Diary of an evacuated Eurobodallan..... by Elizabeth Walton
We are on the far south coast of New South Wales in a small beach town north of Cobargo called Mystery Bay. We awoke Tuesday morning, like everyone else, to black skies at dawn amidst a flammagenitus, a pyrocumulus that was, I am certain, as terrifying as hearing an incendiary bomb launching overhead.
The edge of the pyro cumulus had already gone over, we were travelling behind it, watching as it prepared to bump in to the smoke storm heading down from the north. Photo: Elizabeth Walton We left by car. We brought our degrees, our computers, a book I am writing, a change of clothes, a flimsy esky bag and a bit of food. Later the next day when we were allowed to travel home for a short time, we brought sturdier eskies, a fold up table and two plastic chairs, water bottles - and as it was my birthday, a bottle of champagne. We cut the sunflowers from the garden on the way out of the gate. The kind of storm overhead at dawn on New Years Eve usually precedes the immediate fire front: surrounded by National Park we grabbed the things we had packed the night before and left. For all the technology that humans have created to generate predictions of weather patterns, there was no threat that fires would reach us when we went to bed. The power was out at the evacuation centre. We attended a public meeting then walked to the chemist shop, whose staff were working by candle light, making a list of anyone who didn’t have cash to pay for urgent medications that had been left behind. “Just pay us later they said,’ before taking a load of nappies down to the evacuation centre. Later, on day three or perhaps it was day four, of camping variously outdoors or in our car at the evacuation centre, a fire captain returned from the field to address the crowd. He said he was frightened. He said that he visited the fire front on Monday 30th December and in his experience-informed opinion, the fires would not reach the coast for three days. They reached the coast, in his words, in less than three hours. This he told us at a fire briefing at the Narooma evacuation centre where the people in charge received updates on the emergency by queuing up to use a pay phone. For many days, people attended the twice daily briefings and asked “Where are the fires now? Are our towns burned?“ "We don't know," was the recurring response from the fire captains and those in charge. The camp was quickly populated from New Years Eve with 4,000 registered people who spilled out onto the floors of the local golf club, the sports club, the surf club and the like. Most of them camped in their cars outside and used the facilities as needed.From shows of hands at the meetings, there was an estimated additional 1,000 people not registered. They had dogs. They had chickens. There was even a goat. Cats in cars. Ponies being walked along the forefront of the beach. The vet, evacuated with all of his equipment, spent most of his time sedating cats. There was a doctor, a pharmacist, and eventually a generator to keep the lights on overnight. A queue for ice at the local fishing trawler lasted well into the wee hours. We attended four times before we were able to get a watery bag which you could get if you had $10 in cash. The golf club fed the entire crowd one night on two minute noodles. The official evacuation centre had a couple of Rotary and Lions vans that cooked and distributed food to the hordes. All remained calm until one lady asked where the Vegan queue was - and the lady in the van said “This is an emergency, there is no Vegan option. It is good that we are all going through this so we can understand what refugees are living through for years on end.” There was no more talk of vegan food. By day 5 the Rotarians had left and a paper roster went up for volunteers, who made egg sandwiches on the barbecue after the food generously donated by local businesses had long been used. Dinner on New Year’s Eve was a welcome piece of overcooked pork on a paper napkin, eaten in the swirling pitch black darkness that we had forgotten was only 5pm. The first night we slept in the car, as did mostly everyone else, on a space that is usually an off leash dog park. Some slept inside the hall on pieces of foam, along side their dogs. At the stroke of midnight there was a faint Happy New Year from a few of the 5,000 present. It had been pitch black since the afternoon. They were mostly too sober and too exhausted to care.
