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Early one afternoon in late November 2019, I left Canberra as it was bathing in a sepia haze of bushfire smoke to drive back towards my home on the south coast of New South Wales. As I headed east, past dried-out farm country with paddocks the colour of sand and stands of brittle eucalypts throwing bark, a fierce wind whipped up a fog of dust and smoke so thick I needed headlights. The smoke could have been coming from anywhere – there were more than 60 fires burning across NSW that week.
In Braidwood, a country town about halfway between the national capital and the coast, I pulled over because I had an appointment to do a phone interview for a story I was working on for this magazine. I was writing about the extraordinary bushfire season already unfolding, one that had started unseasonably early, in Queensland in late winter, before moving into northern NSW in spring, with devastating consequences.
My focus was on NSW’s north, where, by early November, more than 1.6 million hectares had been razed, six people were dead and 600 homes gone. Places thought to be impervious to fire, such as rainforest and coastal swamps, were burning, and the scale of the fires was immense – at one point, the fire front was 6000 kilometres long. Fires were behaving in unimaginable ways. For example, the community of Wytaliba, in north-east NSW, had experienced two harrowing months of destructive fires, with not much left to burn, before a westerly wind one afternoon brought in a roaring canopy fire for a final bite, killing two people and destroying half of the tiny hamlet.
“It wasn’t on the ground. It was a firestorm in the air – raining fire,” wrote local resident Badja Sparks. “There was no fuel on the ground; it was already burned. The heat ahead of the fire front ignited nearly everything in its path. Before he saw any flame, my neighbour’s car exploded.”
All this before the first day of summer. Fire chiefs and scientists warned the worst was still to come. I was starting to frame my story around something I’d read by Professor David Bowman, an experienced fire ecologist from the University of Tasmania. He’d predicted this fire season would “reframe our understanding of bushfire in Australia”, and it would be “teaching us what can be true under a climate changed world”. What would this new world look like, I wondered, and how prepared were we?
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Before I made my phone call in Braidwood, I checked the Fires Near Me app on my phone. This is the NSW Rural Fire Service’s platform for distributing bushfire information. As the name suggests, the app shows a map, pinpointing the location of any fires in your area. Living where I do, on a bush property, surrounded by state forest and national park, everyone relies on it. Checking it is almost a Pavlovian reaction to a certain kind of day. When it’s hot and windy, you might pass a neighbour on the road in through the forest and ask “Have you checked the app?” in place of a greeting.
On my phone, I could see a new fire had appeared. It wasn’t near my home, but it was near the highway that would get me there, so I cancelled the interview and left quickly in case the road closed.
The fire was deep in dense bushland, a couple of kilometres from the little river village of Nelligen, a pretty, sleepy place, about half an hour inland from the popular tourist town of Batemans Bay, on the coast. Arriving in Nelligen, I could see mushroom clouds of smoke pulsing hundreds of metres into the sky with incredible energy. Small spot fires were breaking out closer to town, one behind a caravan park. Car doors were slamming, and people were screeching in and out of driveways as they raced to be wherever they needed to be. Some stood transfixed, talking loudly into phones, eyes locked on the fire. The local cafe was closing its doors. I was struck by a sense of collective fear, and I remember thinking this was a remarkable thing to feel, in a place like this.
Exactly a week later – nearly to the hour – this fire would be bearing down upon my own property with a ferocity I could never have imagined, and I would be waiting in another town to see if my husband and home had survived.
It would be given a name – the Currowan fire, after the state forest where it was ignited by a bolt of lightning – and over the course of the summer it would continue to threaten my extended family, friends and community. It would take lives and well over 500 homes. Thousands of people would spend a summer fearful and dislocated. It would give us a day where there was no safe place left to be.
For many journalists, myself included, there is usually a comforting distance between ourselves and the trauma and sadness we cover. We can empathise, but we don’t usually have to live it. One of the things I learnt this summer is that this space collapses under a climate-changed world.
At the time of going to press, the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season has burned more than 18 million hectares of land – equivalent to 70 per cent of the land area of New Zealand. At least 30 people are dead and more than 2779 homes destroyed. More than one billion animals are estimated killed, with the possibility that some endangered species are now extinct. In NSW, a third of the national park estate is burnt and more than 80 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The estimated cost to the economy is in the tens of billions.
There were plenty of specific warnings this was coming. In August every year, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, a research centre funded by the federal government, produces its “Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook” report. It’s meant to be used as a tool to make strategic decisions about the bushfire season ahead. The 2019 outlook warned that a huge swathe of Australia – in particular, the heavily populated eastern seaboard – faced above normal fire potential. The drivers were increasing temperatures and dryness, and below average rainfall.
