News crew finds girl running barefoot through NSW fire zone
It was almost dark when we spotted her on the side of the road.
A skinny young girl, blonde ponytail bobbing as she ran barefoot through the smoldering ashes.
My camera operator Jess and I had been in the car for eight hours, driving through burnt out towns, villages, farms and bushland.
We were news gathering for the Today Show. But what the hell was this young girl doing?
We were miles from anywhere. This was an exclusion zone and the entire area had been evacuated. Night was setting in and the bushland looked apocalyptic.
We skidded to an abrupt halt on the side of the road, a plume of dirt and ash billowing from behind our car. I wound down my window, "Are you ok, hon?" I asked.
It was a stupid question upon reflection. She was clearly not ok. She was barefoot, sweaty, covered in ash, dirt and charcoal, with tears pooling in the hollows under her eyes.
She said nothing - just stared at us, her eyes glassy.
Jess and I pressed her again; "What's happened?" "Is someone hurt?"
My exhausted brain jumped to conclusions. Had she found more horrors in the rubble of this bushfire emergency? Where were her parents? Had there been another accident?
With a bottle of water and some coaxing, the girl agreed to sit in our car. In almost two decades reporting news, rarely had I seen anyone look this traumatised.
While Jess sat with the girl, I ran along the road into the dark. I could see red and blue lights flashing in the distance. The police would know what to do.
For almost an hour, we sat on the side of the road with this traumatised kid. Slowly, her story seeped out. A family argument. An angry mum. A cranky step-dad. A bushfire.
Despite the kindest of coaxing by three very lovely police officers, the girl refused to get out of our car. The only way she was going home was if we drove her ourselves.
And so, in a convoy of police cars, Jess and I drove through the dark to take the girl home.
We found her family home almost four kilometres into the charred bushland.
Winding through the dirt tracks she had just run along, she pointed out the neighbour's home, now just a pile of twisted metal.
"Don't drive on the hose - we need that." she urged, her voice suddenly coarse.
The reunion with her parents was gentle. In the dark, among the ashes, were open arms, more tears and whispered apologies.
Later, her parents filled in the gaps.
For a week the family of six had battled to save their home.
The neighbour's house was gone. Animals were lost. So too were sheds.
But while the flames were gone, emotions still ran high. Nobody had slept in days, everything was filthy, and there was no electricity.
So when the girl had accidentally dropped her mum's mobile phone into a dog bowl of water, her mother had snapped. Voices were raised and, in a panic, the teen ran.
It made sense. The girl we found on the side of the road wasn't running away from a person. She was running away from the exhaustion, the tension, the heartbreak and the anxiety.
She wasn't running from the flames, she was running from the trauma.
I hugged her quickly, smiled, and slipped her a piece of paper with my phone number. I told her to call me if she ever needed to talk. Who knows what I would say if she ever did call, I didn't have any answers, but it felt like the right thing to do.
Later that night after I had crawled into bed, I wondered what she was doing now.
Back home with her frazzled family in the burnt-out bush, still breathing in the smoke, her possessions still covered in ash, her skin still stained by soot, with nowhere to run.