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Diary of an Australian disaster

10 January 2020

Reflecting on the fire season ravaging the country, providing an in-depth personal perspective, Policy Forum’s Editor-in-Chief Quentin Grafton recounts his own experience of the bushfire threat and provides a timeline of the unfolding chaos.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Emergency fire warnings are coming into effect across the country, with total fire bans declared all over eastern Australia. Authorities brace for a week of extreme conditions.

“We drive north from Merimbula to Cobargo on South Coast of New South Wales to attend the local Saturday market. We are stopped by police just north of Bega as the road is temporarily closed because of bushfires. We stay in Bega and hang out at the local cheese factory because it has air conditioning. Today, temperatures reach 36 degrees Celsius.”

Sunday 29 December 2019

The Victorian government urges anyone in East Gippsland to leave immediately. Scott Morrison announces compensation payments (up to $6,000) for NSW volunteer firefighters.

“We hear the announcements of evacuations in Eastern Gippsland. I refill the car with diesel, just in case. My partner does extra shopping for non-perishable foods and bottled water, again, just in case.”

Monday 30 December 2019

The NSW Rural Fire Service confirms the number of houses destroyed has reached 900 and a firefighter dies on the NSW-Victoria border. In Victoria, 40,000 homes go without power, and a number of emergency warnings are issued in East Gippsland.

“We visit Eden, which is 30 kilometres away, in the morning. Thick smoke blows into town by midday. We head back to where we are staying in Merimbula. On our return, we are told that there are long lines in Eden for petrol as Victorian holidaymakers try to get out of the area with a full tank. Smoke gets much worse in Merimbula. We see a helicopter refilling its bucket to fight nearby fires.”

Tuesday, New Year’s Eve 2019

Fireworks cancelled in a number of major cities due to fire bans. Towns of Cobargo, Quaama, and Nowra under siege from the fires. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirms a number of people missing in East Gippsland. 4,000 people in Mallacoota Victoria huddle on the town beach surrounded by fire, with no clear method of escape.

“We wake up to smoke inside and ash on the furniture and floors. Outside, it is eerily glowing red, and ash covers cars with burnt leaves. We drive to town to get news of what’s happening, with our dogs, just in case. An exodus is underway of people trying to leave, but most roads are closed. Everyone’s headlights are on, despite it being 11 in the morning. We are told that the petrol station has already run out of diesel. We go to a cafe to get internet access and use the ‘Fires Near Me’ app, as we have no internet and poor reception.

I draw cash out of the ATM, just in case. My partner befriends a mother and son in town and who are camping. We offer them a place to stay with us and give them our mobile number. We visit the evacuation centre with our dogs and to confirm where we should go in case fires come to Merimbula. The lady at evacuation centre is very helpful and tells us there is also a place for pets. We get the best available information, but it’s limited.

On the way back to our parked car we meet a young couple who ask us where to buy respiratory masks – nowhere is the answer. We let them know what is happening, as best as we know, and show them how to get to the evacuation centre to get further advice. I check whether the petrol station has any diesel to top up the tank – nothing. There are long lines as people fill up with petrol. We get back to the car and the carpark and town are deserted. Everyone has gone home to prepare for the fires.

Then, we return to where we are staying to wait and listen to the radio. We find multiple vehicles parked on the road as our neighbour’s relatives have come in from outlying communities that cannot be defended. A pony has also been brought along. It is penned on the empty lot next to us. We talk to neighbours, share news, and wait it out. My partner gives chips and popcorn to some of the kids who have come from the outlying communities. Everyone we speak to feels that they are on their own, and that we should look out for each other.

By afternoon, radio tells us two people are confirmed dead in Cobargo and five are missing. Yet the Sydney fireworks, can you believe it, still go ahead. Everyone here is very angry about it. Smoke gets more intense. In the evening we hear the thunder of the self-generated weather of fires. It’s like night. We are scared.”

Wednesday, New Year’s Day 2020.

