‘I felt the heat, then the flames engulfed me’- Meet the woman who survived a bushfire

As the blistering heat swelled around me, and with my heart pounding, I crouched in a rock crevice, hands covering my face. I was alone. I knew the fire was coming. And all I could do was wait.

I’ve always loved adventure. As an active 36 year old, I took part in 50km mountain bike rides and 100km races. It wasn’t just the rush of competing. I loved the chance to visit parts of the world few people get to see.

So when I saw a 100km ultramarathon through Australia’s Kimberley region, with its rock formations and red dust, I didn’t hesitate.

Of course this part of the world is hot. On the bus journey to the starting line at 5am, it was already heating up. I knew it’d be 30 degrees before I’d crossed the start line.

Sitting with my friend Hal, I looked out of the window. I knew I was well prepared, fit, and had the compulsory gear: food, spare clothes, water, whistles, space blankets. No GPS, watches or mobiles were allowed, though, so you couldn’t tell where you were on the course and grab an advantage.

The 40 of us set off and it was beautiful – I felt incredibly lucky to be here, doing something I loved.

After the first 10km the really fast runners sped off, and the group spread out further as we entered the trails and dirt tracks. Just after the 24km checkpoint, Hal and I entered a valley. The red rocks and dust were so loose I had to concentrate on every step.

Trying to outrun it

Then I looked up and saw a fire across the gorge, about 500m away. Quickly looking around for other people, six of us grouped together. At first we weren’t hugely worried. But just seconds later the fire had leapt closer. There was vegetation in the gorge, and the flames were tearing through it.

That’s when I started to panic. We thought we could see a rocky outcrop on one of the sides of the gorge. If we could get there in time we could shelter as the fire went around us.

But even in the few seconds it took to make that decision, the fire was even closer. “We need to go now, guys, follow me,” I said, taking off first, with everyone behind me.

Running as fast as we could up that hill, the flames came faster and faster. Turia, one of the other runners, started to cry. “I’m scared,” she said. “Don’t worry mate,” I replied, trying to appear calm. Inside I was terrified.

That’s when I decided to put on another top to try to protect myself. In those few fleeting seconds, as everyone ran ahead and I threw it on, I knew I couldn’t follow. The flames were rushing towards me, the heat was just incredible.

I knew getting myself into a nearby narrow rock opening was my only chance. Throwing my drinking water over my head, hands in front of my face, I crouched down in the crevice and waited.

In those final seconds my mind was blank. All I could feel was the unbearable burning on my exposed legs and body. With my hands over my face I couldn’t see if it was clothes or my body burning, but the heat was suffocating and my skin was peeling and blistering. I couldn’t stand it another second – I stood up to run. That’s when the flames engulfed me.

Screaming in pain, my instinct took over. I ran with my hands over my face, trying to protect myself. I had only one thought: “This is what it’s like to die in a fire.”

Slipping on the rocks, no idea where I was going, I fell down a hill. I’ve no idea how far I travelled, but rolling over and over put out the flames. “I can’t believe I’m alive,” I thought in shock as I stood up.

Burnt skin

My clothes were rags. The skin on my thighs, hands and bum was peeling off, raw and bleeding. But I only realised how truly bad it was when Hal ran to me a minute later. I was so relieved to see him, but the shocked look in his eyes told me I was in trouble.

The six of us regrouped. The boys had managed to avoid bad burns by jumping back through the flames. But the fire had hit Turia just after me – we’d both been burnt on 60% of our bodies.

Kate didn’t suffer any burns on her face unlike her friend Turia

We were sure people would come to help us, so for four tortuous hours we sat in that valley, and I’d never been in such agony. The only thing I could do to deal with the excruciating pain was grit my teeth.

We really pulled together. The boys put up shade and used the reflective blankets to attract attention. We saw a helicopter and relief flooded through me. We’re rescued! Then came the devastation when it couldn’t land because of the smoke.

We saw another, this time a media helicopter that couldn’t land because of their camera strapped to the bottom. Hopes were raised and dashed as the pain increased and the heat intensified.

Finally, after the worst few hours of my life, one was able to reach us. We landed outside the hospital 15 minutes later. I stepped onto the ground and fainted.

