For many months now Australians have learned to endure the imminent threat of bushfire. Here on the South Coast we continue to live with a ‘dragon in our backyard’ as an uncontrollable bushfire continues to burn to the west of us. The scars of the past few weeks are deep, extending way beyond the hundreds of thousands of burnt out bush and decimated homes behind us. Locals have lost income, communities have lost facilities and everyone has a story to tell of the New Years from hell. Many people are simply not OK.
Bushfire survival plan
Living among the eucalypt trees is normally a pleasant location, which brings with it an abundance of birds and wildlife. However any Australian knows the importance of having a Bushfire Survival Plan.
Many of us have been complacent, thinking “it will never happen to me.” However in mid December, when fires began to burn some 70 kilometres north of us, we realised it was time to update our own “plan”. Just in case.
I gathered all our important documents, boxes of precious photos, packed some bags and emergency items we might need in the unlikely event we ever had to evacuate. This included a supply of bottled water and non-perishable food items, which were stacked away in the spare room.
We also devised a “Plan A” and “Plan B” as to where we would go, including noting our “emergency safe places” and how we would get there.
But even the best laid plans can go terribly wrong in a natural disaster, as we experienced during the past two weeks.
We also made sure we downloaded the fire services app, which gave us regular alerts on fire updates. Until we really needed them, unfortunately.
Tourists ignoring emergency warnings
With enormous fires burning north of Batemans Bay and to the west at Braidwood, major arterial roads between Sydney, Canberra and the South Coast were closed for many weeks. We were beginning to become isolated from the rest of the world. Emergency Services and Police issued warnings early in December, asking the flood of tourists we would normally expect over the Christmas-New Year period not to come.
Tourist operators, who understandably didn’t want to lose their peak holiday trade, encouraged them to take the long route, coming up from the south. So they came in droves, ignoring the warnings.
On December 30, we awoke to an eerie “bushfire sunrise”. A sunrise which made Ian, formerly an experienced rural firefighter somewhat uneasy. Emergency services obviously thought the same, issuing a request for all tourists to leave the area ahead of conditions on New Years Eve.
Once again, most of them ignored the warnings. “We’ll wait and see”, “I’ve paid for my holiday” and “it’ll be alright” seemed to be the general consensus among the tourists.
Meanwhile locals had been advised to relocate to their “safe place” by 10am the next morning. Only problem was, they were all full of tourists, so most of us had nowhere to go. With roads closed to the north and now to the south due to the huge Gippsland fires, we were unable to leave the area. Our “Plan A” “Plan B” and last resort plan were inaccessible.
So we were forced to rethink our survival plan, staying in our home, until it was really no longer safe and heading to the beach with our packed cars and five dogs. Thanks to the selfishness of tourists who refused to take emergency services advice, the beach was the only relatively safe haven left to the locals.
Fiery New Year’s Eve
A sleepless night was had, as the dragon in the forests behind us had merged into a massive mega-blaze, stretching from Nowra in the north into the Victorian East Gippsland area. A fiery inferno described as a “bomb” that was completely indefensible.
It progressed much faster than anyone could possibly imagine. At 3am I was woken to a “bing” on my phone advising residents of Cobargo then Bermagui to the south to evacuate immediately. Shortly after we received the warnings for Mogo and then Bodalla to the north. By this stage, the fire was only some 6.7 kilometres away in the bush behind.
By 9am the power went out. We would be without power, phone or internet for the next three days. Scary days when communications were vital. We had no idea that fires were ripping through the suburbs of Batemans’ Bay or that the village of Mogo had sustained extensive damage. Nor that the nearby village of Nerrigundah had been all but burned out.
Our neighbour’s daughter had fled Cobargo, so we were aware that bushfire had ravaged the village. We did not know how close the dragon was to us.
Huddled in our garage, we choked on smoke, while burnt leaves and ash rained down around us. Masks issued by the local firies did little to help.
Driving down the road to the headland to get crackly radio reception was the only means of gaining any emergency information. Do we stay? Are we safe?
As the sky around us turned red in the afternoon, we made the call to take the safe option and “leave early”, joining many of our neighbours who were camped at the nearby beach. We were blessed to have escaped the onslaught, but many of our surrounding communities were not so fortunate.
Evacuating the tourists
Fortunately we had “a plan” and had a plentiful supply of spam, two minute noodles, non perishables and the gas barbie to cook on. For the thousands of tourists with no plan, panic ensued.
Now realising the seriousness of the situation, they were trapped with roads closed to the north and south. With no power and no communications, supermarkets and fuel stations were closed. At this point there was no way of safely bringing in essential supplies.