In NSW, midyear satellite mapping of moisture levels showed the landscape was exceptionally dry – an essential precondition for a big fire season. Professor Ross Bradstock, director of the state government–funded NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub, told me: “We knew in August that things were very dry, homogeneously dry across large areas”, and when no spring rain came, “we knew by late September, early October that we had all the ingredients for a major fire season and it was starting to unravel.”
In April, and then again in September, the former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner, Greg Mullins, wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking for an urgent meeting to address the impending bushfire crisis. The September letter said: “I am deeply concerned that we are not adequately prepared, and that our brave emergency services personnel and communities are in increasingly grave danger.”
Beyond the immediate alerts, scientists have been warning about the impact climate change will have on bushfire seasons for more than a decade. In 2009, a CSIRO-led consortium commissioned by the federal government reported: “modelling suggests that, by 2020, extreme fire danger days in south-eastern Australia may occur 5 to 65 per cent more often than at present”.
The 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, commissioned by then prime minister Kevin Rudd to examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, predicted: “Fire seasons will start earlier, end later and be more intense. This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”
Fire-management experts wanted to prepare for the riskier environment. Back in May 2016, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre told a Senate inquiry that “extended, hotter fire seasons in the future” would likely “increase demand for aerial firefighting resources”, and that investing in a “national large fixed-wing airtanker capability is logical and is an attractive strategy”.
Large air tankers can drop high volumes of water on even the most inaccessible fires. Australia has always leased these planes from the northern hemisphere, but the centre explained that a “newer generation of larger, faster airtankers with improved drop system technology has become available” and a national fleet would be “an important component of enhanced bushfire suppression capability in Australia”.
The inquiry backed the proposal, but the government rejected it.
For many Australians, the first real sign that something we weren’t equipped to handle had arrived came at the end of the first week in November. Nearly 100 fires were burning out of control across NSW, and 17 of them were considered life-threatening emergencies. The state’s fire chief predicted that the week ahead was “the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen”, and on Monday, November 11, Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency, closing nearly 600 schools.
A catastrophic fire warning – the highest rating possible – was issued for the state’s most populated areas, from Newcastle down to Sydney, Wollongong and the South Coast. The Rural Fire Service (RFS) warned people in these areas that the scale of the danger meant not everyone would get help: “There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it … Do not expect a fire truck. Do not expect a knock on the door. Do not expect a phone call.”
That week, against the backdrop of a smoke-filled Sydney, Greg Mullins and other ex–fire chiefs held a press conference.
“What we have seen unfold, unfortunately, is as exactly as we predicted,” Mullins said. “We are calling on the federal government to take emergency measures to equip our firefighter and emergency personnel with the tools and equipment they need to keep life and property safe.”
Despite Australia being two and a half months into its worst-ever fire season, only half of the large, high-volume water bombers had arrived from the northern hemisphere. Even when they all arrived, Mullins said it would still not be enough. “We are only going to have seven of those large air tankers … they can be a decisive weapon. I just came back from California – they had 40 on one fire.
“Had we spoken back in April [with the prime minister], one of the things we would have said is try to get more aircraft on lease from the northern hemisphere.
“There has been a business case languishing in Canberra for the last two years, calling on the federal government to increase strategic aerial firefighting resources. No answer. If there had been an answer, there would be more of those aircraft in the sky as we speak.”
For its first five days, the Currowan fire burned in the sparsely populated forests that lie just inland from a string of small South Coast villages, places such as Bawley Point and Pebbly Beach. These forests are a complicated terrain of spotted gum and remnant rainforest gullies, and my property is on the side of a mountain that marks one of the edges where this vast back country ends and the coastal terrain begins. There was no immediate threat, but some days I could see plumes of smoke rising up from behind the mountain, and I started to find the occasional burnt leaf on the lawn.
We are always, more or less, ready for fire. When we built a decade ago, we used non-combustible materials and installed huge water tanks. Fire hoses are permanently fitted on the house and we maintain a large cleared area around the house. But that week I pulled out the bags of fire kit – rags to block gutters, fireproof clothing – and went to a local hardware store to buy extra sprinklers. There were only a few left, and they’d already sold out of fire pumps.
Local RFS crews traipsed through the bush, around the clock, at times trying to scratch in containment lines and at other times just trying to locate the edges of the fire. As is the way, volunteers with day jobs or family responsibilities would take the night shift, getting on the truck in the evening and coming back in from the bush at dawn.