I was put in a coma for 19 days so they could treat me. Awake again, on drugs and bandaged, I refused to look at myself. When I did look in the mirror a month later I was in complete shock. I couldn’t see any hair, my face was bright red, and I’d lost a lot of my ears. I didn’t recognise myself, I felt so ugly.

But the worst moment was hearing I’d have to lose half my foot due to poor blood flow. I was devastated. Sport was a focal point of my life, how could I carry on after this? Deep down, though, I knew this was just another challenge to get through, somehow.

Luckily I wasn’t burnt on my face, so I can hide the burns on my limbs under clothes. I covered my scarring for two years, and while I’ll wear short sleeves with my friends I still don’t go to public places without long sleeves. It’s my self-consciousness that compells me to cover up and blend in. I know I shouldn’t be bothered by what other people think, but I’m not quite there yet.

After months of hospitalisation and rehab, I was able to go home. A year after the fire, I could walk 100 metres a day with a special foot brace. It wasn’t an ultramarathon, but it was a huge achievement.

When, in January 2013, I was back on my bike, there were nerves, of course – I had trouble positioning my hands and foot, so I doubted myself, but it showed how far I’d come. And as soon as I was off, I had a huge smile on my face…

Bushfires: The facts

A firefighter lights a back burn near Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains (Image: Getty)

What is a bushfire?

It’s a fast-spreading fire that burns through grass and woodland.

What causes them?

Partly human negligence (a car crash, cigarette butts, arson), partly natural causes. Lightning is responsible for about half of Australia’s bushfires. They tend to start in the afternoon when it’s hottest and driest. In America it’s thought that four out of five fires are caused by people.

How fast do they travel?

A wildfire moves at speeds of up to 14mph. Grassfires pass in five to ten seconds but smoulder for minutes. Bushfires generally move slower but they’re hotter, meaning they pass in two to five minutes but can smoulder for days.

How bad can they get?

Victoria in Australia is a notorious hot-spot. The Black Saturday fires of 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed 2,000 homes. Whole towns like Marysville have been wiped out. Prior to that, one of the largest fires in history was in 1825 when a fire tore through Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, burning 3 million acres of forest.

Australian Ultramarathoner Burned During Race Reaches Big Settlement

Chloe Paul

In February 2013, Turia Pitt of New South Wales filed a lawsuit against RacingThePlanet, the organizers of a September 2011 100-kilometer ultramarathon in Western Australia where Pitt and other participants were badly burned by a bushfire on the course. Last week, the Supreme Court case was settled confidentially out of court with Pitt, 26, accepting Racing the Planet’s big payment, rumored to be up to $10 million.

Since the case did not go to court, the public does not know the full story about exactly what happened on that treacherous day. Most local media outlets are reporting that RacingThePlanet, a Hong Kong-based adventure racing company founded in February 2002, ignored warnings of the nearby bushfire that put competitors like Pitt, who suffered burns to more than 60 percent of her body including her face, in mortal danger. Pitt confirmed this claim on a local TV news show.

“The fact that they let us through that checkpoint, 20 to 25 kilometers in, is one of the more disappointing aspects of the race because they knew there was a fire approaching. They had been warned, they let us through. I still, to this day, don’t understand why they did that…why they didn’t pass to the competitors. They had a duty of care to warn us, if not stop us,” Pitt told a news reporter in 2013 (watch the video). Prior to racing, participants had been alerted about the risk of snake bites and crocodiles on the course but not wildfires.

RacingThePlanet organizes five annual seven-day, self-supported footraces that cover up to 250 kilometers (155 miles) in the Gobi Desert in China, the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Sahara Desert in Egypt, and Antarctica. The fifth event called the Roving Race relocates every year (the next one in August will take place in Madagascar). This 100-kilometer/62-mile ultramarathon (meaning the distance is longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon) that took place in Australia, however, was actually not a typical RacingThePlanet event.

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“We were encouraged by the Western Australian government to come and set up this race. We had no plans to manage that race long-term. We were going to hand it off to a local,” says Mary Gadams, the American founder of RacingThePlanet, who was also participating that day and endured second-degree burns. This was not RacingThePlanet’s first event in the area. In April 2010, it staged a 250-kilometer, seven-day footrace, according to the Western Australian government. Gadams denies that the race organizers knew about the fire.

