The fear in the eyes of Claire and Laurence Cowie’s horses is unsettling.
On all sides of their paddock, flames are dancing in the distance.
The mountains looming above Tallabrook Lodge, about an hour’s drive south on the highway from Canberra, are glowing an angry red.
Behind a small hill to the south, a patch of native tea trees has exploded, sending flames and thick black smoke high above the ridgeline and igniting a grassfire that races northward at breakneck speed.
The panicked horses are pacing circles along the paddock’s edge. Like everyone in this region, they’re on edge.
Fires around Australia’s capital have been raging for days, enveloping the city in smoke and threatening towns and suburbs on its outer.
But Laurence Cowie is calm. He has been watching the fire since it broached the hilltops at 6.30am. The house is prepared. There’s little fuel around and a clear break between the home and the old, dried-out gums and pines that line parts of the property.
“I’ve got the beer on ice,” Laurence jokes to the Guardian. “Power’s always the first thing to go. Warm beer: it’s deadly.”
Each time a spot fire threatens the fringes of his property, Laurence floors his ute to the scene, dousing the flames before they can take hold.
As the ute zips to and fro across Tallabrook Lodge, though, the sky overhead is darkening. The wind begins to whip through the valley, gusting with all-consuming force.
The Cowies are at the edge of the property, protecting their stables when the chaos arrives.
From nowhere, a wind picks up and sends fire barrelling toward the back of their home. Laurence is too far to do anything.
Screams for help are muffled by the wind. Each new yell draws the thick smoke into the lungs.
Inside, the wind rattles the windows. Flames are licking at the back wall.
Each glass pane quickly becomes a portal to the hell outside.
Everywhere is chaos. The horses break free and run wildly from the flames.
New fires are breaking out on all sides. Laurence and Claire are shouting orders above the wind’s roar to the media who have stayed at their property.
Journalists are on hoses. Photographers are driving cars to already burned out earth to save them.
All the while, ash and dirt is whipped up into the air and thrown thrown at eye-level.
“We’re fucked,” one photographer says amid the chaos. “This is real hairy.”
The three dogs inside, Smudge, and Sassy, and Bella, are as panicked as the horses.
At one point, Bella tries to make a break for it when the door is opened by someone trying to temporarily escape the inferno outside.
The terror lasts until the fire has nowhere left to burn. Its fury only abates when it has no more grass to feed on.
It finally burns itself out and an eerie calm descends on the valley.
All that’s left is blackened earth. The hills to the west are burnt and smouldering. Thick smoke still lingers in the valley.
The paddocks on every side are scorched right up to the house. Dried out gum trees are slowly consumed by remnants of fire. Old tree trunks are burning.
Not far from the home, flames slowly eat away at the horse stable, until its little more than a heap of crumpled iron.
With it goes the 120 hay bales Laurence was using to feed his mares and two-dozen head of cattle.
“I’ve been stockpiling to save starving animals,” Laurence says. “Now I’ve got starving animals and no feed.”
The house is encircled by evidence of disaster, but miraculously, it has survived.
“Well what can you do, we’re alive,” Claire says. “We’ve got a house. Not a lot of fencing left.”
She scouts the paddocks quickly for her mares. It doesn’t take her long. They’re alive and well, placid now the worst has passed.
An hour later, we’re sitting on the porch, looking out to the mountains in the west and watching the ruined stable smoulder.
The rural fire service radio blares away intermittently in the background. Each voice tells of another looming emergency, somewhere else between Bredbo and Michelago.
But here, at least, it’s over.
“Well, I’ll probably sleep well tonight,” Laurence says, ice-cold beer in hand.