An evacuation centre set up on the Narooma sports grounds overflowed into the clubs. Even a commercial fishing vessel was offering refuge to the elderly and infirm.
Community volunteers rallied to provide food, shelter and comfort to nearly 6,000 evacuees – many of them frightened tourists. A classic example of the lack of understanding was the individual queued at a food van attempting to feed the masses with sausage sandwiches and bacon and egg rolls, sourced from the defrosting fridges and freezers of local supermarkets. Their request for a “vegan option” was met with “eat it or starve!”
Morning and afternoon briefings were given on the situation, providing the locals and evacuees without communications vital information.
We were fortunate, our power (but not phone or internet) was returned on the Thursday. Many survived over a week without power.
Like scenes from a war zone, once stores and fuel stations re-opened cars queued for hours to purchase fuel. Similarly supermarket shelves were emptied as people “panic-bought”
Driving into Narooma to gain information on New Year’s Day, every available patch of open space was full of caravans and campers fleeing armageddon.
Emergency services were now firmer with their instructions to the tourists. “If you have a home to go to, leave today so we have resources to cater for our locals.”
Unfortunately, they depleted our food and grocery supplies before a mammoth evacuation effort escorted them through dangerous fire zones back to Canberra.
Awaiting the ember attack
On Thursday we were told that the predictions for Saturday were grim. It was feared the expected winds would push the inferno over Mount Gulaga, to Narooma, and into Dalmeny from the west.
Those who could access fuel made the arduous and somewhat dangerous escape to Canberra. Many of them found themselves trapped in Cooma by fires raging in the surrounding Snowy Mountains.
Without the fuel which had been used to evacuate the tourists, many of us didn’t have this luxury. At least we could now access our “safe spot” at the Dalmeny Campground.
It was an emotional day on Friday, adding valuables to the cars as we headed to our evacuation centre, knowing there was a strong likelihood we wouldn’t be returning to our homes.
Those determined to stay and fight placed the yellow recycling bins on the curb, indicating to fire services that they were there. Gas bottles were dumped in the local duckpond lest they become a “bomb”
We joined our friends and neighbours at the campground, filling buckets, checking hoses and clearing leaves in preparation for the ember attack which was predicted to hit at 11am the next morning. Given the experiences of our friends in Cobargo, we knew there was a danger this could happen much earlier.
Crews of firefighters converged to protect us, fire bombers flew overhead and the army moved into town as we sat and waited. Many worked tirelessly with heavy machinery to clear massive fire breaks in the bush around our village and pruning dangerous trees. My beautiful pine hedge was pruned at ground level. A sad but necessary safety precaution.
We knew the fire was only 6 kilometres away from us and that a change of wind would bring us directly into the path of the fire.
Sitting in our evacuation centre, waiting for what may come, the lyrics from the “Youth Group” song “Forever Young” came to mind:
“Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?”
The sky towards Narooma turned red on Saturday morning, as water bombers fought to control the blaze coming from the south. It was truly the most fearful time of our lives, as we wondered how we would survive an ember attack. We had buckets, fire hydrants and fire crews. But would we find our way across the beach through the thick smoke with five dogs if we needed to? I knew the previous evening I had abandoned my need to head the 100 metres to the toilet block as I couldn’t find my way there and back in the dense smoke.
By 3pm, the beach lit up like a magnificent sunset. It was the fires to the north, threatening Bodalla, as once again ash and leaves rained down upon us. We fearfully waited for that first hot coal to drop.
By 5pm it was as black as midnight. We had no idea what was happening, or how our surrounding towns were faring. As we bunkered down in our cars and vans, a southerly wind blew through. It was a saving miracle for ourselves. Unfortunately for our friends down closer to the Victorian border, this fanned the flames which consumed many homes further south.
With indescribable relief, we awoke on Sunday to the news that the dragon behind us had retreated to its lair for now and we were safe to return home. Once again we had no power or communications, but at least we had a home to go to unlike many of our friends and acquaintances.
By Wednesday however, we were moving yet again. Weather conditions predicted for Friday could once again bring the dragon out of its lair. You cannot adequately describe the emotional turmoil of the ongoing threat and continued evacuations. With tears I wandered aimlessly around the house photographing the precious items I couldn’t take with us. We relived the many thousands of precious memories our home held before once again moving to the evacuation centre, not knowing if we would ever return.
We were once again given a reprieve. Receiving much needed rain has hopefully ensured our safety for now. I can finally unpack the cars we have been living out of and even sleeping in with the dogs for the past two weeks.
However as I replace our precious photos on the walls, unpack the suitcases, and begin to clean up the thick layer of soot and ash, I grieve for the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed and cannot know that luxury.