Annette Sharp: My escape from south coast fires
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The sky darkened, the power went out, and confusion and panic took hold.
In the hours and days that followed the New Year’s Eve blaze, the small south coast hamlet of Moruya, larger towns like Batemans Bay, and dozens of tiny communities south to the border came to a standstill.
Power poles and lines were felled by the catastrophic bushfires. With no electricity, the south coast was plunged into chaos.
Society, as we know it, disappeared.
Petrol bowsers and traffic lights stopped working, ATMs couldn’t dispense money, shops and supermarkets shut, a “cash only” market sprang up, the contents of refrigerators spoilt and had to be thrown out, people queued around the block for perishable food being given away for free, and desperate souls started stealing garden hoses and that rarest of commodities — petrol.
All of this — even the warm beer still being served to preserve morale — could be endured by the stoic and hardy townsfolk of the little townships south of Batemans Bay.
They are used to life without 24-hour consumerism and modern excess and have a notoriously patchy telecommunications network.
What they couldn’t come to terms with was the collapse of mobile phone networks and the internet upon which we have come to rely.
Without it, and any evidence of on-the-ground authorities taking charge, how would anyone hope to survive this living hell?
For those in the danger zone, including me and my family, there were dozens of questions needing answers.
Were we in danger? Where was the closest fire? Which roads were open to us for evacuation? When would the power be reconnected? What had happened to our mobile data reception? Were we safe on the beachfront with the life-saving southerly blowing? Had we made a mistake cancelling our landline phone accounts? Where could we get petrol, bread, milk, candles, batteries?
The problem-plagued Fires Near Me app glitched for hours as residents and campers hammered unresponsive mobile phones, draining fading batteries more quickly.
When the Rural Fire Service app did reload, the warning advice had changed.
“Too Late To Leave”, it said ominously.
As charred gum leaves started to rain down and the sky darkened to a crimson bruise, my husband and I — seasonal summer residents of a humble 50-year-old Broulee beachfront shack built by his parents in the 1960s — packed our three teenage daughters, dog, few valuables and bags into the family car and headed to Moruya for information and petrol. With less than a quarter of a tank of fuel in the car, fuel was our priority.
We were already nervous about petrol reserves in the region after running out of fuel a week earlier on the trip from our Sydney home — as per family tradition — on December 23.
Thanks to bushfires, the trip would be six hours longer but nothing was going to derail this year’s expedition. We had a vital family appointment to keep.
It had been my mother-in-law’s final wish to have her ashes committed to the sea in front of the little weekender where she and her pre-deceased husband had, for almost 60 years, entertained family and friends. Her death in October set in motion plans for her children to do this between Christmas and New Year.
With no petrol stations open after midnight on our 12-hour odyssey, we had to siphon petrol from our boat to complete the trip.
Six days later, on New Year’s Eve, found us again obsessed with petrol.
By 11am, an hour into this new crisis, the main street of Moruya was strewn with well-meaning local citizens in hi-viz shirts attempting to manage vehicles impacted by the blackout of the town’s single set of traffic lights and a roadblock to prevent drivers fleeing north on the closed Princes Highway.
At the first petrol station we came across, four young women attempted to calm a queue of worried drivers astonished to find, as were we, Moruya was without power and all fuel pumps and ATMs were down.
This New Year’s everything, including Woolworths, was shut.
Empty-handed, we attempted a hasty retreat, but not first without having to fast-talk our way past the hi-viz wardens at the roadblock we’d encountered earlier, most of whom had a different view about road closures and the route back to Broulee.
Back at the old house, we began hosing gutters, filling buckets and checking in on relatives in another house down the road as three separate fires sprang up — one to the north behind Malua Bay, a second to the west in bushland behind Broulee school and a third in grass on the beachfront to our south.
A blustering southerly fanned two of the fires away from us while locals filled eskies and buckets with water and ran to the beach to put out that fire.
The thud of helicopter blades would bring comfort over the next 72 hours as the pilots repeatedly drew water from the ocean in front of us.
The car radio provided what little information could be sourced from ABC radio, though at some risk to the car battery as we spent hours listening to radio and charging mobile phones.
The radio information conflicted wildly at times, with local intel from neighbours and family members adding to uncertainty.
Then a small miracle occurred. Overnight on Wednesday communications were restored, although not electricity. By Thursday we had new RFS advice — evacuate before conditions deteriorated yesterday.
Our escape route, the Princes Highway, remained closed at Milton, so we headed back into the Bay for dinner.
We would kill another five hours waiting for the road to reopen and the 12-hour traffic queue to start moving.
At 10pm, we turned south and headed back to the darkened shack at Broulee, instructed the kids to sleep in their clothes and promised to try again at first light.
At 4.30am we were on the road. This time we were prepared to camp in our car for as long as it took.
Our evacuation ended up taking 10 hours, where we now nervously await news of relatives who evacuated south to Moruya, and of communities holding on to hope in the face of a massive environmental challenge.
Originally published as How my family escaped from south coast fires