The fire was bearing down on her hometown of Cobargo, but Rachel was less worried for herself than for her boyfriend.
She knew his family’s property was in even more danger, and she thought the blaze would get to them before her. But when she spoke to him that morning, he told her they were still safe.
‘Well the fire’s just on the hill behind us,’ she said, ‘so we’re all leaving now.’ Her family evacuated to Bega, but Rachel didn’t hear from her boyfriend again that day. ‘I stayed up all night worrying about if it came back to his place, which sure enough it did.’
‘And I think around 5 in the morning, I received a phone call from him saying that, because they’d stayed to fight, they’d sort of gotten in a bit of a hairy situation, and were trapped in the fire.’
He told her there was fire between them and the dam, so they couldn’t get to water. ‘You’ve got to get out,’ she said.
‘I don’t know if I can,’ he replied. ‘I love you. Goodbye.’
Telling us her story, Rachel chuckled at how cliché it all sounded. But for her it was all too real. Though she was just 18, she wanted nothing more than to marry the love of her life. They’d even bought a ring. Now, she knew she might never see him again. ‘I was thinking: “God, why would You give me something so good, and then just take it away like that?”‘
With phone towers out in the area, the only way to find out whether someone you knew was alive was to see for yourself. When trees blocked the road, a mutual friend had to run the last few kilometres to reach their property. ‘Eventually I got a call back from him saying that they were ok, that they didn’t die. They’d jumped in the dam for about four or five hours. Obviously, their phones all got wet, so they couldn’t call me and tell me they were ok.’
I know that it’s in better hands than my own
Relieved as she was, Rachel wanted to give him a hug, to know he was really ok. But road closures kept them apart for days. ‘When you’re in love, and you’re trying to get to your partner, and they’re the most important thing to you apart from God… It’s pretty distressing to not be able to be with them, when you’ve both been through so much, and not sure whether the other person’s alive or not.’
When they finally reunited, Rachel spent a week on her boyfriend’s family property, helping bury dead livestock. He was heartbroken when he discovered his horse had been killed. ‘It was pretty hard for me to see him go through it, because I knew it hurt him a lot, and he actually didn’t even want to be near me at the time.’
As much as her family were also suffering, seeing her partner lose everything he loved was humbling for Rachel. She tried to support him as best she could, and not long afterward, they got engaged just like they’d planned before tragedy struck. ‘I was the happiest girl in the world,’ she said, ‘so ready to spend my life with this man who also loves God. It just felt perfect.’
‘But about six days after that, he got cold feet and broke it off. Pretty much broke my heart.’
Before she knew it, the man she thought she’d marry had joined the army, leaving her shocked and alone. She felt like her life was a snow globe tipped upside-down. She had no idea how any of this could be part of God’s plan. But she turned to Him anyway. ‘I was that low that I said to God: “Lord, I can’t be this upset. I can’t go on living like this, because I physically cannot cope with my day if I’m going to be this upset.”’
‘And when I gave that up … I can talk about this without crying and stuff. It doesn’t bother me, because I know that it’s in better hands than my own.’
Rachel says her ordeal has taught her to trust God, because even though her dreams for her life have been shattered, He has given her the strength to cope. ‘It is very tough,’ she admitted, ‘but the one thing I have found, when everyone else leaves that I thought never would, the one person I know is still there is God. And that, for me, has been a huge lesson in this.