Terry Welsh's fire regret: 'My whole life has been training for this moment, but I missed the game'

Terry Welsh has lived on Kosekai Rd his whole life and he's been fighting fires since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.

As a seven-year-old he was taught to kick out flyaway embers with his boot. But he's kicking himself right now.

On Friday the fire front "shot through like a Bondi tram" over Whip Mountain in a beeline for his property.

But Terry wasn't there to defend - he was running a bulldozer in Orange.

"My whole life has been training for this moment, but I missed the game," he said, tearfully.

Both his house, and his parents' place on the next ridge in the NSW Mid-North Coast Nambucca Valley, half of the farm's chooks, and his lifetime collection of farm "toys" went up in flames on Friday.

The family were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Terry is upset about not being there, but no-one could have predicted the tragedy that lay waiting just a few short hours away.

His wife, Gigi, was at home and said things didn't really start to get worrying until about half an hour before she was told to evacuate.

"Obviously we'd known about the fire for weeks. But it jumped Tullock Rd, and once it did that it came down so fast. Suddenly I saw this big whoosh go up over the mountain and the firies came in and told me I had 15 minutes to leave," she said.

The fire front was so fast it outpaced many of the birds trying to escape it.

"I went to a friend's place thinking it would be safe, but no, it wasn't. We were forced to fight," she said.

"The wind and the heat were terrible. The fire was jumping Taylors Arm Rd - that's a bitumen road. It just went ape."

Her friends are trained firefighters and when things started to get really hairy, they pushed Gigi and the dogs into a room and continued the war against the firestorm.

"It was frightening and devastating. It's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," she said. "I got covered in black smoke and the heat from the fire burnt the door knobs and the hoses on the fire truck.

"There were four of us there, and honestly, we're lucky to be alive."

But it's so uplifting to have so much help. Everyone's been offering their support. And every time someone does it really touches me. Everyone's been amazing.

Terry believes if he had have been at home when it all hit the fan he could have saved at least one of the properties from devastation.

The cool room which he'd been dreaming about for a lifetime and had finally had installed two years ago - the envy of the area - is now a pool of molten metal and charred remains.

His grandfathers' heirloom tools are now no good for anything except garden decorations.

And his Mum's photos - a lifetime of cherished memories - are now ash in the wind.

"That was the hardest thing for Terry - telling his Mum who's lived here her entire life that their house was gone," Gigi said, who had made sure her in-laws didn't return from their weekly shopping trip to Macksville on Friday afternoon.

There are plenty of tough tasks ahead, including the clean-up, made all the more difficult with no tools to do it with.

But if there's one silver lining it's how the community is rallying around the family.

"I've always liked to do things for myself, that's what makes this hard," Terry said.

"But it's so uplifting to have so much help. Everyone's been offering their support. And every time someone offers me something it really touches me. Everyone's been amazing."

"He's usually the one going to help others. But we're the ones that need help now. We have to accept it - we've got nothing left," Gigi said.

Terry's borrowed some tools and he's been spending time repairing some fencelines to keep his cattle in - remarkably none were lost to the fire after sheltering in the gully.

You can see how ferocious the heat of the fire front was from the grass which has been burnt down to the roots on the western-facing slopes. But Terry said the cattle are all the proof needed to show he would have been fine if he had have been there to fight.

And most of the damage to his property was done after the fire front moved on.

"But what do you do? There's no going back," he said.

Terry Welsh

Terry Welsh

Terry is angry at the way this fire season has been managed. He thinks Friday's trail of destruction could have been avoided if there'd been some solid backburning done when the weather was still cool enough.

And he thinks the burn-averse culture which has permeated land management over the past couple of decades has now come back to bite our state government on the arse.

"There's too much tinder on the ground in the forests," he said. "I remember when these mountains here were burnt once a year. I wouldn't say it's any drier now than it has been at times in the past. But there's a lot more fuel to burn."

He said this has caused a situation where we have mass fires burning across the state, and resources spread too thin on the ground.

He said it's also led to a risk-averse culture which doesn't support residents to defend their own properties.

"People who know what they're doing should be supported and encouraged to stay and fight," he said.

And Gigi added that more emphasis should be placed on educating the public on how to prepare for a bush fire and defend their property.

Gigi also wants for people to learn from her mistake: "Pack a bag in the car now - it's easy enough to unpack again if you don't need it."

Terry believes that something's got to give or there'll be nothing left to save come April, when the rain is predicted to fall again.

"We're a long way from being finished, and if we don't change things now we're all going to be standing on the beach," Terry said.

While Gigi said they're both starting to recover, they can't move on with tomorrow's forecast looming.

"We're through it, but the worry now is our kids and their families and their property," she said.

"If you could move on it would be OK, but we're in limbo. At the moment it's just one footstep at a time, one day at a time - what more can you do?"

This story 'My whole life has been training for this moment, but I missed the game' first appeared on Guardian News.