“I was about 50 meters from the girls who got burned. I got burned too. I had second-degree burns to 10 percent of my body. That includes my hands and the back of my arms and legs. Do you really think that I would have continued on if we thought that there were a fire? It was really a freak, tragic incident,” she said in an interview with Shape. Gadams speculates her injuries were less severe because she stayed on the race course rather than run uphill like Pitt, who states in the aforementioned video that she and five others went up the side of a steep slope.

“We had one of two options, neither of which was very attractive. This was when we could see the fire coming. At this stage, I was quite scared. We could stay on the valley floor, but there was a lot vegetation, which we thought would be perfect fuel for the fire. Or we could go up the side of the gorge. I knew that fires went quicker uphill, but there was less vegetation, so…we all chose the hill,” Pitt told the reporter. Pitt did not respond to our request to comment.

Bushfire season in Kimberley, the region in Western Australia where the September event was held, runs from June through late October, according to Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services. These fires can be sparked various ways, including by humans and a lightning strike. With recent climate changes, such as high rainfall causing more growth of vegetation, bushfires are becoming more common. On the day of the ultramarathon race, Gadams swears, however, the risk was low.

“We actually haven’t disclosed this information yet, but yes, we sent in a bushfire expert after the incident. He said that 99.75 percent of our course was below fire risk and 0.25 percent was at moderate risk. Even less than 0.25 percent was actually affected by the fire,” says Gadams, who says her team contacted all the proper authorities beforehand to notify them about the race. A post-race report from the Western Australia government says otherwise: “…RacingThePlanet, in its approach to planning for the 2011 Kimberley Ultramarathon, did not involve people with appropriate knowledge in identifying risk. The level of communication and consultation with relevant agencies and individuals regarding the event’s Management and Risk Assessment Plan was generally inadequate, both in terms of its timeliness and its approach.”

Though Australian news reports say Pitt will need more surgeries to continue to help her heal, she has since returned to fitness in full-force, especially this past year. In March, she took part in a leg of the 26-day, more than 2,300-mile Variety Cycle, a charity bike ride from Sydney to Uluru. And in May, she swam as part of a four-person team with three other survivors from the 2011 fire in a 20-kilometer race on Lake Argyle in Western Australia. It was the first time the four had returned to the Kimberley region to compete since that fateful day three years earlier.

“That’s a positive that’s come out of the fire, I guess. We’re all really good friends and we get along really well. They’re a good bunch,” Pitt told 60 Minutes (Australia edition) in a recent interview (watch the clip). It took the team almost seven hours to complete the 12.4-mile distance. Pitt is currently doing a charity walk along the Great Wall of China to help raise money for Interplast Australia, a nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgeries to disadvantaged patients. In mid-September, Pitt plans to tackle another Interplast fundraising event: A 13-day trip to hike the Inca Trail in Peru. As she told 60 Minutes about the RacingThePlanet settlement, “it means I can move on” and she really has in an extraordinary way.

RacingThePlanet continues to organize their five staple footraces around the globe. Gadams says they have not made any changes to their policies.

  • By Cristina Goyanes

Ultra-marathon burns survivor Turia Pitt finally gets compensation from race organisers Racing the Planet

BURNS survivor Turia Pitt made an appearance in court today to welcome the news that she has secured a settlement from the company behind an ultra marathon which nearly killed her.

Lawyers for Ms Pitt and the Hong Kong-based company Racing the Planet this morning appeared briefly in the Supreme Court — with Turia and her long-time boyfriend Michael Hoskin making their first visit to the court.

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Last week her counsel lodged an affidavit with the court in support of a settlement enforcement order, after it was revealed the company had yet to ink the multi-million dollar agreement.

In May this year, Racing the Planet offered the confidential settlement, but as of last week Ms Pitt hadn’t received the money.

media_camera Turia Pitt on cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly media_camera Turia Pitt’s book “Everything to Live For”. Picture: Random House

The 26-year-old suffered burns to 65 per cent of her body, spending 900 days in hospital, after the organisers of the September 2011 100km event in WA’s Kimberley Region were found to have been under-prepared when a bushfire broke out and trapped terrified racers.

GALLERY: BRAVE TURIA PITT

TURIA PITT’S JOURNEY BACK

A WA inquiry was damning of race organisers, with Ms Pitt and another burns victim Michael Hull taking action after the company refused to pay medical bills.

The court heard last week that Racing the Planet had yet to “close off”.