All tourists urged to leave NSW South Coast as ‘bushfire refugees’ flood the area. Fires burn through the historic town of Mogo, a convoy of cars drive into Lake Cojola to avoid flames, and the ACT records its worst-ever air quality rating. Smoke even shrouds parts of New Zealand.

“The dogs stayed with us in our bedroom. I go early to the evacuation centre and find out that Snowy Mountain Road to Canberra is open. We pack up, tell the neighbours we are going, and drive off home to Canberra. Lots of smoke along the way. In one place, fire has burnt either side of the road but otherwise all ok on the route. Air quality is appalling. We return to find Canberra’s air is worst in the world for any major population centre and text all friends and family that we are safe and home.”

Thursday, 2 January 2020.

Toll of missing persons reaches 28 in Gippsland. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is heckled by bushfire victims in Cobargo after two people die defending their homes, the NSW township of Batlow evacuates, and American firefighters fly to Australia from the US to help fight the crisis. Many still await evacuation in Mallacoota.

“My son calls from Melbourne. He offers to buy P2 masks at a hardware store there. I eagerly agree, as all such masks have been sold out in Canberra since well before Christmas. We remain concerned for our friends on the South Coast and our neighbours. We’re especially worried about the son of a good friend of ours, with two young children, who has been evacuated to a South Coast beach since New Year’s Eve. We wonder why masks cannot be dropped by aircraft for those who desperately need them. Why is it taking so long to get help to people in need? I contact emergency services to find out where the evacuation point is in Canberra. No one knows.”

Friday, 3 January 2020.

Fires reach emergency level on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, killing two people, and continue their march up the NSW South Coast. The Navy is called in to evacuate Mallacoota residents. NSW and Victoria brace for the extreme heat and wind levels predicted for the following day.

“Roads open up on the NSW South Coast for people to flee before expected catastrophic conditions on Saturday. My partner tells me that there are many South Coast residents shopping for food supplies in Canberra. There is now a mass exodus from the NSW South Coast.

I read that there are now 23 dead from bushfires this season and untold damage to wildlife. I see the Cobargo video of the Prime Minister – people are understandably very angry that he watched fireworks from Kirribilli while tens of thousands of people were in fear for their lives. I can’t help but think, isn’t Australia better than this?”

Saturday, 4 January 2020.

The ACT experiences its hottest day on record, reaching 44 degrees Celsius. It remains above 30 until midnight. A state of disaster is declared in Victoria. The Navy safely evacuates 1,000 of the 4,000 people remaining in Mallacoota. Air quality remains extremely hazardous.

“Canberra is eerily silent. We plug the gaps around windows and doors to keep out the smoke leaking into our house, and visit a neighbour to swap stories. He tells us he and his wife will go to a nearby oval, where there are no trees, if fires come to our part of Canberra. No one we ask knows the location of the ‘official’ evacuation centre.

We share the extra masks we have available with friends in Canberra. We then hear the news late in the night that Eden, on the NSW South Coast, with a population of 3,000, has been advised to evacuate. All smaller communities in the area have already had evacuation notices. People in Merimbula are opening up their homes to these evacuees.”

Sunday, 5 January 2020.

Fires close in on NSW coast town of Moruya and approach Batemans Bay from the south. Mallacoota sky turns black as fires approach the town again.

“Very hot night. We wake up to appalling air quality. We can see smoke in the kitchen. Canberra has an eery ‘bushfire glow’. I see the Liberal Party Ad released yesterday authorised by the Prime Minister boasting about their bush fire response. Whatever they are selling, I am not buying! The ad promises five million P2 masks, but still none can be bought in Canberra or fire-affected areas.

We wonder where we can go to breathe decent air, as it seems no public buildings are able to cope with the awful, and life-threatening, air quality. It seems like almost everyone we know is either coughing, wheezing or teary-eyed with the smoke.”

This piece was originally published on Policy Forum. You can also read it here.

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Updated:  12 July 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team