Narooma evacuation centre early afternoon. Our car is in there somewhere. Photo: Elizabeth Walton There were three toilets and two hand basins to service the women, presumably two and half thousand of them, who all waited patiently in queues snaking out the door. In the early days no one used the three showers. St Johns ambulance volunteers assisted people with breathing difficulties and dressed open wounds. A six months pregnant woman, in tears, presented with diarrhoea, that was said to be spreading through the camp on day 2. There was no power, no internet, no phone reception, and one pay phone that even the emergency services were relying on for vital communications with head office in Sydney. They all did a remarkable job, around the clock, in incredibly strained circumstances. A family set up their caravan next to us - they had moved to the coast from Canberra just four days earlier. They had come in to the Evacuation Centre just after a briefing in the sprawling rural hamlet of Tilba where they were told their homes would not be there at the end of the weekend. We were all told our homes would not be there at the end of the weekend. Something inside of me broke on hearing this news. I used my remaining petrol and phone charge to drive to a place where I had reception and phoned 2GB, the radio station that the Australian politicians tend to listen to. I told them there were a total of 85 people deployed on the far south coast fires, and just 17 appliances and that we had all been told our towns would be wiped out over the weekend. I told them about the paucity of support with an ageing volunteer fire fighting crew who announced to the public that they had no more fight in them. I said we need help. Live, on air, in these circumstances, the announcer told me that it was unrealistic to expect a fire truck in every driveway. In response I said, live on air, that the Victorian government had asked for and received additional support from the federal government. The NSW State Government, at that time, were still saying that they had all the support they needed. But that afternoon things began to change. The government held a meeting on Thursday, and agreed to deploy the army reserves to clear the roads, amongst other tasks. The NSW Police phoned all staff, including those on leave, and asked who would volunteer to come to our rescue. Almost all police said We Will. They were here before the end of the weekend. We were told this by the officers who came. I wanted to give them hugs to say thanks, but felt fearful of engulfing them with a sea of swallowed emotion. Council spent Friday cutting all vegetation from around the Evacuation Centre at Narooma. By this time, much work had been done to get the roads open during the short window between the fire storms. The flotsam and jetsam of interstate summer tourists in their towed wagons had largely moved on, the AirBnBers have given up trying to find their hosts and left town, and the evacuation centre had swelled again with the ranks of the local townships - people who felt inconvenienced to be in this situation for one night, ignoring the filthy people around them who by this stage had been here camped in the open for the 5th day, with nothing but the ocean to cleanse themselves. As the newbies flooded in, wearing their very best evacuation chic of long flowing kaftans and the heirloom jewels, they questioned why the rest of us were wearing masks; they questioned why we had scarves around our faces. They didn't know, yet, about the blackness that would run from their noses the next time they showered. We spent the next fire front day, Saturday, preparing, as we were told to, to get ready to jump in to the ocean - the fires were predicted to impact from the north in the morning and the south in the afternoon. We found a bag that zipped up and we wrapped our medications in plastic several times, we wrapped the car keys in another, we wrapped our ID and credit cards rationalised to one wallet into yet another. All tied in neat little bundles, zipped inside the bag that slid over the shoulder, which we strapped on, and walked around with, and a woollen blanket tied to the top to use in the water. We checked high tide, we checked low, we matched that to the times of the fire front prediction. We found a boogie-board abandoned by the garbage bins by a tourist and went down to the beach the day before to teach our dog to swim. The sea was a-bob with floating gas tanks, dotted around the lake in case they exploded. But on this day, all structures had to be packed away - we were then, for the fire impact day #2, left to stand around in the dog park behind our cars. We walked to the beach-front and stood on the balcony of the abandoned holiday houses as the skies darkened shortly after noon. Two men on golf carts came to tell us we were trespassing. When we asked where the private property ended and the public land (the beach) began, they wouldn't say. They definitely were not prepared to allow us to stand in the shade of the enormous pine trees standing in front of the water that their visitors shade under on their summer vacations. So we stood in what was left of sun By 2pm the skies were red with a hot wind from the west. By 6pm the power was out, it was raining cinders and the skies were darker than midnight. The heavens were buckling once more with storms, and the winds had returned to swirling from all directions as they had the morning we arrived. The elderly evacuated from their aged care facility, nestled together in a silent mass inside the sports centre sat quietly, their names pinned to them. The St Johns tent set up inside on a Dias that overlooked the mayhem. Everyone did their best to stay calm. At 3am I helped a man I could just make out in the darkness who had fallen down beside his car.