But they were both given almost a week between court directions hearing to see if it “could be worked out in the meantime”.

media_camera During her recovery Turia Pitt said she was determined to get back on her surfboard.

Registrar Christopher Bradford heard today that the settlement enforcement order would no longer need to be taken further, after discussions between both sides.

Ms Pitt and Mr Hoskin stood at the back of the court for the brief hearing with her solicitor Greg Walsh, and were visibly relieved when the orders were made.

The case is expected to be formalised next week.

Ms Pitt told The Daily Telegraph she was “very happy” with the outcome.

media_camera Athlete Turia Pitt before the fire. Photo: Melanie Russell

Payout for Australian ultramarathon burns victim

Image caption A government inquiry found that race organisers had failed to ensure runners’ safety

An ultramarathon runner who suffered severe burns after being trapped in a bushfire in Australia has received a multi-million dollar settlement.

The lawyer for Turia Pitt, who was badly burned on more than 60% of her body, said she was “very relieved”.

Ms Pitt, a former model and engineer, became trapped in a blaze during the 100km (62 mile) race in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 2011.

An official inquiry blamed race organisers for numerous failings.

The event sent runners through the El Questro Wilderness Park, where it was known that fires were burning.

The organisers, Racing the Planet, could have altered the course or cancelled the race, but they did not consult the proper authorities, an official inquiry found.

Another runner, Kate Sanderson, who lost part of her foot, settled with race organisers last year.

Ms Pitt, who had to wear a compression suit over her face, neck and body, lost four fingers and a thumb.

Her lawyer, Greg Walsh, said details of her settlement with race organisers were confidential. Other local reports said the payout was about A$10m ($9.3m, £5.5m).

“She’s very relieved to put the case behind her,” he said, adding that even after the surgery she had already received, she still needed further treatment for her injuries.

Ms Pitt would have faced several more years in court had she not settled, he added.

“It has been very stressful. She now looks forward to getting on with her life and starting a family with her partner Michael Hoskin,” Mr Walsh added.

Marathon runner talks of anguish at being caught in bushfire

Another victim, Kate Sanderson, 36 said there was a severe staff shortage along the course.

“You put your trust in the organisers. We just assumed that everything’s taken care of,” she told the inquiry.

Miss Sanderson has extensive scarring to her body, half of her left foot had to be amputated and most of her earlobes are missing after becoming trapped during the run.

“I stood there in shock – I didn’t even look. I just knew I had been badly burned,” she said.

Michael Hull, who suffered 20 per cent burns when he and three others were caught in the flames, said they were taken by surprise.

“It was just horrendously hot. We tried to run away from the blaze but we became trapped by the wall of flame,” he said.

“We had a quick choice of being a human fireball and burning and that was the end, or what we did, instantaneously, is just stop and run back through the wall of flame.

“We knew the flame, while it was high, we knew on the other side of it there was nothing left to burn.”

Mr Hull claimed that stewards at a checkpoint failed to warn runners despite knowing that the fire was coming.

An ultramarathon runner who suffered life-threatening burns when a bushfire tore through an event in Western Australia has reached a settlement with the race organisers.

Turia Pitt, 26, suffered burns covering more than 60% of her body while running in the 100km race in WA’s Kimberley region in September 2011.

A WA parliamentary committee later found Hong Kong-based organiser Racing the Planet did not take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the runners, several of whom were burnt in the blaze.

Pitt and another severely burnt runner, Kate Sanderson, were each given $450,000 in act-of-grace payments from the WA government.

Turia Pitt speaks to the ABC. Photograph: ABC

But Racing the Planet had continued to deny fault and legal proceedings were begun against the race organiser.

Pitt’s lawyer, Greg Walsh, said the supreme court action, launched in February last year, had ended in an out-of-court settlement.

“Turia has shown enormous courage and dignity and I’m very relieved and happy for her and Michael that this matter has now come to an end,” he told the West Australian newspaper.

“She will be left with horrific injuries for the rest of her life but at least she won’t have to put up with the stress and worry of a protracted court case.”

The West Australian reported Pitt had settled with Racing the Planet for $10m, but a joint statement later issued by Pitt and Racing the Planet said reports about the settlement were “wildly inaccurate”.

“Racing the Planet deeply regrets the injuries suffered by Ms Pitt but strongly denies that it was in any way liable for them,” the statement added.