Some of the RFS volunteers on the Currowan fire had only recently arrived back from fighting fires on the North Coast, exhausted before they even began. I met one who’d been in the village of Nymboida, in the NSW Northern Rivers region, when a firestorm that witnesses described as a “wall of fire” hit the town, destroying 85 homes. He was on the Currowan fire most nights until 2am, and in at his paid job by 7am.
Firefighters who were employees of national parks and state forests also went out, many of them just back from a lengthy and dangerous season on the North Coast fires.
By the end of its first five days, a Saturday night, the Currowan fire was nearly 8000 hectares in size and only 30 per cent contained. Our official advice from the RFS was “residents can expect to see smoke until the fire ground receives significant rainfall”. In other words, our best hope was waiting for rain that everyone knew wasn’t coming.
Waiting to see if a fire arrives is a weird combination of constant thrumming anxiety and life-goes-on-as-usual.
That week, I continued to work, emailing people on the North Coast to see if I could find someone to talk to about their experience of the fires. I also made the phone call I’d cancelled the day I saw the Currowan fire begin, to Kim de Govrik, a former senior ranger with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
National parks employees make up an essential component of the state’s professional firefighting ranks. Not only are they trained firefighters, they are also valuable sources of knowledge about landscapes. However, starting three years ago, the Liberal state government radically restructured the organisation, getting rid of dozens of senior staff – including some of their most experienced fire managers – and replacing them with workers in low-paid, low-skilled positions.
De Govrik took a redundancy last year, taking with him almost 40 years of firefighting experience. He now works for one of the unions that covers NPWS staff, the Public Service Association. He said the mass departure of so much expertise has seriously denuded firefighting capability.
“You can’t buy that knowledge and you can’t quantify how important it is in a critical fire situation,” he told me. “I think back to the knowledge I had about my area – I could tell which vegetation types would carry a fire, which areas had been fuel reduced, which fire trails, streams and cliff lines would prevent the spread of fire. I knew the strategies that would suit the terrain. All those things that you build up over 10, 15, 20 or 30 years – you just can’t bring in a bunch of guys on $30,000 a year with limited or no knowledge and training and expect them to know all that. They don’t know it.”
Since 2014, the NSW state government has required its agencies to meet an annual “efficiency dividend” – cutting a portion of their budget every year. So-called frontline services – such as nursing, teaching and police – are exempt, but NPWS is not classified as frontline. De Govrik said one way that operational areas across the state meet their budget-cutting targets is by not back-filling positions. He said at the beginning of this fire season there were nearly 100 vacant positions – mostly frontline firefighting positions.
The day we spoke, with the Currowan fire lurking a couple of dozen kilometres to my south-west, de Govrik told me he had just seen an organisational chart for an area that takes in a large national park not far from me, which showed six vacancies. “If that area lights up, who knows who will be putting them out,” he said.
Another disquieting thing to happen that week, while I was waiting to see if the fire was coming, was that the Fires Near Me app stopped working properly. Sometimes it wouldn’t show where the fire was at all; at other times, it was just wildly inaccurate. For example, the day we were getting eyewitness reports that the fire had jumped the river to our west that was serving as a containment line, the app showed it hadn’t.
I noticed on Facebook that other people around the state were having the same problem. In northern NSW, a woman named Di Clark had been so concerned that a fire near her was not marked on the app, she messaged her local RFS command to ask what was happening.
Fires are mapped by the RFS using an aircraft fitted with a line scanner that accurately captures the fire’s position. However, Clark’s local RFS command told her that because there were so many fires in the state, line scans were not “as readily available”. Smoke was stopping some flying, but it was also the case that resources were stretched, and “this includes mappers experienced in dealing with large fires, aircraft, aircraft observers, aircraft managers and a decrease in availability of volunteers”.
On the ground it felt as if we were flying blind.
Six days after it ignited, on the first day of summer, the Currowan fire left the back country and started roaring towards the small towns and villages along the coast, as well as hundreds of more isolated properties, including my own. Thick orange smoke churned in the sky, burnt leaves started falling, and I received a text message from emergency services telling people in our area to seek shelter.
I bundled photo albums and children into the car and drove them to my parents’ house, in a semi-rural farming area about 40 kilometres further north, well away from the fire, then returned home to work with my husband, Chris, on final preparations.
With the Fires Near Me app unreliable, a WhatsApp group had organically sprung up, with people in our area sharing information about the path of the fire. We knew it was coming, and that in some places it would make a reach for the coast, but we didn’t know exactly where, or when. Our Achilles heel was a place on the mountain we called the “saddle”; if it came through north or south of here, the fire would likely be slower, but if it came through the saddle the terrain would serve as a funnel, and any fire would be catastrophic.