Sitting in the car on the dog park (Evacuation Centre) to escape the black rain - 11am New Years Eve . Photo: Elizabeth Walton We couldn't sleep outside with no structure above so I planned to get into the car with the dog, and in the chaos, two friends found us n the dark, getting in to a bit of a tizz, they had a key to an empty caravan with just enough room on the floor for my partner to sleep, and our meltdown over where to sleep was over. My dog was so hot she panicked at having to get back in to the car yet again. I spent the evening inside the back of the car in the dark, sponging her down and fanning her with a wet tea towel. In the morning we went home. There was no power, no phone, no mobile, no radio reception. No way of being contacted if the fires at Dignams Creek flared. The birds had gone, there weren’t even any mosquitos. I had thrown away the sunflowers I took to the evacuation camp that the bees in town were using for food.
We checked the situation at Mystery Bay again - on our way in to town on this day, Sunday, the locals had dug their trenches with their tractors on the headlands - all claimed by high tide. We went back to the evacuation centre. Photo Elizabeth Walton There were 100 people on the beach at Mystery Bay who used tractors to dig trenches to jump in to if the fires arrived. By the afternoon when the skies went red again, Day 6, we drove past on our way back to the evacuation centre and the high tide had claimed those trenches, and the tractors were nowhere to be seen - presumably, packed back onto the trucks that brought them here and parked in their nearby homes.
Corunna lake day 6: heading back to the evacuation centre. Photo Elizabeth Walton When we arrived back at the evacuation centre the power was out, the phones were down, and though the skies were once more the familiar orange-ochre hue. We could not face another night out in the open. Something inside both of us snapped. We panicked and decided to immediately leave the region, immediately, as in right now, at high speed if necessary. We spoke with the authorities and the four police officers wandering around - they thought it was probably a good idea. And just as we were leaving, the power flicked back on, so we decided to come home to spend the night, before making a proper plan to leave in the calm light of another smoke filled day. Luckily we had a car charger for the nebusiler I rely on to regulate asthma.
We managed to get home to collect a few things. My nebuliser is the white thing you can see on the dash. We have a power charger for it, which kept me, an asthmatic, safe during the crisis. Photo: Elizabeth Walton The same officers were at the turn off to our beach by the time we got home and agreed we should stay home not face a journey into the unknown at that hour, which although only 3pm, was once again very dark, At home we argued as the tensions unwound and found their natural spark. By noon the next day, day 7, the internet had returned, we had 6mm of rain, and we felt safe to stay home while we braced for the next front which is due in a few short days. We didn’t unpack a thing. Our region was heavily “back burned” in autumn. It is too late to do it in winter these days, the fires come too soon, too early when the ground is still cold. They call it “back burning” though in reality it is mostly industrial clean up: this region is surrounded by State Forests (aka government logging lands). After the government owned corporations cut the trees they burn the land to get rid of the debris. When the state forests are logged 75% of the tree cut down is left on the forest floor, as it is of no use to the loggers, who take most of the trees to the Eden chip mill to export overseas. The chip mill has two mountains of wood chips that are now on fire. The New South Wales Government was due to announce the sale of the softwood division of its state forest assets on New Years Day. This is the government that went to the contentious March 2019 election with a promise of no further asset sales. Communities have great concerns about the privatisation of the state forests that line the east coast of Australia and what this will mean for future fire management in a coastal area that is swamped by smoke from fires all autumn from “fire management” and all summer from wildfires. Many of the fires that have swept throughout NSW since September have escaped from Forest Corporation attempts to protect their assets - such as the fires at Clouds Creek on the states north.
