My experience with the Australian bushfire emergency

Words & images by Michelle & Peter Cornish, Wyndham, NSW 

I write this as my family has spent 12 days in an emergency evacuation centre,  and we brace for another hot day today, Friday 10 January 2020 ...

Fire on Myrtle Mountain Road, Monday 30 December 2019
We were staying out of the heat of the day by watching a movie and readying to jump in the pool afterwards to cool down. There is no air conditioning at our bush farmhouse but a dip in the pool usually does the job.

We’d spent Christmas with our newly-wed daughter and son-in-law in Melbourne, returning on Saturday 28 December in order to avoid travelling on what BOM had said was going to be a very hot day on the 30th.

On Sunday 29 December, 24 hours after we’d passed through Cann River and Genoa on our way home from Melbourne, the Princes Highway was closed because of bushfire. Holiday makers at Lakes Entrance were getting warnings about leaving because of the potential threat on the Monday.

On Sunday, we drove to Canberra to pick up my 87 year old Mum and brought her to the farm for a week of rest and respite. We had no idea what was going to happen the next day.

Living in a bush-fire prone area and preparing for the inevitable
When we first moved to the Bega Valley, we bought a small campervan which my husband knew would be useful in a bushfire emergency, if only to get our pets out safely, as I was often in Canberra with our car for work.

The campervan has been a great investment, doubling as a farm work vehicle to transport fencing materials and a water tank, and also taking us on road trips up north and around Australia. It really came into its own, however, with this bushfire evacuation as it is self-contained with a small kitchen, bathroom facilities and air conditioning. We recognise how lucky we are to be able to afford such a vehicle and I suspect many living in the Bega Valley may not be so fortunate. For several years now, we’ve also had a few boxes packed up in the barn - ready to go - with photo albums and other precious memorabilia. We’d bought a few of the proper P2 face masks that I’d read about as being the only effective masks with smoke haze, as I have mild asthma and a severe dust allergy.

So we were mostly prepared but really didn’t expect a fire that day.

Evacuation on Monday 30 December
One of our neighbours at Devils Hole (just down the road) had sent me a few text messages at 4.19pm that afternoon:
           “There is a fire on Myrtle Mountain Rd.”
           “Between us and you.”
        “(My wife) just drove past it. She called into (neighbour’s place) and it had been reported but nobody on site yet”.

I’m pretty prodigious in responding to text messages so, when there was no reply, my friend phoned us and that’s when we got the alert. Thank goodness for loving friends and neighbours. The actual Emergency Warning from +61 444 444 444 came through as a text message over an hour later - at 5.35pm - as Mum and I were headed down our kilometre-long driveway. We were lucky we’d had time to pack up quite a few valuables and essentials, and were already on our way:

         “NSWRFS EMERGENCY BUSH FIRE WARNING - Wyndham and Devils Hole Areas - Seek shelter as the fire arrives. Check www.rfs.nsw.gov.au or 1800679737”

I’m the stress-head of the family, so when we got the phone call from our friend at Devils Hole, and my husband said we needed to get ready to evacuate, I did what any fair-minded person would do ... I went and cleaned my teeth!

I eventually got my act together and started packing clothes and other essentials, and getting Mum ready to go. I did make sure I packed in my Mother-of-the-Bride dress which I’d recently purchased for our daughter’s wedding in Tasmania the previous month. And a lovely caramel woollen overcoat that I’d purchased on sale at the end of winter. Go figure!

Our ’little slice of heaven’ is 100 acres of bush just 25 mins from Pambula/Merimbula to the east, 45 mins from Bega to the north and 35 mins from Eden to the south. Our home sits atop a ridge and on three sides there are beautiful huge old gum trees and now tinder-dry bush. We share our bush farm with echidnas, wallabies, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles, lyrebirds, red belly black snakes, goannas, swallows who nest at our back door every year, gang-gangs, rosella parrots and a whole range of beautiful birds who create the sweetest birdsong. We can’t see anyone on our neighbouring properties and rarely hear them.

We learnt later that the fire had started around 600 metres at the bottom of the ridge to our  outhwest, looking over the township of Wyndham. We were just lucky that, on that day, the winds blew the fire in the other direction from our ridge.

Day 12 in the Bega Evacuation Centre (at Friday 10 January 2020)
Our road was closed for nearly 10 days until Wednesday 8 January. With the weather forecast to worsen on Friday 10 January, advice was to stay safe (at the Evacuation Centre) and away from Wyndham. I’ve been in Canberra this past week for some medical appointments and a reprieve from the environment of an Evacuation Centre but my husband is still at Bega. With the extreme weather today, we are closely watching the Border Fire with nearby hamlets, including ours, evacuated.