The first night, I was home alone. Chris is an RFS volunteer and was out with a truck. I set an alarm for every few hours and would go outside to look and smell. At 3am I jolted awake to the lights of a long truck moving through the forest below us. After a moment’s dislocation I realised it was the beekeeper, coming to remove his hives. I remembered a story I’d read about the North Coast fires, of beekeepers coming to check their destroyed hives after a fire went through and being traumatised by hearing animals screaming in pain, and I was struck with a terrible clarity about the situation we were in.
The next afternoon I left, joining my children at my parents’ house. Chris stayed to defend our home. Police roadblocks shut off 50 kilometres of highway; you were either in the fire zone or you were out. We’d discovered a way to listen in to the live audio stream of the RFS emergency radio scanner – real-time information about the path of the fire – and I had it on constantly. Dozens of people I knew were in the fire zone, bunkered down and waiting, and I wanted to help with whatever information I could.
Tuesday afternoon, exactly a week after Currowan ignited, in a last, strange stab at normality I found myself sitting in the car at my son’s cricket training, listening to the scanner, madly scribbling down notes. I could see orange plumes pulsing in the fire zone to the south and the WhatsApp group was pinging: “It’s taken a run up the mountain and spotted across the hwy into back of kennys”; “go now to mine, go”; “Seeing smoke clouds hitting back of Boyne Hill”; “no visibility. head torches on”; “Have asked for assistance. Need to ring 000 if required. No spares right now”; “spoke with Richard. He feels flames. Retreated to defend”.
On a map, I was plotting the triple-zero emergency calls and reports of fire, and at 6pm I knew with certainty it was coming over the saddle. I called Chris, but he already knew – because it was upon him and he was fighting it.
While the fire front was coming from the west, the first flames arrived from the east. The fire had spotted kilometres ahead, igniting the forest below us and sending a canopy fire burning up the hill towards our house. It wrapped around the house and was then joined by the front, coming down the hill from the west. Picture a birthday cake, ringed by candles, a little house in the middle, and that was us. With the canopies flaming, the fire then ignited in the short grass, racing up under the house and licking at its edges. The carport and shed started exploding. Within minutes, the three possible escape routes through the forest to the highway were on fire.
When Chris called about 20 minutes later I could hardly hear him for the roar and the heave in his voice – it sounded like he was having an asthma attack – but I heard him say he needed help. I yelled “get into the house” and the phone cut out, and I couldn’t reach him again.
I called triple zero but I knew resources were stretched and our house was hard to find, so I called the mobile number of David Sharpe, Chris’s deputy captain in our local RFS. “We’ll get him,” Sharpe said.
I waited for nearly an hour – a time of terrible, grey limbo where I shut myself in a room at my parents’ house, the children playing outside – until the call came to say he was alive.
Many thousands of Australians this summer have endured such a wait. Not everyone’s loved ones were saved. With more than 2700 homes destroyed, thousands more have woken to news they had lost everything.
The wait to see if your home is still standing is a dark night of the soul. That night, I’d been told that while the RFS got Chris out, it was too dangerous to stay and protect our house, so I should expect the worst. My relief at having him rescued was being tempered by the fact that, after being checked over by paramedics, he’d rejoined his truck to continue fighting the fires elsewhere. When I heard, the next day, that our house was still there, enormous relief was again tempered; three of our neighbours had lost theirs.
The following days gave little respite. We’d had our turn, but the Currowan fire was still launching at several small coastal communities, and dozens of properties in the forests around us. Every day, someone I knew was in danger. Aerial resources had turned up: pink retardant was dropped on the edge of Kioloa on the coast and along the edge of an equestrian centre in nearby Bawley Point; water bombers hummed in the sky.
Still, there were not enough resources to go around for everyone, and I listened to the scanner as trucks called for more crews, more tree fellers, more aerial support, only to be told they just weren’t available. As the fire moved north up the coast, the RFS held meetings for local residents, repeating the message: we can’t guarantee a truck; if you can’t defend, get out now.
These were tough decisions, made in trying circumstances: where do we send resources, who do we deny? It was evident that more resources were directed to where there were concentrations of houses. People in properties outside of the villages received the most sporadic support and many battled for days, sleeping only a few hours a night, trading information on our WhatsApp group: “It’s ripped through my place heading south bound. I can hear it down the valley though, heads up guys down below”; “Ok flames are here 80 metres from house. Driveway cut off now. Here we go. See you on the other side peeps”; “We called 000 and no one. Not enough resources they say. Fuck paying tax anymore”.
