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HomeIssue 19Epistle from the inferno

Epistle from the inferno

It has been a long and harrowing relly run for Deb Clarke and me this summer, dodging bushfires and following dying relatives.

We had an early start for Deb’s eldest sister Lyndal’s 80th in late October, a relatively small but important gathering at second sister Steph’s place near Lithgow.


A smoke clouded trip to our coastal retreat near Coffs Harbour in November led to a precautionary evacuation the following day.


Only one road in through the forest, and NSW’s first ever “catastrophic” fire condition forecast had the firies visiting to warn us to get out. We did, but fortunately no danger eventuated, and we returned the next day.


Visits to exhibitions and performances from some art camp clients had us travelling to Victoria in December, finishing with a stay at Mallacoota with Bruce Pascoe and his wife Lyn Harwood, another camp client from last year.


They were already discussing the potential problem with large expected visitor numbers, an explosive fire situation, and the limited access. Bruce was also suffering from a vicious personal and professional attack from Andrew Bolt and Co.


A message from Sydney advising of the imminent death of Deb’ former husband Terry had us dashing up the coast, away from Mallacoota before the inferno.


An overnight stop near Bateman’s Bay threatened to have us cut off, with the Princes Highway North closed. We headed up the Kings Highway towards Canberra, and swung north in a loop back to the coast, with the Kings closing behind us later that day.


We made it back to Sydney for Deb to have some time with Terry, the father of her son, and grandfather to her precious grandsons.


He died some days later, and Deb took on the task of preparing the booklet for his memorial service in mid January.


Meanwhile sister Steph and husband Tony, both very ill, were evacuated from their home in the face of fire threat, to their daughter Lucy Culliton’s place in the Snowy Mountains near Bombala.


Steph did not cope with the move very well, and was transferred to Canberra hospital where she died some days later. Her husband of 55 years, already gravely ill with metastasised cancer, had no will to go on, and died peacefully in Bombala hospital soon after.


En route back to Lithgow for their memorial, we travelled the Bell road from Richmond, and were exposed to the devastation in the Blue Mountains up close.


The road was restricted to 60 kph with danger from falling trees, and as Deb remarked it was like being in a funeral procession.


Piles of twisted tin in the hamlet of Bilpin, some houses miraculously still standing, and in places the trees not just killed, but the forest burnt away, just dirt, charcoal and ash remaining. The television images don’t quite convey the bleak terror of it.


Another memorial booklet for Deb to produce, wading through piles of photos, and long family lives. 


The service is on Saturday, and then the long drive back to Alice. I will go via RPA hospital in Sydney to visit my oldest friend, from school, uni, work and life who has just had brain surgery for a tumour.


No results or prognosis yet, but I fear it may be he last time I will see him.


Even with 40 degree heat it will be great to breathe some desert air. We’ve been breathing smoke for weeks. And rain to welcome us home.



  1. What a journey! After covering half the nation through devastation, sadness and loss, may you travel safely home to breathe clean, fresh air in Alice following our lovely rain. Best wishes.

  2. Crikey, Charlie, what a harrowing time for you both. Hope things on the improve, may the rain and Todd flowing sooth you a little. Best wishes.

  3. So sorry for your losses, Deb and Charlie.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences so close to the eyes of the fire storms. Safe journey home.


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