Something very big is happening in Australia right now as the entire eastern seaboard and the Great Dividing Range burns out, taking human lives, homes, farms, businesses, livestock, wildlife, threatened species and sacred places with it. I was in Narooma on New Year’s Eve with my partner Neill, having headed to the south coast of NSW in the hope of respite from the month-long anxiety of living between two big unpredictable fires in my Katoomba home. On the way down we stopped with mountains friends in their holiday home at South Durras. They said they’d had word of something happening near Narooma and warnings of extremely adverse weather conditions but we couldn’t find out much. We arrived to blue skies at Bateman’s Bay – the first blue I’d seen for a month. When we approached the road to our AirBNB near Corunna Lake there was a sign saying it was closed due to bushfires. Our hosts were mystified – they hadn’t heard a thing. There was nothing much on Fires Near Me. It was 22 degrees. There was no smoke. It seemed fine.
A massive thunder crack at 5.30am signalled the lightning strike on Cobargo, which was just 20km from where we were sleeping. We rose at 8am to sky so dark we thought it was dawn and found our hosts had pulled in their staff and kids to prepare for the conflagration. We decided we would get out of their way. We drove into town to find no traffic lights and that all roads out to the north and south were cut. By 9am we were settling into the evacuation centre at Narooma PCYC, with friends and safe, but without communications, electricity, access to shops, fuel, banks, or any information about what was happening in the hills around us. We are all such babies without our smartphones and EFTPOS – by 11am most of us had no reception and later that night the mobile services were all diverted to emergency services so phones did not work at all. Fires Near Me crashed completely (it links to 000 callouts, which were apparently coming every four seconds from Cobargo, Bateman’s Bay and Malua Bay) and Live Traffic and Google Maps conflicted. Everyone turned to ABC radio, listening in using the precious batteries in our cars.
We all sat there under a deep red sky, with the air filled with smoke and ash, and a light drizzle that put black streaks over everything. By 11am the sky was black overhead (that was Cobargo) but you could see the fire roaring through the hills to the west – a foreboding glow on the horizon. Puffs of white to the north-east were, we later found out, fires in Bateman’s Bay, Malua Bay, Rosedale. And to the north was Mogo and Lake Conjola and Bendalong. Lots of people had come in a hurry, woken by a knock on their door in the early morning and told they had to leave, and no one would be able to defend their properties. The day was long in the gloom of the PCYC but what else could we do but settle in. Suspended animation, literally.
I hasten to add here that we two were fine – we had cash, some food, and a car full of petrol so we knew we had the capacity to leave if the roads ever opened. We weren’t worried for ourselves and none of our kids were with us but we felt for those who had houses in the line of the fire and my friend with her young child and baby. Still, it was sobering to see how long it took for the state government agencies to arrive, and how hard it was to rustle up enough generators, fuel, water, medicines, nappies, blankets and foodstuffs to keep everyone going – even in a country area where properties are often equipped with such things. There was plenty of initiative on display – local butchers, bakers and cinemas came by with the stuff from their now useless freezers and community and church organisations whipped up tea and coffee and sausage sizzles (no vegans were catered for). Someone filled a car boot with dog food. Anglicare Disaster Relief and the Red Cross were there and began asking everyone to sign in. The ABC radio was a godsend and big thanks to Telstra for offering free use of the payphones and wifi points, where dozens gathered. Eurobodalla Shire Council did a superb job of keeping people calm and informed and the RFS were great at telling us what they did and did not know (the latter outweighed the former). Regular meetings outside the PCYC with the disaster liaison person, the police and the RFS were a key source of information and helped put paid to the whispers of what was really happening. We were safe but we were cut off and we knew nobody was really in charge.
We managed pretty well. The 500 or so people in and around the PCYC, and the couple of thousand in the town, were good and kind to each other. The dogs (so many!) were serene and seemed to understand the situation required them to be sensible and sedate. Cats sat silently in a line of boxes near where the tea was being made and horses ate grass on the foreshore. A friend in the mountains reached us via facebook in a rare moment of mobile reception and put us onto her mother, who had a waterfront apartment, and there we waited, safe and comfortable, wondering what would happen next. We got her gas BBQ going so we could eat and wandered about the town on New Year’s Eve, up to the candlelit golf club and down to the foreshore, where a disco mounted by the ‘Renegade Fire Services’ entertained a group of dancers and dogs, many of them stranded in town like us. A DJ spun tunes from the top of a demobbed fire truck to welcome in the New Year, sending laser lights through the smoke and making a sublime moment of people dancing and smiling despite everything.
Waking up the next day was a time to count the many losses. We heard of lost lives. We heard that other towns had no water or sewerage. People were still coming into the evacuation centre but the roads opened momentarily to the south, presenting the first opportunity for those who had petrol enough to get right away to Canberra or Eden. Of course the locals could not so easily flee.
We waited one more day and walked the town and its beaches. The shoreline was full of crumpled black leaves that looked like shards of silk; like widows’ weeds. We laughed with Blue Mountains locals who had also come to the south coast with the same dumb idea of escaping our own fires. We found new friends in Narooma and at a phone box I ran into a former workmate who lives there now. The next morning we headed out ourselves, driving south although the northern route was technically open (it turned out nobody got past Ulladulla that day). We drove through poor blasted Cobargo, through smoking black paddocks (not bush, just paddocks and scrub and open land that is normally green and should not burn like that). We climbed Browns Mountain, through the noxious gas laying over the bare-eaten Monaro Plains, and to family in the choking air of Canberra. The next day we threaded our way up through two more fires, and got home to Katoomba. At home we endured the disgusting heat of Saturday, watching the ABC as the disaster rolled over even more of the south, knowing the southerly buster we all used to pray for would bring more death and destruction. The tiny bit of rain we got yesterday only prolongs the agony.
If this fire season is the new normal, we aren’t ready for it. This country needs extraordinary resources to fight the fires but also to deal with the people displaced by their arrival. An emergency is only one lightning strike away from anyone and it’s going to be a challenge to keep communications up and maintain evacuation routes. And what do we do about the air that is poisoned and the black slicks in our seas and the animals starving because the whole land is burned?