Day 1: I think we were amongst the first to arrive in the early evening of Monday 30 December. We’d initially driven to the pub at Candelo with Mum and the puppies, in our car and campervan. Mum wondered why we were going to the pub; I thought it was a no-brainer! There, people were just starting to hear about the Myrtle Mountain Road fire and the publicans gave us water for the dogs. I thought we might be able to go back home once the fire was contained but that wasn’t going to happen. I started learning more about the fire from my new best friend - the NSW Rural Fire Service Emergency Information website.

After a couple of hours with no improvement, we headed to the Bega Showgrounds Evacuation Centre and registered. Our Devils Hole friends has set up camp with their four dogs and two cats, and over the next week, progressively moved their two horses and three ponies to the safety of the Showgrounds, as well as their bobcat and slasher.

While we have talked in the past few months about the real prospect of losing our home to bushfire, and what we would do differently if/when rebuilding, the potential for that to actually happen, hits home harder once evacuated.

Day 3: We took advantage of the milder weather a few days after evacuating to get back and check on our place and I was so relieved to see our home, intact and still standing. We didn’t stay there long as the bushfire was still out of control. The power was still off so we cleaned out the fridge and freezer, and threw all edible food into the paddock so the wildlife could have a feed. With the drought, there is very little feed left on the farm and while reluctant to feed the wildlife, I hope it’s better than nothing. We have a couple of deep dams and had walked down on the Monday to see that the main dam had probably lost a metre of water. For the first time in our six years on the farm, we had been seeing kangaroos and wallabies drinking from the dam.

Many more people arrived at Bega Evacuation Centre overnight and Tuesday 31 December - New Year’s eve - was apocalyptic. Here’s a photo we took on New Year’s eve at 2pm of our ‘Escape’ campervan (yes, the irony is not lost on me).

People arrived at the Evacuation Centre looking shell-shocked. I’m sure we looked the same in our first couple of days. The emergency services people at the Evacuation Centre - Red Cross, Chaplains, Local Land Services, NSW FaCS and others - were amazing with regular briefings throughout the day and Kristy McBain, our Bega Mayor in attendance.

The news came through at the last briefing on New Year’s eve that the Snowy Mountains highway back to Cooma/Canberra had been reopened. Tourists and anyone able to leave the area were encouraged to go. The next morning, Wednesday 1 January, we drove Mum to Cooma where my sister picked her up and returned with her to Canberra.

There were lots of people now at the Evacuation centre with more to come and go over the next week. We were able to volunteer to help out in the kitchen for a few days and heard many stories of harrowing escape and loss of homes in Cobargo, Brogo and Quaama. I was very sad to see people sleeping in their cars, in tents and, in particular, without the proper P2 masks to protect themselves from harmful smoke particles. Some masks were given out at the Evacuation Centre but they were limited and the P2/N95 masks were targeted for asthmatics.

We settled into a routine of sorts with walking the dogs, helping in the kitchen with serving lunch and dinner, and walking/driving into town for supplies. Most of the shops were open and local providers were very supportive. I suspect many themselves were being affected by the bushfire and it looked like the owners of a local cafe had had to evacuate into their cafe themselves. They had been very kind cooking a hot lunch for my Mum when I suspect they were trying to close up. Back at the Evacuation Centre, I saw my friends from Devils Hole helping to unblock the shower and mop/clean the bathroom. Local services were also vigilant in topping up supplies of toiletries and emptying rubbish bins. People were just amazing in trying to make sure that evacuees including their pets and animals - horses, ponies, sheep - were as comfortable as possible. We had another apocalyptic day on Saturday 4 January and the photo below was taken at 4.40pm.

It was a very hot day - I think it got to 41 degrees - and the main hall was now smoky and without air conditioning; only a single large fan in operation. We saw a young sole parent with a 2 year old toddler who was struggling with the heat and smoke, and were able to offer some relief in our air  conditioned van until they could find emergency air conditioned accommodation in the church hall across from the Showgrounds. I was sorry to hear that they’d had to spend the Friday night trying to sleep in the back of the young Mum’s Ute on a mattress provided by the Evacuation Centre. Our air conditioned van also provided some cool respite for a 92 year old woman in a wheelchair evacuated from Bermagui. Her daughter and son-in-law were our neighbours at the Showgrounds and they had lost everything in Quaama.

Observations and learnings about kindness and leadership
It’s one thing to laud the Aussie spirit and community resilience and coming-together. It’s another thing altogether to abrogate national responsibility and leadership to risk-manage, prepare and mitigate the effect of such a bushfire disaster.

In addition to the RFS volunteer firefighters (men and women), I saw the wonderful community of Bega women and men who voluntarily toiled 10-12 hour days to prepare sandwiches, cook, wash up and provide meals for hundreds/thousands of people. Some were from Community Pantry and local charities and community services, such as Salvos, Lions, Red Cross, fellow evacuees and volunteers from the town. My apologies to the other organisations/people whom I have not mentioned.

