were usually the last thing left standing after a fire. Hers had an alcove that was double brick on three sides. She crawled into it and lay on the ground gasping for air.
When she realised the worst of the fire had passed she put her shoulder through the remaining glass of one window. She got round to the flagstones and realised the whole house was on fire.
“I had to crawl through a fence. Then I started to weave between the trees and go up the road. I was having real trouble breathing because my lungs and throat were badly affected. I had grabbed a couple of water bottles out of the fridge … I had lost one of them and I only had a little bit of water in the other one. I had to sit down because I was having trouble breathing. I put my torch on the ground and sat on it and sheltered my head in my arms, just waiting for the heat to dissipate. The torch melted and burned my backside and I could feel my heels blistering, even inside my CFA boots. I told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter if my backside gets burned. Just breathe!”‘
She decided to try to walk the four kilometres to where her street joined the main road. Her arms and legs were numb. After nearly passing out twice she gave up and lay on the road in recovery position.
Then she realised her mobile was still in her top pocket. “This is normally the sort of place where you have to stand on one leg and hold your breath to get reception. I pulled it out and couldn’t see properly to work out any numbers.”
She thought the local 000 service would be jammed and chaotic. By feel, she punched out the number of a friend in East Gippsland – “and to my amazement she answered!” Gemma told her where she was and that she needed oxygen and an intravenous drip. Just to be sure, she also phoned a friend in Bacchus Marsh.
But it was a friend closer to home who rescued her. This is the reason the private Gemma is telling the story – she wants Lorraine Casey to be recognised for her bravery. Gemma’s phone rang and it was Lorraine, who had been sheltering in town. Gemma told her she had already phoned for help.
“Right,” said Lorraine, who grabbed a neighbour and drove over and past and around the burning trees, burnt-out cars and fallen power lines on the main road.
At the top of Bald Spur Road, Lorraine got out of the car and manoeuvred her way with a torch until she found Gemma, who had been huddled for hours. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the flashlight.”
Lorraine, who also lost her Kinglake home, half carried her back to the car and then to the CFA shed. From there, local police drove her to Whittlesea and safety.
Yesterday, Gemma went back to the remains of her home. She doesn’t know whether she will rebuild: “It feels like the place has been devastated. So many people in the street above and below me are dead. It’s hard to speak about.”
One thing she does know: “Lorraine saved my life.”

First published in The Age.