When The Sky Went Black - My South Coast Bushfire Experience

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

We knew it was coming. The reports told us so, but also we knew it intuitively, the air felt different, the wind was whispering to us, the birds were alarmed, the atmosphere was alive with panic yet quiet in anticipation. December 30th, 2019. We had warnings, we were prepared for the possibility of the Clyde Mountain fire flaring up on New Years Eve, we thought we would be ok if we came towards town. Experience had told us we were safe in a built up area. We were wrong.

At 8am on New Years Eve we were playing with our boys in the lounge room of our Batemans Bay holiday house. We were anxious, trying to contain it, but not managing very well. The sky was becoming yellow, more and more so as each minute passed and the sense of urgency was building. On one side of the house we looked out and saw blue ocean and sky, peaceful, calm, the world as it should be. On the other side of the house, out the window we saw the signs of flames creeping towards the peaceful place we've have been visiting for decades. We did a quick pack of the car, completely unprepared for what we would actually need and headed into town. My dad stayed behind.

I envisaged going out for breakfast, settling in at the golf club or staying at the shopping centre to avoid any alarm for the kids. I envisaged a little extra smoke, possibly a few sirens but essentially ignorant bliss for our little boys. But what we imagine never matches up with what eventuates. The space between the two was far wider than I could have predicted. Few businesses were open. The town was on high alert, it was a feeling, an uncertainty in the faces of the people walking the streets. We parked the car as the sky began changing tone, from yellow to dark orange. It was 9am and already 35 degrees. We drove to the shopping centre and found a few stores open. Normality hugging us closely, but only for a moment. Suddenly the doors were being pulled closed, workers were packing up, air conditioners were being turned off. At once, dozens of mobile phones binged in unison, with the emergency message "it is too late to leave, seek shelter". Where? How? What do we do? Adults with no answers trying to pretend we knew what to do, trying to protect our kids, trying to be rational, trying to comprehend.

Like a hurricane, it happened so fast. We realised the shopping centre was vulnerable to smoke as the sky became darker to the south. Plumes of smoke filled the sky, gusting towards the town. Looking up behind us I knew our suburb was in trouble, big trouble. The wind was gusting through the town with unrelenting heat. We moved towards our car and drove a few streets down to the water. One lonely cafe was still operating. We walked in, sat down and within minutes the sky turned red. The power went off, we were in the dark. A handful of strangers sitting in silence together. Fear clung to the glass walls as we peered out to see fire trucks racing past into a haze so thick nothing else was visible. Tears streamed down my children's faces, suffocating smoke filled the air. Sirens wailed. The water across the road became invisible as a hell coloured sky blanketed us, darkening second by second until it became night at lunch time for a beautiful town usually painted in golden sunshine.

Unable to breath, we found a bathroom at the back of the cafe and huddled together as a family on the floor, waiting, waiting, waiting. Slowly the reprieve from the smoke dissipated as it crept in under the door, suffocating us with heat and ash. Phone reception was in and out, we were disconnected from the rest of the world. When reception was working we posted updates, desperate to be in touch with the rest of the world, desperate for connection, terrified for our family. Images of our home on the hill flashed through my mind, engulfed by flames, my dad still there, the worst going through my mind. The heat was unbearable, the smoke sat in our lungs leaving no room for oxygen, engulfing us in the darkness. A horror movie, an apocalyptic nightmare, we were stuck, we were in the dark, we were no longer us. Everything had changed.

The dark made way to red again, then softened to orange. We emerged, shells of our former selves, in shock, sick, confused, heart broken. Back up the hill we drove, to find our home standing and my dad ok. But not ok. None of us were ok. Within an hour or so the sky began to turn around. It was coming back. Unsure where to go, but knowing we were far from safe, we got in the car and turned in to take refuge again, this time at the golf club. Inside we found dozens of evacuees sitting in the dark, cats and dogs roaming the building, families with no where else to go. A surreal sight, eerily quiet. We heard muted conversations of homes lost, families with nothing left, messages of survival and also positivity in the face of devastation. We witnessed love, kindness, community, humanity at its best.

We collected some chairs and settled in for a moments rest. All day we had been rocking the kids, breathing in smoke and battling the heat as adrenaline pulsed through our veins. Our stomachs were empty, our minds confused, our bodies broken. The power was down everywhere, information was hard to find, where the fires were, what homes were gone, a frightening mystery to us all as we sat in the dark, quiet space in complete silence. The glass windows behind the golf club were constantly reminding us we were not on the other side of fear yet, we were not even close to calm or safety. The fire was near but we didn't know where. We waited. We waited and waited and waited.

The decision to return back to the house was made, eventually. It was after dinner time, though it felt as though it could have been any hour, any year, any time in history when suddenly the world was turned upside down and nothing was anything anymore. Walking into our home in darkness, using a torch to see, we tucked the kids into bed, their small bodies exhausted, their spirits depleted, their eyes stinging red. Collapsing into bed ourselves, we spoke quietly together, weighing up our options, aware there was no power, no fuel, no way out of this hell. Below the hill was the evacuation centre, packed to the brim with thousands of cars, campers and people. Children were screaming, babies were crying. Sirens and helicopters continued buzzing through the night. The shock was palpable, the devastation, the terror, the sadness sitting heavy in the air with the smoke. We did not sleep that night, not knowing what we would wake to. We could not have imagined how much would be gone, how many homes were flattened to black ash, how many people lost everything, how many animals had perished, how close it got.

By a stroke of luck my dad had enough petrol in his garage to fill out car, to get us home. We began what would be a 9 hour drive through smoke, flames and despair. Our car overheating every twenty minutes, we filled it up with water again and again as we prayed it would get us home and not leave us stuck beside the road as danger surrounded us. White knuckles on the steering wheel, tears on our children's faces, coughing, runny nosed, devastated, terrified. Moving through heavy smoke, baron land and fires on either side of us, it felt as though we were driving through history, from before to after, a world completely changed. Something lost, never to be found again. We didn't speak. Pulling into the garage at home, we had made it. We were safe but shattered. The relief lasted just moments as we discovered it wasn't the ending, but the beginning. The beginning of healing, ahead of us lay the monumental task of unpacking the emotional impact, of trying to hold our family together as we all fell part in our own ways. The beginning of anger, of frustration, of grief.

Climate change is something we have never been able to see, or feel, or hear, or taste or touch. It has been a concept, a terrifying concept, but something to imagine in a future we do not want to believe. In that moment climate change was no longer a concept to be imagined. We felt it, painfully hot on our skin, fear racing through our veins. We saw it, a fiery red sky surrounding us and a complete succumbing to the ferocity of nature. We tasted it, bitter ash in our mouths. We heard it, sirens blazing, the wind howling, screams and then silence.

We found, along with thousands of others that night, that the world is no longer the world we know. Things have changed, on our watch, because of us, yet we did not know. All the warnings, all the predictions, all of our failures roared towards us on the last day of the decade, usually a night reserved for joy and celebration. Can you hear her? Can you hear Mother Nature demanding to be respected? Can you hear her desperation, her pain, her fury? Can you hear the call to action? We heard it, we saw it, we felt it. We will never be the same, our country will never be the same. Our beautiful earth, our beautiful world, is telling us it now it is time. Not tomorrow, not next year, not in 2030, NOW. There is no more time left.

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