'Our worst fear': Donna Mulhearn's bushfire fight

Iraqi prayer beads, a labyrinth and the devoted work for 13 hours of Lawson's Rural Fire Service. That's what saved her Woodford home recently, says Donna Mulhearn.

Seven of the nine acres of her property, Blue Labyrinth Bush Retreat which is surrounded by bush, was destroyed on the evening of November 8-9, but the house was not damaged and remarkably other backyard structures (two yurts and a bush kitchen) as well as Aboriginal cave paintings also survived.

"We're still so thirsty," Ms Mulhearn told the Gazette a few days after the fires. "We forgot to drink a sip of water on the night, we're dehydrated ... and coughing up stuff with black flecks in it."

Ms Mulhearn and her partner Martin Reusch had a bushfire plan to stay and defend. No stranger to crisis, she was featured in an episode of ABC TV's Australian Story called In Harm's Way, after she chose to go to Iraq and be part of the human shield movement against the American bombing of Baghdad in 2003. While there she was shot at and kidnapped by an Iraqi insurgent group. And Mr Reusch regularly works in Afghanistan as an aid worker.

Moving to Woodford six years ago, Ms Mulhearn turned the acreage into a spiritual retreat. The activist isn't intimidated by danger, but admitted on the night of the bushfire: "I was looking into my worst nightmare, watching our bush burn, getting closer, orange everywhere ... us versus the flames, you imagine it a million times, but never think it will happen. It was minute by minute ... not knowing."

Ms Mulhearn documented the evening on her phone, bearing witness as she has in many crisis situations - a hose in one hand, her phone in the other checking fire sites.

"In dangerous situations in war zones you can't afford to panic, a decision can be fatal ... I think we were both reasonably calm," she added. "At the time it felt never ending".

She called the crews from Lawson "legends". The "early shift" arrived about 4pm to fight the firefront with additional water from the backyard pool, leaving about 11pm, when the "late shift" took over and stayed till morning.

Ms Mulhearn and her partner fought alongside the seasoned firies. And she carried the personal prayer beads given to her by an Iraqi man the night before the bombing started in Baghdad in 2003 - beads she has carried to places of danger all over the world.

"I carried them with me through the bombings, then into Fallujah which was probably the hairiest thing I've done. I kept them in my chest pocket the entire night of the fire.

"At one stage, about 11pm, when I turned around and could not see in front of me because of the smoke I found my way [back to the house] by stepping into the labyrinth and the labyrinth led me out."

Fire crews visited all week, including one from Woodford. The incident controller for the fire, Woodford RFS captain Keven Wright, said they had planned a hazard reduction near Park Road for many years. He praised the work of firefighters, especially the very young which included his 16-year-old son Chris who had been training for four years for his first fire incident. Chris admitted to being "worried" because "the fire wasn't letting go". Fire captain Wright said many of those fighting the fires on the night had returned from helping up on the north coast in wildly erratic, uncontrollable dry conditions.

Crews praised the preparedness of the Woodford couple who had attended RFS briefings and had full protective gear. Ms Mulhearn said their bushfire plan did need some tweaking, like thinking about removing their peacocks a few hours earlier and checking the sprinkler system.

"The pump for the sprinkler system didn't start, it was on a list of things to check ... we learned a lot of lessons ... my helmet needed adjusting. I would say try on all your gear and run around the yard in it.

"It just would have taken one or two conditions to be different. We are mindful of that. We were so lucky and grateful the crew stayed all night ... that was just amazing."