Footballer's very Aussie reaction to surviving bushfire
Former Wallabies prop Al Baxter had a very Australian reaction once the fire front which had threatened the lives of his family at Malua Bay beach on New Year's Eve passed.
He broke open a bottle of whiskey and some biscuits and, with relatives and new acquaintances from that terrifying morning, toasted 2020 as waves crashed on a now blackened landscape.
It was 4.30pm and by then one of his sons had been burned by an ember, their family's home in neighbouring Rosedale had been razed and the beach celebration was the first light moment in what would be weeks of fire-related trauma for all of the Baxters.
"We thought we may as well sit on the beach and have a New Year's Eve and we drank a bottle of whiskey between us which was nice, there was a lovely old lady from up the road there and she didn't know if her house had gone. We told her come here sit down and have another glass." Baxter said.
The 43-year-old who retired in 2011 having represented Australia in two World Cups recounted his family's survival to The Daily Telegraph and Nova's six part podcast series Mates Under Fire which tells the story of Malua Bay's path to hell and back.
He and wife Jen woke on December 31 to evacuation messages and as they packed bags with their sons Finn, 14, and Ed, 13, and Henry, 10, they thought they would be back at Rosedale, where they had been on holidays on the south coast with extended family, by the evening.
They went to Malua Bay beach and by 8.30am the phones and power went down. Then a farmer arrived and said homes were burning in the ridge behind them.
"That's when it really struck home, oh my God, this is really serious," Baxter said.
"At about that time we started hearing what sounded like a big waterfall when you get close to it and you can hear this background rumble, and we can only assume it was the fire."
People began migrating to some of the 800 cars at the back of the beach around 10.30am but they were ordered out by lifesavers worried the vehicles would explode.
"We got out of the cars and that's when you started feeling the embers, it was any exposed skin you get these little burns, our eldest boy actually got a burn on his thumb," Baxter said.
"As we were moving to the beach there were a whole lot of kids and old people in the surf club who hadn't heard so (I) ran into the surf club and yelled 'get out' and we started helping people out onto the beach and that's when we turned around and the smoke had actually lifted but it had lifted because the fire was there," he said.
"The wind suddenly started spinning around … and you'd get this blast of super hot air like 50 to 60 degrees. The fire was at the back of the beach and trees started going up."
The family wet their beach towels and wrapped their sons and their cousins, who were also sheltering at the beach.
"We thought oh shit the cars are right there, we thought if cars go up there's trouble because there's potential petrol explosions," Baxter said.
"That is when we were really worried. You're thinking right we might have to jump in the water here if cars start going up and then OK how the hell do we get back to Sydney. You think strange things, like getting back to Sydney, well you're probably thinking how do we stay alive?"
Once the danger had passed he and his wife walked to higher ground to try and get phone reception to contact family.
"A woman had walked from Rosedale, the road was closed, she couldn't get through so she stupidly walked but she had made it through and we said 'how's Rosedale looking?' She said 'It's a war zone, houses are up, trees are down, it's just all gone up'," he said.
The home Jen's father had loved and the family had always holidayed at was gone, as was the neighbouring property the Baxters had rented.
"The only thing left standing was a pizza oven," Baxter said.
They reached their Sydney home the next day. Exhausted, they dumped their smoky clothes in the living area and went to bed. During the night their reeking clothes activated the smoke alarm.
"That didn't help the kids of course, they're thinking we've got out of the fires but we aren't safe," he said.
The Baxters struggled with sleep for weeks and the sound of a siren unsettled their boys.
Now architects, Baxter and his wife plan to design a new home in Rosedale. The centrepiece will be the pizza oven.