All firefighting agencies were stretched, not just the RFS. As predicted, there were not enough national parks firefighters. The Australian Workers’ Union, another union that represents some NPWS employees, obtained a leaked document of minutes from a NPWS “state situation meeting” that was held the same week we were impacted by the fire. It said: “No point asking for large new strike teams as there is no one left to send.”
The highway remained closed for eight days, and the roadblocks created two distinct worlds. Evacuees, like myself, floated around a nearby town in borrowed clothing, clutching our phones. While I was at the dentist one day, I took a FaceTime call from a friend who stayed behind in the fire zone. She told me that flames were cresting 20 metres above the trees behind her house and she’d escaped towards the headland. I could see the orange glow behind her. “Go further! Go further!” I yelled into the phone, in front of a crowded waiting room – but it wasn’t a “scene”, it was just our town’s new collective reality.
With people in the fire zone running low on supplies, five days in I gathered a list of things they needed – mainly food, ice and Ventolin – and met Chris at the roadblock. At the line, which was being vigilantly policed, I exchanged the supplies for a forgotten homework book and two guinea pigs.
That weekend, on Sunday, December 8, I heard the federal finance minister, Mathias Cormann, on the ABC’s Insiders, assuring host Fran Kelly that no extra support for the bushfire crisis was necessary. “If and when additional support is required, then of course we would consider that. But right now, as we speak, we planned for this bushfire season,” he said. It sounded like a missive from another planet.
By that point, there were more than 100 fires across NSW, more than half of them out of control, and we were just one of many communities being upended.
The Gospers Mountain fire, which started in Wollemi National Park in October with a single lighting strike, was now consuming a vast area north-west of Sydney, including the Blue Mountains, and was being described as a “mega fire”. This fire and others were now being deemed unstoppable. On social media, the Bureau of Meteorology said: “The massive NSW fires are in some cases just too big to put out at the moment.”
How did we get here? I couldn’t help but want some accounting for what had happened to my community. In particular I wondered: if serious aerial resources – such as the large air tankers, requested by the experts for years – had been thrown at the Currowan fire when it first started, could it have been stopped, or even just slowed?
On December 11, I was in the town of Ulladulla, beginning the search for a house to rent – while our home survived, it was uninhabitable because the fire had consumed all our water tanks, underground septic system and solar power – when I happened upon an RFS community briefing. The Currowan fire was now 82,000 hectares and moving north, south and west; the room was filled with hundreds of worried-looking people.
When it came time for questions, I asked the RFS incident controller for the fire, Superintendent Mark Williams, whether we would all be here now, in this dire predicament, if we had had more aerial resources in the beginning. Williams said that one helicopter had been tasked to bucket water on the fire in its early days, but “we are not the only fire in the state. There is only a finite number of aviation resources.”
“All those resources are fully stretched,” Williams said, “and they are prioritised in relation to properties directly under threat at the time. Did we have enough? Well, I didn’t have enough fire trucks on every corner either.”
He assured the crowd that more resources were coming. “We are having aircraft coming over from the northern hemisphere. So, as the fire season progresses, that will increase.”
By now, the scale of the crisis appeared to have filtered up to the prime minister.
On December 12, for the first time, Morrison described what was happening as a “national disaster”. The next day, he announced a one-off cash injection of $11 million to allow the National Aerial Firefighting Centre to buy more aircraft or extend current leases. A few days later, he left for a holiday in Hawaii.
But as the fire crisis grew, already scarce resources were having to be split further. On December 15, with just seven large air tankers in the country, the NSW-owned Boeing 737 water bomber had to be sent to Western Australia to assist with serious fires in that state.
Some politicians in the NSW government seemed to be sniffing the new wind. Earlier in the year, as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, the government had been accused by its own body of experts of having a lacklustre approach to climate policies.
The NSW Climate Change Council, which advises the environment minister, had written a letter to Premier Berejiklian, warning that while climate change places “much of the state’s infrastructure at risk and will have devastating consequences on our rural and ever-expanding urban communities”, with some exceptions, “the Council has been rarely engaged and the advice we have given has been largely ignored over the last few years”.
In the second week of December, the same week that the air quality index in Sydney reached 11 times higher than “hazardous”, with buildings – including RFS headquarters – being evacuated as smoke triggered fire alarms, the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, tried to shed the climate ambivalence of his government. He linked climate change to bushfires, saying “this is not normal and doing nothing is not a solution”. Berejiklian, however, would still not acknowledge the link.