Pitt appeared before the parliamentary committee wearing a compression suit covering her face and body, and said she had spent five months in hospital following the race.

She lost all her fingers on her right hand, and her partner had to give up work to care for her full time.

Sanderson, 38, settled with Racing the Planet last year in a separate agreement.

• This article was amended on 1 July 2014 to take into account the joint statement from Turia Pitt and Racing the Planet, which said reports of a $10m settlement were inaccurate.

Turia Pitt tells how bushfire crisis reawakened memories of being burnt alive

Motivational speaker Turia Pitt has recounted her experience of being burned alive, after seeing areas around her home go up in flames.

The 32-year-old, who is pregnant with her second child, lives in the town of Ulladulla, on the NSW south coast – an area heavily impacted by bushfires.

In her newsletter published on Monday, Pitt wrote about the scenes unfolding around her family’s home during the Christmas period.

“We watched as the sky went red and black days before Christmas,” Pitt wrote.

RFS crews at a fire south of Ulladulla on Sunday. Credit: Dean Lewins/AAP

“More fires broke out on New Year’s Eve.

“Rumours swirled around town like the ashes that rained down on us.

“Embers in our backyards. Homes had been lost. Whole streets obliterated.”

‘Apocalyptic quiet’

Last week, the NSW Rural Fire Service declared a ‘leave zone’ in the Shoalhaven area, including Ulladulla.

Power was cut and traffic was congested as holidaymakers in the region escaped as bushfires closed in.

Residents were told to be aware and prepare themselves.

“At a quarter to eight, the evening was quiet. Not a peaceful and serene quiet, but an eerie quiet. An apocalyptic quiet,” Pitt wrote.

Pitt finished the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in 2016. Credit: Mark J. Terrill/AP

“No one on their balconies drinking beers. No music blaring from our neighbours next door, or from the houses across the street.

“And it was dark. No power. No lights.”

Pitt also wrote she thought about leaving her home multiple times but didn’t.

In the video below: Turia Pitt’s inspiring new book

Play Video

Motivational speaker Turia Pitt is sharing her tips for living boldly and confidently in her new book.

Motivational speaker Turia Pitt is sharing her tips for living boldly and confidently in her new book.

‘You have no idea’

But it was when Pitt found out friends were planning to stay behind to defend their properties that she says she wanted to scream.

“I felt like shaking them,” the 32-year-old wrote.

“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.

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“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.”

Pitt added that she felt it’s not her place to “flip out” when others have lost everything.

“I’m lucky – my family and I are safe and we haven’t lost anything,” she wrote.

Pitt suffered burns to 65 per cent of her body in 2011, after she was trapped by a grass fire while competing in an ultra marathon in the Kimberley region of WA.

Motivational speaker and athlete Turia Pitt has opened up about the emotional toll of the bushfires that have threatened her area, admitting she has struggled to keep it together.

Pitt, 32, who has a two-year-old son and is eight months pregnant with her second child, lives on the NSW south coast with her high school sweetheart, Michael Hoskin.

The area the couple live in has been one of the most heavily affected by the current bushfire emergency facing the Australian east coast.

(Instagram /Turia Pitt)

“Fires had been raging up and down the South Coast for close to a month,” Pitt wrote on Instagram on Monday morning.

“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.”

Turia and her family found themselves with no electricity, no phone service, ash falling from the sky and hearing rumours of houses and whole streets obliterated. The author had had packed her “go bag” and filled the bathtub with water.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Turia (@turiapitt) on Jan 5, 2020 at 6:43pm PST

“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,” Pitt wrote, alluding to the 2011 accident that saw her endure burns to 65 per cent of her body.

Then 24, Pitt was running a 100 km ultra marathon through the Australian outback when she became trapped by an out-of-control grassfire. She was airlifted out of the remote desert barely alive. Pitt lost seven fingers and spent six months in hospital, where she had over 200 surgeries before spending two years in recovery.

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Her post continued: “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.”

Turia Pitt and her Fiance Michael Hoskin

The current situation surrounding Pitt’s home has caused her to worry about the future of her child, and forced her into a state of unhappiness, where she says that she has to remember to pace herself.

“I’ve had recurring nightmares about running through flames with my son in my arms,” Pitt admitted.

“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.”

Currently over five million hectares have burned in NSW since September, destroying 1482 homes, and killing hundreds of millions of animals and livestock.

Racing the planet fire

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