‘I felt useless’: Turia Pitt’s bushfire panic
She was instrumental in helping hundreds of bushfire-affected businesses back on their feet, but before Turia Pitt launched her @spendwiththem initiative, she was fighting to keep her building panic at bay.
Having survived a grass fire during a supermarathon in 2011 that left her with burns to 65 per cent of her body, Turia's fear of fire is deep-seated, and seeing the nation ablaze up and down the South Coast, her town of Ulladulla in the firing line, the panic was palpable.
As she pointed out to her Instagram followers in her January 6 post, Turia knows about fire.
She knows the flames "sound like a thousand road trains coming toward you" and if they catch you "your skin will bubble before your very eyes".
When you're facing a fire, she told her followers, it's only in those last few seconds, when the flames are almost upon you, that you realise you could die.
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Fires had been raging up and down the South Coast for close to a month. People were evacuated from Bawley Point and Tabourie Lake. Milton was hit. Michael did food and supply runs in his boat. We watched as the sky went red and black days before Christmas. More fires broke out on New Years Eve. I watched, my mouth agape, as two angry plumes from the fires north and south of us joined together over Mollymook Beach. And then, the power went out. Mobile reception became spotty. Internet was down. Rumours swirled around town like the ashes that rained down on us. Embers in our backyards. Homes had been lost. Whole streets obliterated. A girlfriend’s panicked text about her dad being trapped. I packed my go bag and filled the bath with water. Michael cooked bacon and eggs on the barbecue outside. Hakavai and I read books on the balcony. We watched as the fine grey smoke settled in on our beloved Mollymook Beach. At a quarter to eight, the evening was quiet. Not a peaceful and serene quiet, but an eerie quiet. An apocalyptic quiet. No one on their balconies drinking beers. No music blaring from our neighbours next door, or from the houses across the street. No revellers preparing to celebrate the new year. And it was dark. No power. No lights. First of all: I’m sorry that I haven’t been more proactive in this time. It’s been a tough few weeks for me emotionally. I’ve had to focus on not letting my emotions and own experiences get the better of me. I’ve tried to not let the panic genie out of the bottle (because once that genie’s out, you’ve got zero chance of squashing it back in). And, I’m exhausted. I feel like I’ve done 10 marathons. And we can’t relax because it’s only the start of summer, and it’s not over yet. So just like in a marathon, I’ve realised I have to pace myself. A lot of things have been tough. Being 8 months pregnant with a toddler, I’ve felt as useful as tits on a bull. I’ve had recurring nightmares about running through flames with my son in my arms. It’s been difficult to sleep, eat or think and all I’ve really wanted to do is tap out, put my head in the sand and pretend that nothing is going on. Continued in comments.
"I didn't want to flip out completely so I had to focus on keeping my sh*t together, being a mum to Hakavai and trying my best to remain calm and level-headed," she said of the emotional time she endured.
Casting her mind back to December, when the fires were at their worst, Turia remembered feeling "panicked and flustered".
"When the two fires joined up on New Year's Eve, it was so weird and eerie," she said.
"I'd packed a go bag and filled the bath with water and was feeling really panicked and flustered. But Michael just said, 'Darl, we'll be fine.' Sometimes I get annoyed at my partner because he's so calm, but when the sh*t does hit the fan, he's the best person to have around because he's so unruffled. Because he was calm, I trusted him."
Although she was terrified for those who were choosing to stay and defend their properties, Pitt knew she couldn't judge.
"Having survived (a fire) myself, I feel in those last moments you would regret staying, but I didn't feel it was my place to go around shaking everyone, saying, 'You are an idiot,' because that would be projecting my own experiences onto them."
Instead, she wrote down what she was feeling and kept the television off.
"It was self-preservation - I wanted to keep the panic genie firmly inside."
She explained that while she was battling her own panic, she wanted to feel useful, and to give practical support to the community that had rallied to support her after she was so badly injured herself.
"I'm scared of fires so I didn't want to go fighting a fire, I didn't want to go with Michael in the boat and evacuate people from fire-affected areas and I wasn't going to use a chainsaw to cut down trees," she said.
"I had a toddler and I was eight months pregnant, so I felt useless. But I knew I wanted to be of service."
As she tried to keep a lid on her anxiety, a brainstorming session with her friend Grace McBride prompted an initiative that has not just given her a sense of purpose, but become a lifeline to those who have seen their businesses and incomes stalled.
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Last week, my friend @graciemcb and I (that’s her lurking in the background 😂) decided to start a little page to help support businesses impacted by the bushfires. We needed a name. @spendwiththem seemed fun. We needed a logo. Thank you Canva. And we needed to let people know about it. So I shared a post here on Insta. And then, shit got real. Within an hour, we had over 10k followers. Grace was fielding phone calls from the Today Show and the Project (I was still working out how to switch between my personal instagram account and the @spendwiththem account 😂). We worked until 11pm, answering every email and DM that came in. At 5am the next morning, we were overwhelmed. We had more than 50,000 followers. Hundreds of emails. Thousands of DMs. Kelly Rowland gave us a shoutout. That night, we went to bed at 2am. We didn’t get through all the emails or even a quarter of the DMs. By day three, with more than 150k followers, we were drained. Emotionally and physically. So, we started saying YES to anyone who offered to help. My sister-in-law. Mates from the surf. A friend’s mum. A copywriter in Sydney. Dani at @soda_sydney jumped on board and the legends at Westpac Group (@westpac) started helping us too. To say it’s been a crazy week is an understatement. But we can’t thank you enough for the way you’ve supported these businesses. Who knew that purchasing a bar of goat milk soap or a jar of honey could have such an impact? The ripple effect has been enormous. A coffee roaster on the South Coast made more sales in one day than he’d made in the entirety of his business. He’s now employed 3 more people to help meet demand. A paddock to plate farmer in Northern NSW, battling the drought as well as the fires, was completely overrun with orders. None of it would be possible without your support. So, thank you. Truly. What happens now? Well, we’ll keep it going. But I’m also going to try and return to “business as usual” too. My book manuscript is due next week, I’m launching a new campaign with @marieforleo in early Feb …. Andddd yeah, I’m having a baby in three weeks. Thanks for sticking with me through it all 🙏❤️
The pair set up the @spendwiththem Instagram page, which encourages people to buy from businesses that have been impacted by the bushfires.
As with the #GoWithEmptyEskys and @buyfromthebush campaigns, Pitt was keen to get the public helping communities rebuild by putting money in their pockets.
Within an hour the page had 10,000 followers; a week later, it had grown to nearly 200,000.
"I wanted these people to feel heard," Pitt explained to Stellar from her South Coast home.
"They may not have lost homes or property, but so many of them lost their income at the busiest time of the year.
"Where I live, tourists were evacuated and the place was like a ghost town, so people were worrying about lost income and being able to make their mortgage repayments."
She said "giving back" ultimately pulled her out of her lowest point.
"It's how I've dealt with a lot of stuff in my life - giving back and helping others makes me feel good, too. All of us like to feel we're making a difference, and giving back forces you to look outside yourself. People forget how powerful we all are as consumers. When we really need each other, we're able to galvanise ourselves and step up."
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