How ‘That Dress’ and a Crisis Taught Me What is Really Important In Life

A Tale of Fire and Priorities from the Central Wheatbelt of Western Australia

How ‘That Dress’ and a Crisis Taught Me What is Really Important In Life

I can vividly remember the day I spotted that dress.

I was in the Paddington store of one of my favourite designers when I caught a glimpse from across the room.

Sitting innocently under the sparkling lights of a teardrop chandelier, it sang to me, enticing me to touch the silk and the lace.

When I tried it on, it felt made for me, it fit like a glove.  My friend and I giggled like teenagers in the changing room.

I knew this dress would be coming home to the Western Australian wheatbelt to be part of my already unnecessarily overflowing wardrobe, waiting for that elusive (and often non-existent) rural social occasion that called for even the tiniest measure of fashion decadence.

And yet just 12 months later, I almost let that dress burn.

On the morning of the fire I awoke feeling like it was going to be just another Saturday.

My husband was away and I had to find some way to entertain the kids for the weekend.  Out on a farm, in the middle of nowhere, that can be quite a task.

But there would be no time for games that day.

A chaff pile fire, smouldering for 24 hours, was whipped into a frenzy by a change in the wind pattern, acting like bellows on a wood stove.

By lunch time, the black smoke in the West was heading straight towards us.  I knew there were six houses in its path, ours included.

By the time we were told to evacuate, I had already realised my fire evacuation plan was hopelessly out of date, but at least I had the skeleton of a plan to help me order my thoughts.

My plan, typed in big bold print, told me what to pack into the car (and in what order), what steps to take to protect the house, and where to go as an evacuation point.

Out here, in Western Australia’s central wheatbelt, there aren’t many large areas of tall bush, and certainly none around our house, so I thought I’d never have to use that plan.

I’d written it up after the horrific fires in Victoria in 2011, more out of emotion than anything.

On our farm, stubble stretches as far as the eye can see and so I wrongly assumed any fire would be easily controllable and confined to the paddocks.

Somebody once told me that by world rainfall standards, we are considered desert country, so I used to laugh at the idea of a raging bush fire.

But on that Black Saturday, I learnt about fire, and I learnt how ferocious it can be when it is out of control.

Hundreds of fire fighters from across the region, including many locals, fought most of the afternoon to try and control the blaze.

Two water bomber planes, plus a helicopter were called in to assist the efforts.

I did everything my plan told me to in the 15 minutes I had before running out the door, including stuffing a very unhappy cat into the back of the car.

When I stood for just a few seconds in front of my wardrobe, thinking of what to grab to take with me for the rest of my life, that beautiful dress didn’t make the final cut.  I can’t even say I noticed it hanging there, while I frantically grabbed my tracksuit pants and comfortable shoes.

The kids, though slightly traumatised, were safely tucked into the back seat of the car, underneath boxes of old photos, a few of their rugs and stuffed toys and a suitcase of clothes.

By the end of the day, the fire had erased hundreds of hectares of stubble, bush and fences, leaving a black and smoking moonscape in its wake.

The clean up is still ongoing and will be for some time, but we are continually grateful that no houses or stock were lost in the fire.  And even more importantly, no one was hurt fighting it on our behalf.

In the cold hard light of day, my beautiful dress with its silk and black lace has been allowed to keep its place in my wardrobe.  But I know it’s just a dress.

Unfortunately it took major crisis to teach me what is really important in my life.

On that fateful hot and windy March day, everything in my life that I really valued, and the only things that I really need, were all safely confined within my car.

In fact, as I drove down the farm driveway, I don’t even remember looking back.

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