My sister, the estimable Dr Tabubil, is spending ten weeks on a rural clinical rotation in Cloncurry, a small pastoral town in the Queensland Outback. It's a fantastic place, and together we have collaborated on a series of guest posts all about living and working in the Red Centre. Enjoy!
My time in Cloncurry ended with a bit of a bang. On my second last day, I walked the quarter-kilometer home to my loaner house for lunch, and somewhere in the near distance, there was an enormous cloud of black smoke climbing up into the sky. It was as near as the other side of town, but I could not smell any smoke in the air.
A fire clearly, but the wind was blowing in a northerly direction, and I was eastward of the fire -
I didn’t have the courage to grab my car and drive over to see what was going on. Bush-fires in Australia are Dangerous. It’s the triple threat combination of dry air, strong wind, and tall grass. When the big bush-fires hit, lives can be- and often are - lost. The worst, and most recent fires have been the Black Saturday fires that took over whole swathes of Victoria in the dry February of 2009. Those fires took out whole towns, and 174 people died.
This one must have been as big as the smoke column promised -within a half hour I could hear the fire-trucks screaming toward the fire. But it couldn't be anything too bad - so I finished my lunch (oh, I will miss those two-hour lunch breaks when I’m back in Brisbane, and as likely as not, not taking a single break all day, and lunching on a power bar, if I remembered to stash one in a pocket….) and wandered back to the clinic - where the sharing of information started.
There was a huge bushfire right on the edge of town, more or less directly across the highway from the Hospital. The highway was closed, and traffic was not permitted to leave or enter the town. You can imagine what this would have been like for the road trains and the Gray Nomads, all on a tight schedule - but you can imagine that it was much worse for us here in town!
There was a flurry of activity from the Med Super and the GP registrar on call at the Hospital… The Hospital was being evacuated! And this was news - A major Bushfire threatening a Major Rural Centre - it went out on the television and the radio, and we were headline news all across Australia. Which might be great for Australia, but was not at all cheering for us.
Fortunately, there were not too many inpatients in the hospital to be evacuated, but there are quite a few residents in the nursing home section of the hospital. And what a day they had! It was the most excitement they had had in years! Ambulances shuttled everyone across to the newly completed Shire Council Hall, and we settled them all in for the duration.
Over the afternoon, the fire crews battled the flames, and eventually, they started to win.
The highway was re-opened before dark. And no-one was injured.
It was the hoped-for outcome, but it brought home the reality of how quickly things can go wrong out here- big fires can eat towns, and all you can do is hang on, and hope that you will ride it out! Before the end of the day, the fire was under control and the patients were back in the Hospital (shuttled back again in ambulances). They had spent about 3 hours total in our makeshift wards and jury-rigged ER, and they talked about it for days - and will probably continue to do so for months!