Meanwhile, on fire grounds across NSW, the state of unpreparedness was seriously impacting firefighters.
Garth Toner is a former senior field officer with the NPWS who was made redundant in the restructuring of the organisation. He now works for the Australian Workers’ Union, and in mid December he told me he was hearing first-hand accounts about inexperienced firefighters “not having an experienced officer join them in fire operations”. In one case, “they’ve had to bunker down into a life survival type of experience and the fire has gone over a couple of officers twice in one week”.
In one instance, Toner said inadequate resourcing led to a bulldozer operator working a fire ground without a support vehicle that should have been there to protect them. “This bulldozer was working autonomously without that support,” he said. “And he got caught in a fire situation. And of course, it got destroyed.” Incredibly, the driver survived.
Toner said inexperience was also impacting the efficacy of firefighting efforts.
“I’ve had people in tears on the phone to me. I’ve got officers today working on a line down the south coast, that have grave concerns that inexperience is making them do something completely dangerous and which won’t work. So, it’s a wasted effort and they’re doing it in extremely dangerous scenarios. Not-wide-enough trails, not-properly-mapped trails and incorrect vegetation communities to be doing that type of back-burning operation within.”
In December, RFS brigades started crowdfunding on social media to appeal for funds to buy equipment – including P3 masks to protect from smoke inhalation.
By late December, the Gospers Mountain fire was so voracious it was filmed travelling up the sheer, 200-metre cliffs of the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains. By then it had burned through 468,000 hectares, earning the dubious distinction of being the biggest forest fire from a single ignition point in Australian history.
Kobe Byrant, the Blue Mountains resident who filmed the fire’s cliff ascent, said the assault was wearing the community down.
“I saw people’s faces – desperation, fear, anxiety – it was all on people’s faces,” he said. “Growing up here, everyone is used to the threat of bushfires. We’re used to sirens going off. But when it’s on your doorstep and it’s been going on for weeks, you get tired. The NSW RFS are tired and exhausted. It’s been unrelenting for a month, there’s been no break and they’re not paid. They need more legs. A human body can only go so far.”
Into late December, the Currowan fire continued to grow in all directions. It merged with another fire on its northern flank. Some days it flared, emergency warnings were issued, alerts sent for ember attacks, and then it would subside. Only to have the process repeat days later.
A local woman who’d taken on the role of citizen journalist, updating residents daily on Facebook on the path of the fire, started referring to it as “the beast”.
When the beast moved further north, raining ash on the town of Mollymook, where my neighbour had moved after losing her house in the fire earlier in the month, she posted on social media: “Please can this be over?” The mood in the community was a mix of sadness and hypervigilance, and I was no different.
The charred landscape around our property was deathly quiet. I laid out water and feeding stations for the echidnas, wombats and wallabies I once saw every day, and they were left largely untouched. The little patches of remnant rainforest in our area – ancient links to Gondwanaland – were scorched to bare earth. The once forested landscape was stripped so bare I could see contours in the land I never knew were there.
I’d found a temporary place to live in Bawley Point. It was near our home, and because the fire had already burned right up to the village’s edges, it seemed unlikely to burn again and relatively safe.
I learnt more about the night of the fire at our place. The forest into our property was already well aflame when the Bawley Point RFS crew arrived to rescue Chris. The captain, Charlie Magnuson, directed the crew of one other man and three women to activate sprinklers outside the truck and prepare fire blankets before driving in, past flames on both sides of the road, higher than their vehicle. They risked their own lives. I dwelled on this, not always comfortably, understanding what an enormous thing it was that I had asked of these people.
On the morning of December 31 – New Year’s Eve – I woke at 3am. Ever alert, the first thing I did was check the now-working Fires Near Me app. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The day before, a new fire had started in remote bush at a place called Badja State Forest, around 150 kilometres south-west of Bawley Point, on the far South Coast. Now, the app was showing it was barrelling towards towns, including Cobargo, a semi-rural community near to where my brother has a farm. I texted him and he was already in the car with his family, racing to the coast.
While my own experience of fire involved days of waiting, the Badja Forest Road fire moved so swiftly and ferociously in the hours before dawn that many people only rose from their beds as the fire was upon them.
I turned on the RFS scanner and it was horror and utter chaos. An RFS crew reporting that they were pulling children out of a burning home. (“They have no shoes on – can someone get me an ambulance?”) Houses were burning in the village of Quaama, a truck trying to save them, then suddenly it was: “Red, Red, Red – we are retreating to the fire shed, we are on life protection only.” A plea to stop multiple residents from the historic town of Cobargo fleeing straight into the path of the fire. News that shops in the main street of Cobargo were on fire. And a desperate voice: “There’s no bloody trucks, so we’re buggered.”
