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In the line of fire: ‘I saw a firefighter plane vanish into smoke,’ says Sydney resident of bushfire area

Residents defend a property from a bushfire in northern NSW.

An Indian-Australian in Sydney’s northern area of Turramurra recounts the horror of escaping the bushfire by a few hundred metres as well as the joy of serving langar to ‘firies’ and locals.

In what is being seen as one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons, leading to an emergency being declared in New South Wales, the raging fires have been explained as “astonishing” and “scary” by a Sydney-based Indian-Australian.

In an interview with SBS Punjabi over the phone from his home in Turramurra, Pritpal Singh Bhatia, who works as a senior manager in a telecom company, narrated his brush with the bushfire that raged less than 200 metres from his home on November 12.

“I had never seen anything like this before. It was the festive occasion of Guru Nanak’s gurpurab (birth anniversary of a Sikh guru), so our family had opted for langar sewa (community kitchen service) at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Turramurra. As we made our way back home at around 4.15 pm to get ready and head back to the gurdwara for the evening festivities, I saw thick black smoke billowing out of the bush not far from our house. This is when I told my wife that it’s going to be a big one,” recalls Mr Bhatia.

He says the fire service knocked at their house within a few minutes and they were asked to evacuate the area as theirs was the first house in the line of fire.

The fire had spread 200 metres in just five seconds, Mr Bhatia was informed. He didn't have much time to think.

“The smoke was so thick that right before my eyes, a plane and a helicopter deployed for water-bombing became invisible the moment they entered the airspace engulfed by dense smoke. After this, I could only hear them but couldn’t see beyond 10-15 metres above,” narrates Mr Bhatia as he recounts the intimidating experience.

The good news, he adds, was that the situation was brought under control within two hours, thanks to the timely diversion of an aircraft, loaded with fire retardant, destined for another bushfire.

The Bhatia family had to leave their house within 20 minutes and all could manage to take with them were their passports. And, Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) that they worship as part of their daily religious service.

They decided to head back to the gurdwara.

“When we reached the gurdwara, it was decided that we should supply food and water to the firefighters. We had cooked a large quantity of langar for people who were expected to visit the gurdwara throughout the day, so we packed it into five or six batches and off we went. When we reached the first site where the ‘firies’ were at work, they happily accepted our offerings. And then came another squad which asked for water. We were fully prepared and then we were able to serve almost all ‘firies’ in the neighbouring areas of Kissing Point Road,” he says, adding that food was also offered to local residents who were impact by the bushfire.

The local fire service also thanked the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Turramurra for their gesture.

“When the situation had completely been brought under control, all ‘firies’ and local residents came to Auluba Park near our place and enjoyed langar there,” signs of Mr Bhatia adding that this was a unique gurpurab celebration for Turramurra’s Indian community. 

Click on the player at the top of the page to listen to the interview in Punjabi.

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