The Garden Of Eden. Photos by Elizabeth Walton When Scott Morrison returned from Hawaii or Honolulu or wherever it was that he went before deciding to come back to Australia and have a go at being a leader, he announced with a certain glint in his eye that there would need to be reform of land management in Australia. What he meant, and has now announced, is that he wants to introduce legislation enforcing back burning or “hazard reduction” or reduction of the “fuel load” of National Parks and State Forests, and possibly on privately held land as well. The NSW State Government heavily hazard reduction burned around the Blue Mountains in the last year. Despite this, more forest than ever has burned this year. The same thing happened in the previous period when a higher than usual amount of hazard reduction burning was done - more forest than ever burned. "Last year we did one of the three highest levels of hazard reduction burning in the Blue Mountains on record and yet we've still seen about 960,000 hectares burn in bushfires in that area," NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said. "In comparison, since 2000 the next highest year saw 260,000 hectares burn." In the words of Wyn Jones, credited with discovering the Wollemi Pine in remote wilderness north west of the Blue Mountains along with his colleague David Noble, the only thing that grows back when country burns is fire-dependent species. Ecologists and National Parks managers of old always knew this. The easiest way to avoid this wisdom is to get rid of the knowledgeable land managers and replace them with a skeleton staff of rubbish-removers and barbecue cleaners - which is what most National Parks staff seem to be these days. The government has one agenda and one only, lead by John Barilaro, Deputy Premier of NSW: Get rid of the National Parks, flatten them in to one layer that provides for resource collection -read as, mining, logging, and other commercial enterprises. Australia was populated with extensive forests for millennia without a man with a jerry can standing in front of every tree planning when it was safest to burn: some parts of Australia undoubtedly were managed by low intensity cultural burns throughout the ages. But not all forests and not all lands. Certainly never the entire country. As humans make their mark further and further on this land there seems little option for nature left, and the people in government today certainly have an agenda to demolish what little is left of our wilderness, the wilderness our wildlife depends on, the wilderness our lungs depend on, the wilderness our oceans depend on to regulate our atmosphere. Yet the human journey into this land is one that now faces a horrendous precedent as we move dangerously close to an era where man wishes to eradicate every last gasp of nature’s normal self, and instead replace her with some interminable surface created by man himself, who, he tells himself, he can feel sure he can manage as if he were treating the land as his own creation. But I have news for these people: You cannot own nature. Nature owns you. And from what we have seen in recent days, weeks and months, nature will always have the last say. If the government of Australia responds to this crisis with a knee jerk reaction and an intention to burn the lot, then we as a nation are in deep trouble. For first we will have the forests, then we will have the incursions into them, treating them as though we could restrain them, burning them and cutting them down to make us “safe” and then, we will have lost the lot. We’ve had 14mm of rain today. Apparently its not enough to dampen the fires. When we went back to town to get a few things there was still a half hour queue for petrol. There was a packet of spaghetti lost on the wrong shelf, and single packet of lasagne sheets were the pasta would ordinarily be. There was very little in the way of fresh food. We went back to the evacuation centre for bananas, there we not many people there. Carl from Tilba was handing out the food. He knows everyone has gone home, but the fires are still there, hanging like a Damocles sword that swings from the horizon just at the back of Gulaga mountain. For now he plans to stay put. The next front is due on Friday. And then we have the ordinary summer threat to get through. “I think they’ve gone home under a false illusion that we are all ok.” He said, handing us bananas to take home. We have begun calling the emergency assistance lines, after half a day we gave up. Despite loosing all of our income for the foreseeable future, we are not eligible for anything apart from Newstart, and we are reluctant to expose ourselves to a future robo-debt. We are musicians but for now there are no more gigs, everything has been cancelled. But we dont mind, we prefer it that way - we have no voices left to sing, we have no more words. We are used to connecting people with their emotions, but right now, there is little left to give. For now we are safe, and the call out goes to those who are still struggling - friends at Coolagolite who are nursing 200 head of cattle through scorched grounds, nursing three little children. We offer them hot showers and a washing machine if they can get out to use it. We offer the bakery volunteer labour to start getting bread back out in to the community. They will get back to us tomorrow, though tomorrow, sometimes, in circumstances like this, could be a long way away. In the meantime we are filling old garbage bins with water to stand around the house as the damp smoke rolls in.