By morning, around 4000 people were sheltering on a headland in the little coastal town of Bermagui, including my brother and his family. Sitting at the kitchen bench at Bawley Point, around breakfast time, I heard a report: “Mate, I think we could be one hour from impact on Bermagui and we have no trucks there.” I thought I was going to vomit. I googled the safest way to shelter from fire in a car, texted instructions through to my brother, then walked outside to breathe.
I learnt the Currowan fire was also on the move that morning when I saw a neighbour, who’d just returned home after being evacuated from her workplace at the Bunnings hardware store in the town of Batemans Bay, around 30 kilometres south of Bawley Point. She had a small burn on her arm from an ember. I was so shocked I made her repeat the story several times: an ember attack at Bunnings? In town? The Currowan fire was in fact going though parts of Batemans Bay, the village of Mogo, and into the beachside hamlets of Rosedale and Malua Bay – tourist areas, packed with holiday-makers. Thousands of people were chased onto beaches, watching as houses exploded. “Running out of units”, the RFS scanner said. I saw a convoy of a dozen fire trucks on the highway, racing south towards this disaster. Hundreds of properties were burnt: people’s homes, a leather goods business in Mogo, the Betta Electrical shop in Batemans Bay, a neat row of townhouses and a bowling club in Malua Bay.
The power was out, and phone and internet communications patchy, but as the day progressed, I started to hear that something terrible was also happening to our north. The Currowan fire had raced into the small lakeside hamlet of Conjola Park – around 30 kilometres from Bawley Point – just before lunch. Some residents say the first they knew of it was when their yard was on fire. When the fire hit, there were no RFS trucks on site. Locals trying to defend their homes say the town water supply stopped working. Fire and Rescue NSW trucks arrived, but without town water they were limited in what they could do. The only road out was blocked by fire, barely passable for even emergency services, so residents and thousands of tourists staying in a caravan park were stuck, some fleeing into the lake – where they then saw in the new year. By the morning, 89 homes were gone and three people in the immediate area of Conjola were dead.
In all, the fires around New Year’s Eve took eight lives on the NSW South Coast. In the Eurobodalla Shire alone, which covers the towns of Batemans Bay and Mogo, more than 450 homes were destroyed – the vast majority by the Currowan fire.
On the first day of 2020, residents of the South Coast and thousands of tourists woke to no power and virtually no internet or phone communications. Still reeling from the fire front that had just passed through – and which was still burning – we were warned an even more dangerous fire day was coming, in four days’ time. Premier Berejiklian again announced a state of emergency, the third for the season, and declared a “tourist leave zone” covering a 14,000-square-kilometre area between Nowra – around 90 kilometres north of Bawley Point – and south to the edge of the Victorian border.
The highway to our south was completely impassable, due to active fire and fallen trees and powerlines. The only escape route out was north, and for two days this route was rarely safe or open. At times, the gridlock of traffic waiting to escape stretched out for nearly 10 kilometres; small convoys would get through, only to have the road blocked again by fire. Holiday-makers desperate to leave slept in their cars on the roadside.
Petrol stations ran out of fuel, and the few that still had it served queues stretching out of sight. People started panic buying, hordes gathering outside the local Woolworths, where only a small number of people were let in at a time. As shelves emptied, the mayor of the local Shoalhaven council issued a plea: just take what you need. Water supplies and waste systems were damaged, and warnings were issued to some coastal communities to boil drinking water and avoid swimming in the ocean. In a surreal start to 2020, I was rationing fuel and pooling food with friends.
On the second day of the year, I came home to find Bawley’s RFS captain, Charlie Magnuson, in tears at our kitchen table. It had been a long and gruelling fire season, but these few days had been especially tough. The morning Conjola Park went up in flames, Bawley RFS had no fire trucks – one was broken down, the other seconded elsewhere. Eventually they’d borrowed one, with part of the crew being dispatched to Conjola Park – to find a community destroyed, residents wandering the streets in shock, thousands of distressed tourists trapped on the edge of the lake – while the rest raced to a hamlet further north to rescue two people from a house who were suffering horrific burns. The crew gave first aid and comfort to them while they waited for a helicopter. “You have to cry,” Magnuson said. “There’d be something wrong if you didn’t.”
