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"I wanted to scream." As fires approached Turia Pitt's home, she was brought back to 2011.

As the last hours of 2019 approached, 32-year-old Turia Pitt stood in her Ulladulla home and looked out over Mollymook Beach.

There was no blue anymore. The sky was gone, obstructed by clouds of smoke, thick and angry, and a deadly light glowed from behind a hill in the distance. The ocean was dull, a dark, murky green.

She watched as fires from the north and south joined over the coast.

Then the power went out, she’d later write in her newsletter. The internet disappeared and reception was patchy.

Growing in her belly was an eight-month-old baby, and beside her, her two-year-old son Hakavai.

Pitt’s fiance, Michael Hoskin, cooked bacon and eggs on the barbecue. She described the town as “quiet… an eerie quiet. An apocalyptic quiet…”.

Residents and holidaymakers all the way down the South Coast of NSW, as well as in parts of Victoria like Mallacoota and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, were trapped by encroaching fire. What took place in the days following would become one of the largest evacuations in Australian history.

But for Pitt, the sight and smell of a fast-moving fire was not an imagined nightmare she found herself facing for the first time.

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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.

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“When I found out friends were planning on defending their property I felt like shaking them,” she wrote in her newsletter, sent with the subject line ‘A note from me’.

“‘You have no idea!!!’ I wanted to scream. You have no idea that a fire sounds like a thousand road trains coming towards you. You have no idea how hot it feels, and that you will watch your skin bubble before your very eyes. You have no idea that the smoke will feel like it’s invading every single one of your pores. And you have no idea that in those last few seconds where it’s almost upon you that you will KNOW that you are about to die.”

Because eight years ago, Pitt very nearly did.

Turia Pitt speaks to 60 Minutes about her greatest challenge. Post continues below.

Video by 60 Minutes
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While competing in a 100km ultramarathon through the Kimberley region in Western Australia, Pitt found herself, along with seven others, trapped by a freak out of control fire.

“One of the really striking memories that I have is all of us were on the valley floor and we could see the fire approaching, and at that stage, I was really distressed and panicked and I was crying…” Pitt told Mia Freedman on Mamamia‘s interview podcast, No Filter.

“And one of the other men from the fire actually took the time to turn to me and he said to me ‘don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay’ and I think that’s extraordinary.

“He just took that small moment, when his life was in danger and his son’s life was in danger, to reassure me and… it just shows that humanity, the best in humanity can just show up in the worst times.”

What happened next, which she estimates probably only took five seconds, would change the course of Pitt’s life.

With nowhere else to go, she was forced to run through a wall of flames, leaving her with full-thickness burns to 65 per cent of her body.

Hours passed before medical help arrived, and when they did, doctors did not expect her to survive.

Turia Pitt describes what happened to her in 2011 when a bushfire grew out of control and trapped several marathon runners. Post continues below. 

“The most painful thing about my journey wasn’t actually getting burnt,” Pitt said on No Filter, “because when you go through something like that you’re in total shock… you almost don’t feel it.”

Pitt was placed in a medically induced coma and would lose seven fingers, spend six months in hospital and undergo more than 200 operations.

It was when she woke up, wrapped in compression bandages, that the pain began.

“That time was excruciatingly painful,” she told Freedman, detailing how much it hurt to move at all. In her book, Everything To Live For, Pitt writes about the shrieks that echoed through the burn unit as patients had their bandages, which had fused with their peeling skin, changed daily.

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Pitt’s recovery took years and still she faces challenges as a result of that out of control bushfire in 2011.

“A lot of things have been tough,” she wrote in her email. “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.”

Speaking exclusively to Stellar Magazine, Pitt says she was unsure how to help.

“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.”

Instead, Pitt decided to channel her energy into something that would actually help. You’ve probably heard of it by now.

Pitt’s initiative, #spendwiththem, encourages all of us to spend our money with businesses in fire-affected communities.

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“I wanted these people to feel heard,” Pitt told the publication. “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.”

What we can do, she told her followers, is “help them rebuild. Make them feel heard. Spend with them.”

In just 24 hours, the @spendwiththem Instagram account amassed more than 60,000 followers.

“It’s how I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff in my life – giving back and helping others makes me feel good, too,” Pitt told Stellar. “People forget how powerful we all are as consumers. When we really need each other, we’re able to galvanise ourselves and step up.”

Plus, Pitt is thankful for her partner, Michael Hoskin, who remained calm in the middle of a crisis.

“When the two fires joined up on New Year’s Eve, it was so weird and eerie,” she told Stellar. “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.”

Now, Pitt is determined to keep moving forward – as she has always done.

“Physically, it’s pretty obvious what I’ve gone through. But for me, emotionally, I think, ‘Well, the fire was only five seconds of my life, and I don’t want to let that five seconds tell me who I am and what I can do and what I can’t do in this world’,” Pitt said on No Filter.

“But every morning I wake up and I see my hands and remember what happened to me, but I just get out of bed and get on with my day.”

Even in the midst of the South Coast fires, which edged awfully close to Pitt’s family home by the beach in Ulladulla, she got out of bed and did what she could.

What we can do is follow Pitt’s lead and spend with local businesses struggling in fire-affected towns. You can check out @spendwiththem on Instagram.

Feature Image: Instagram/@turiapitt

This post was originally published on January 7, 2020, and was updated on February 9, 2020.

You can sign up to Turia Pitt’s newsletter right here. You can read Turia Pitt’s full interview with Stellar here.

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