South Coast and Southern Highlands bushfires tear through areas that haven’t burned in decades | Australia news
“Right here we are the meat in the sandwich, so thanks for coming down.”
And so began Mark Coombes briefing for a new shift of firefighters in Nowra.
There were fires to the north, fires to the south, minimum 20m flame heights on one side of the Shoalhaven River, 40m in the other, and in areas that hadn’t burned in decades.
The dirty pyrocumulous cloud rumbled with its self-generated thunder outside.
“The southerly is going to hit around nine, 9.30 and unfortunately you’re the ones that deal with it,” Coombes continued.
“What it’s going to do I have no fucking idea.”
He was wrong. The southerly hit two hours faster than expected, roaring through the forest with gusts up to 101 km/h, whipping up dirt and dust and ash, and filling the briefing room with smoke.
Strike teams rushed to Milton and St Georges Basin where there were a few nursing homes which they weren’t sure had been evacuated. A short time later a Fire and Rescue strike team were told they were going to Kangaroo Valley. There were intakes of breath.
Kangaroo Valley was later reported to be under serious threat. Not everyone in those communities had left.
At Nowra one firefighter explained the strategy: we can’t stop the fire, so we’re just trying to direct it as best we can.
Strike teams were sent across the state on Saturday, moved around like chess pieces against an opponent that’s ignoring all the rules.
Earlier on Saturday was quiet. The predicted northwesterly winds weren’t blowing. The fires were still at watch and act level. Until suddenly they weren’t. Twenty new fires had sparked between Nowra and Bateman’s Bay. It got worse the further south you traveled.
“It’s turned to shit everywhere,” one senior RFS firefighter told Guardian Australia from a distant fireground.
Well before it got really dire for the north side of the Shoalhaven river, Darin Sullivan, station officer for Shellharbour Fire and Rescue, noted that while it might look like the fire was relatively far away from communities, it was really just a matter of 15 – 25km and we have seen fires in recent days regularly spotting 15km ahead of the forefront.
“I was at Batemans Bay on New Years Eve and saw the devastation down there first hand,” he said.
“I ended up evacuating my wife out on the firetruck – she was in Conjola when the firestorm run over that day. So everyone’s got stories.”
On the Princes Highway huge dark columns of smoke stood on the horizon in every direction. The highway closed south of Jervis Bay road, the only way south was to wind through the bushland between Jervis Bay and the highway, towards Bewong, only to be stopped again.
Out on the firegrounds crews raced from street to street. Guardian Australia came across one from Queensland, another from Sydney’s north shore. The fire spotted, and drove east, threatening the Jervis Bay communities before the southerly comes through to drive it north with 80 km/h gusts.
At St George’s basin residents who stayed behind were in gardens and on roofs, hosing down houses and trees as text messages come through warning everyone from Nowra to Kiola about 90km south to take shelter. The enormous flank of the Currowan fire, and related blazes, was moving east. At its northern end, near Nowra, the fire generated its own thunderstorm.
The change wasn’t even there yet.
Australia’s bushfire crisis is a gruelling long-running catastrophe which is taking its toll on everyone. Frustrations are showing, even among the relentlessly strong community spirit that has defined the emergency services and those they’re protecting.
Barely a day goes by now that someone doesn’t abuse the prime minister, and there are inter-service grumbles about different tactics and management.
In the room where Coombes, NSW Fire and Rescue divisional commander for the north, gave his briefing, there were firefighters sitting and waiting to be sent out, while simultaneously hearing of property losses, and knowing that another shift might come in to replace them before they could do anything.
Longreach sits along the shore of the Shoalhaven river, the scattering of houses along the single road surrounded by towering trees.
At a property a group of people stayed to defend. At one house, three of them are sat back watching the cricket. Taking comfort from it, just like Morrison said, it was wryly noted.
They were all current and former firefighters, and between them Brent Edwards reckoned they’ve got about 300 years of firefighting experience.
“And we’ve all got every bit of equipment known to man,” says retired firefighter, Edwards.
“My concern is, as always, we’re for want of a better word experts. And we’ve got everything. What about the poor punters with just a garden hose?”
Edwards is the former station commander of the Shoalhaven firestation, and was back from the Gold Coast visiting his friends.
This situation is “incomparable” to anything he saw in his 35 years as a professional firefighter and a lifetime being a “student of the weather” as a surfer, fisherman and diver.
“What’s causing climate change is for another day,” he says.
“They just have to admit that it’s changed dramatically and do something about it.”