On January 4, the prime minister called in the army reserve to assist with the fire recovery. The same day, he agreed to permanently increase annual funding to Australia’s aerial firefighting capability, and to provide an extra $20 million to immediately lease four additional firefighting aircraft for this season. These new measures were quickly spruiked in a Liberal Party promotional video, complete with a jaunty jingle, released the same day. (Todd Sampson, the advertising executive who appears on ABC TV show Gruen, said, “It’s like being ‘sold to’ at a funeral.”)
In the first 10 days of January alone, 1163 homes were lost in NSW. The summer became even darker: images from Batlow, in the Snowy Mountains foothills, showed fire-scorched livestock carcasses lining the road; wildlife carers in Cobargo were forced to euthanise animals they’d spent years raising and rehabilitating, with no more than a sedative and a blunt instrument; and on Kangaroo Island, soldiers loaded the charred remains of hundreds of koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and birds into a truck, to be offloaded in a trench. While the fire season started with people being told there wouldn’t be a fire truck on every corner, by January, entire communities, such as Khancoban and Tooma, to the west of Kosciuszko National Park, were being warned they “will not be defendable”.
On January 16, the ABC’s 7.30 reported that the four big water-bombing aircraft promised by the prime minister nearly two weeks earlier still hadn’t arrived – two having been delayed by tornadoes in the United States and an erupting volcano in the Philippines.
For a long time, I resisted the easy comparisons between the bushfires and war. But I have come to see it as a useful analogy, because it did feel like we were under attack – from an enemy we were poorly equipped to handle, fighting with a strategy that was entirely reactive, not proactive. What military campaign that ran short of artillery in its earliest days – despite being told for years more would be needed – would be regarded as a success? How would we judge a strategy that was to withdraw to built-up areas and watch millions of hectares of our country be overrun?
Professor Ross Garnaut, the economist who warned 12 years ago that unless carbon emissions were reduced we would be seeing more intense bushfires by 2020, was interviewed on the ABC in January about what was now unfolding. “If you ignore the science when you build a bridge, the bridge falls down,” he said. “If you ignore the science when you build a plane, the plane crashes.”
My family had one final brush with the Currowan fire. On January 4, the tourist convoys had finally escaped the region and the South Coast was as quiet as winter.
For a brief moment that morning, as I had my first swim in the ocean for the season, I dared to hope that maybe the forecasts of a terrible fire day had been wrong. But then I walked up the Bawley Point headland and saw new black smoke billowing out to my north, near the little village of Lake Tabourie.
Some people had already evacuated from Tabourie earlier in the day as a precaution, but now cars were pouring into Bawley with those making a last-minute escape. I called two people I knew who had remained but were not planning to defend: you need to move now, I said.
I received a phone call from a neighbour telling me that smoke was coming from behind the mountain at our already burnt property. I pulled on fireproof clothing and, with a friend, raced home. The wind was roaring and throwing tufts of burnt canopies thick onto the ground; newly burnt leaves were coming in the air from behind the mountain. With broken tanks and burnt-out pipes, I could barely cobble together a water supply and I quickly lost my nerve for being there.
On my way back to Bawley Point, an RFS bushfire alert pinged on my phone – it was a “seek shelter as the fire approaches” warning for an area that covered from Bawley to as far north as Nowra.
Back in the Bawley house – which was now sheltering 12 adults and children and a few too many dogs – we debated whether to go to the headland straight away or wait. The power went out. Chris was with the Bawley RFS trying to protect homes in another village badly hit by the fire, and I could hear his crew on the scanner calling for aerial support and being told they’d have to wait.
A southerly buster came through, and not long after I got a phone call from someone I knew to be generally unflappable, but his voice was racing as he started telling me an extraordinary story, about how he’d just been helping a friend defend a property further north, when the southerly had whipped up a firestorm that he had barely escaped in his car.
At the same moment I was wondering why he was telling me this account, he got to his point: “Where are your mum and dad?”
My parents’ house – the place where we had first sheltered when the fire hit our property a month earlier – was now apparently in the path of this latest reach of the fire.
I called them immediately. Dad answered just as they were pulling into the local showground to take shelter with around 100 people and countless animals. They’d been at home, with no sign of fire, when everything went black and they heard a pinging on the roof. It was raining embers, and within seconds the yard was on fire. All they had time to do was get in the car and drive away, leaving the lights and TV on.
We discovered the next day their house had been saved by a group of local men who turned up in their utes. This same group saved numerous houses that day – places the RFS couldn’t get to. This is the flipside of the story of this bushfire season: Australians doing everything they could, even when their government didn’t.
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