McDonalds Bega delivered hundreds of cheeseburgers and chips one day.
The local Mal’s Pizza delivered pizzas on another day.
I heard that the local Coles manager came and asked what do you need, tell me and I’ll provide it.
The Tathra Oyster owners brought 6-packs of fresh oysters with lemon for one evening’s dinner.

I was able to join a human chain of evacuees and volunteers who unloaded a semi-trailer’s worth of goods, including bananas, tins of chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes; muesli bars, toilet paper, soap, hand wipes, washing powder and lots of other products. There were men and women of all ages, including a 74 year old woman. The community spirit was amazing and many pulled together whenever the call for help went out across the Showgrounds.

I was voraciously reading all the news I could on the unfolding disaster, as well as watching the progress of the fire on our own road and the fires raging near Bega. I got progressively disheartened and angry at the lack of national political leadership. The comments made in relation to the Sydney fireworks proceeding on NYE, the New Year’s day event with cricketers, the comments made round the bushfires being ‘BAU’ and the resilience of Australians and communities, and how our forbears had suffered even greater hardships!

I read about climate change, hazard/fuel reduction and RFS resources being mentioned as three of the key issues. Fire Commissioners have talked about the ferocity of the fires rendering earlier hazard reduction burns as non-consequential. I read about the request, months ago, for more Commonwealth resources for the State-based Rural Fire Services. I also read about the Norwegian-flagged cargo ship which answered fire-hit Mallacoota's SOS on New Year’s eve, bringing food and water for the 4,000 people stranded there, and diesel to power generators, and caring for the sick, infants and elderly. If it wasn’t before, climate change had now become a harsh reality for all of us.

There have been many commentaries written on the issue of national political leadership and how it has failed with this national disaster. I wouldn’t be able to say it any better. I hope there will be a Royal Commission and that it may consider some of the following issues which I experienced. Why was there little/no emergency shelter for people now homeless or forced to evacuate; sleeping rough in their cars? Perhaps they refused offers of accommodation? Certainly, the local council and Mayor did an amazing job turning up every day to brief us on the unfolding emergency situation, and emergency services did the best they could with the resources they had to provide mattresses and blankets in the hall for those who had no caravan, campervan or tent. I can’t even begin to imagine how exhausted the RFS firefighters are; they are the real heroes in all of this.

I saw kindness in my friends from Devils Hole lending their tents to strangers so they would have some sort of accommodation. The kindness of strangers was everywhere but where were the other vast resources which we have in Australia? A possible learning for future would be for our different tiers of government at State and Commonwealth level to agree sooner/in advance on how and when our national resources (eg defence force personnel) would be deployed if the worst eventuates. We have a magnificent resource in both the people and the assets of the ADF - why did it take so long to be deployed?

If this is to be the new normal, and climate change continues to lengthen the summer fire season, relying on the goodwill and resilience of the Australian community is not a sustainable solution. The ‘She’ll be right” attitude only gets you so far.

It is a great comfort to see the ADF on the ground and assisting in NSW, SA and Victoria, but perhaps the Commonwealth and State government(s) could have deployed and utilised these resources much earlier. As this natural disaster unfurls and questions are asked about its management, it is my hope that government and community can work together to better plan and mitigate the incidence and impact of climate change natural disasters in Australia.

All of the emergency services at the Bega Evacuation Centre (including local/State government representatives, RFS and Police) absolutely did the very best they could with the resources they had available in setting up the evacuation centre and looking after all of us over an extended period of time (which continues today).

However, I saw the elderly, families and children sleeping in the main hall on very thin mattresses with thin blankets - night and day - in a hot, non air conditioned and smoke haze environment. I heard one woman talk about how cold it was overnight.

No one could fault the goodwill and good intent of our local Bega council, local charities and community services, and NSW government representatives. I saw so many examples of kindness and support shown to people suffering, whether they’d lost everything or were anxious about potentially losing everything. Above all else, how do we show this kindness at a national political level?

When some rain came the following weekend - albeit welcome relief for the most part - I felt for those in tents with little cover from the weather.

Why were there no P2 face-masks available for people who didn’t have the relative comfort of a campervan to escape the heat and smoke and ash?

I understand that P2 masks finally came to the Bega Valley on 8-9 January; more than a week after the first evacuations took place. What adverse health effects will there be in future years for the children and adults exposed to the smoke and ash; people who did not have the ability to stay indoors in their own homes?

Why were our Evacuation Centres so dependent on the goodwill of volunteers to provide meals and accommodation for evacuees? It was awful to have to ration out sandwiches and dinner to people who were already suffering hardship, scarcity and deprivation, emotional trauma and major loss, in some cases.

Hindsight is always 20/20 but the threat of these bushfires was not unknown. Much more could and should have been done at a national level to manage and mitigate the clear risk to Australia, her people, her native fauna and flora. I hear there is now a focus by our national political leaders on the human cost of these bushfires; the economic cost and damage to Australia’s reputation doesn’t even bear thinking about.

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