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Real Life

Facing the fiery inferno: Kiwi family's frightening Aussie bushfire ordeal

When Samara and Paul Hedges bought their dream home in late 2018, there hadn’t been a wildfire in nearly 20 years.

By Cloe Willetts
Samara and Paul Hedges call themselves the family that lives in the trees. They have an outdoor aerial yoga studio in their New South Wales backyard, which sits on the cusp of generous native bushland.
Just weeks ago, studio guests could hang in yoga hammocks and peer up into a canopy of soaring tree tops and out at thick greenery, packed with thriving wildlife.
"You can still see the tops of the trees because they're unburnt, but at eye level it's all grey ashen patches and blackened tree stumps," tells Samara, 32, a part-time secondary school teacher.
"It was all bushland, but now you can see down to the highway. And I'm not hearing the birds and animals the way I usually can."
"At eye level it's all grey ashen patches and blackened tree stumps," Samara says.
On January 4, the couple and their son Quinn, 18 months, almost lost everything at their property in Tomerong, Jervis Bay, because of the ravaging Australian bushfires. But thanks to an extraordinary effort by South Auckland-born Paul, 36, only the outskirts were left damaged.
After two massive fires, hundreds of smaller ones and 12 exhausting hours circling his property with hoses and water on a dune buggy, the Kiwi dad saved their home and business.
"Paul's so brave and would've been running on pure adrenaline," beams Samara, who met her hubby in London in 2009.
"Thank goodness he started planning and prepping in case there was a fire because he was right."
Canny Paul began fire-safing his property weeks before the ravaging blazes - and his wife and son are relieved he did.
When the couple bought their dream home in late 2018, there hadn't been a wildfire in nearly 20 years.
It was equipped with sprinklers and hose systems, but Samara says, "Obviously we weren't expecting the full catastrophic fire event that has happened."
When bushfires broke out on the South Coast in Currowan – two and a half hours from their property – in early December, Paul started planning.
"I wasn't stressed at all, but Paul was and he's not usually," Samara recalls. "He spent his two-week holiday break researching how to fire-proof your home and the safest ways to prepare."
The keen fisherman installed sprinklers all around the roof and replaced the heads on existing ones. He ran extra-long hoses around the property and replaced old nozzles, before helping a neighbour fill his water tanks from their dam.
Paul borrowed a machine to clear dead tree branches and debris around the fence lines, and the couple raked every leaf and stick in sight. Then he cleared the roof gutters, packing them with wet towels to block the drains and filling them with water.
By New Year's Eve, the fires were an hour and a half from their house. Samara's parents, sister and her young kids were amongst those who had to evacuate. It took them 24 hours to reach Jervis Bay by car because of the terrifying chaos.
The Kiwi couple's Tomerong property hasn't seen an out-of-control fire in 20 years.
On January 3, Samara's family convinced her to leave with Quinn to the showgrounds in nearby Berry, where people were camping with evacuated livestock including camels, horses, goats and sheep.
With their two dogs in tow, Samara took off with camping gear, food and water, a wad of cash and identification documents, her laptop and a hard drive containing family photos. But Paul stayed, connecting his ute to the boat he'd filled with emergency supplies.
Samara shares, "He refused to leave, so I said, 'Don't be stupid and make the call if it's not safe to stay.' I felt really sad not staying to help, but it was obviously the right decision being with my child."
At 2pm the next day, Paul rang to say the fire had arrived. Every two hours after that, he made two-minute calls to update Samara.
She admits, "I was picturing every possession in my house, faced with the reality that I might lose it all. Where would we even start again?"
For 13 scary hours Paul fought off the threat to his home.
Paul worked relentlessly putting out fires with hoses, and wheelbarrows and bins filled with water. By 3am, he sat down for a beer with a neighbour before going to bed, having finally extinguished the last blaze. He'd drunk 50 bottles of water and his feet were covered in blisters.
"We're lucky the fire burnt the bottom of the trees and not the canopy because it would've been very different," says Samara, whose chickens and ducks were unscathed.
Three days later, a heavy dumping of rain put out any remaining smouldering ash and the proud wife tells, "We started taking yoga classes again to create a space for the community to come and not think about the fires for an hour or two."
Even little Quinn is doing his bit to aid the bush's recovery.
Instead of the sounds of wildlife, the family goes to sleep listening to falling trees. Outside their front door, hundreds of kangaroos gather on an untouched area of grass.
"This is another chapter of our lives – not necessarily the happiest, but it's definitely a story to tell," a stoic Samara concludes.
"People are so proud Paul stayed and fought that hard to save our house and my business. If he hadn't, we would've lost it all."

Where to donate

RSPCA Bushfire Appeal
Working to evacuate and care for Australia's pets, livestock and wildlife. Visit rspcansw.org.au/bushfire-appeal.
Australian Red Cross
For bushfire disaster relief and recovery. Visit redcross.org.au.
The Salvation Army Disaster Relief Appeal
Working to provide food and water to fire crews and evacuees. Visit salvationarmy.org.au/donate.
Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service
Helping rescue and care for animals caught up in fires and drought. Visit wires.org.au/donate/emergency-fund.
NSW Rural Fire Service
Supporting the volunteer firefighters. Visit rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade.
WWF Bushfire Emergency Appeal
Focused on Australia's koala population. Visit wwf.org.au/get-involved/bushfire-emergency.

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