On New Year’s Eve our Assistant Editor Amy was in Narooma on NSW’s South Coast. Then the fires hit. This is how it unfolded.
My dear, dear Australia,
I am so sorry this is happening to you. From the snow to the sea, you’re burning.
December 30th 2019
I was in Narrawallee on NSW’s South Coast. I checked the Fires Near Me app before heading to Narooma with friends for New Year’s Eve. No fires past Bateman’s Bay, just burnt out bushland from the Currowan fire in previous weeks. There was a warning for tourists to avoid the Shoalhaven area over new year, but we were planning on being far further south of that. We jumped in the car and glided our way down the Princes Highway. 24 hours later, the road was inaccessible.
We drove through Mogo, and I pointed out the eclectic assortment of shops that line the main street and keep tourists streaming into the town. 24 hours later, every single one of them was gone.
I checked the Fires Near Me app and saw that a small fire had popped up in Cobargo, the hometown of a very good friend and just a few towns away from where we were staying in Narooma. 24 hours later, over half of Cobargo was burnt down.
My friend defending his house in Cobargo messaged me:
‘Have been packing up and prepping the house to fight the fire if it gets to us. But it’s looking ok for the moment…will hopefully get up to Narooma for a boogie tomorrow.’
12 hours later, he messaged me saying his family had fled to Bermagui while fire burned either side of the road.
I got a notification from Fires Near Me – ‘Everyone on the outskirts of Narooma and Moruya must move into the major towns by 8:00am. Do not be in bushland.’
8 hours later we were evacuating.
5:00am, December 31st 2019
A few friends fled back to Wollongong in a bid to beat the inevitable road closures. They were some of the last cars through.
I woke to black skies lined with deep orange. Over the next 24 hours, the sky changed from black and purple, to white, to yellow, to dark burnt orange and back to white. Our emotions fluctuated with the sky. Fires Near Me showed the fire had burnt in three directions overnight and was coming towards us. We packed our bags, grabbed the important possessions from the property and convoyed back into town, stopping along the way to take in the dark sky we were driving away from.
My Mum messaged me – ‘Keep up to date with the fires. They are all around you.’ 5 hours later, the fires were all around my parents in Narrawallee too.
We saw a flash of lightning and heard claps of thunder above us as we waited in the car park at the beach – but no rain. We desperately tried to get in contact with friends in Cobargo and Bermagui. They were on the beach in the pitch black.
All 20 of us relocated to a park by the inlet, across the road from a friend’s house and some of us set up tents. We walked to the headland to visit the local seals in a bid to distract ourselves from the growing black blanket crossing the sky. The wind blew ash into our eyes.
We walked to the top of town to witness the purple ridgeline on the western side of Narooma. My white shirt became stained with the ash that rained down on us. The soles of our feet turned black.
We wiped ash off each other’s faces.
Narooma lost power. We were fortunate enough that our hosts owned a generator. We sat on the balcony and watched as more and more people filled up the park at the bottom of the street with trailers and tents. Kids played on the playground with masks on.
Narooma lost internet and phone connection. The sky began to turn a dark burnt orange. I cut up onions and carrots to help feed everyone for dinner and wept as I watched the town grow darker and darker through the kitchen window.
Miraculously the darkness lifted. It was like a new day. One of our friends who’d been stuck in Bermagui arrived on the doorstep and for a short time, the fear, sadness and worry lifted. We ate and drank and even danced. A privilege very few others were granted in Narooma on New Year’s Eve.
January 1st 2020
We woke to the new year, unsure of what the day would bring, but not expecting to be able to drive north from Narooma to our homes in Wollongong and Sydney any time soon. We’d heard that the bridge in Bateman’s Bay had been lifted to prevent people from heading north.
We attended a community meeting at one of the evacuation centres in Narooma. We gathered with thousands of people, locals and tourists alike, to find out any information we could. There was no petrol in the town, no power or reception and Woolies was closed.
We learned the only exit was down south to Bega, west to Cooma and then north onto Canberra. But we were warned not to leave unless we had enough petrol to make it to Cooma, 250km away, as there was no petrol available along the road before there and you did not want to be stuck on the side of the road.
Even the RFS admitted they didn’t know where the fire was. People were panicked and crying.
We decided to wash ourselves. A few of us walked down along the inlet to take our first dip of the new decade. The water was freezing and the sky was a yellowy-brown with low-lying smoke. There was ash in the water.
As we wandered back to the park where we’re camped, I noticed my dear friend from Cobargo in the distance who we hadn’t heard from in over 24 hours. I ran and hugged and laughed and cried. He told us how his Dad had returned to their property and miraculously, it was safe. I’ve never felt so relieved.
With little idea of how long we’d be stuck in Narooma, we pooled our food and cooked up a big breakfast of beans and toast. We made cups of tea and coffee and chatted about the day before and how happy we were it was over.
We got news that conditions were set to worsen in the coming days and that the Princes Highway was not expected to open northbound before then. Tourists were being encouraged to make the journey south if they could, to relieve the pressure on resources for locals. We each calculated how much petrol it would take to make it to Cooma. A few cars would only just make it, while others were almost running on empty.
A convoy of five cars decided to make the journey south and we tearfully left behind a few friends who were forced to stay put, including those friends whose families lived in the area.
We got back into reception and the messages came flooding in. We made phone calls to family and let friends know we were safe.
We arrived in Tathra and realised there was petrol available! But we had no way to tell the others stuck in Narooma who were out of reception. We hoped they’d attended the next town meeting at 4:30pm.
We arrived in Cooma and stopped to grab some food. The smoke hanging over the town was the thickest I’ve ever seen. Visibility was so low between Bemboka, Cooma and Canberra that I could barely see into the paddock next to the road.
We arrived in Canberra and it was a ghost town. More smoke than people. We got word that the rest of our friends who were stranded made a dash for it and got to Tathra with enough petrol to fill up. Relief. I called my parents who were still stuck in Narrawallee but had gained reception. They were at the pub in Ulladulla.
‘I was in the driver’s seat as we passed Marulan along the Hume Highway. A flaming red light hit the road in front of me. An ember? Nope. A cigarette butt from the car in front of us.’
We arrived back in Wollongong, 9 hours after leaving Narooma. The air was clean. My housemates stayed up waiting for me to come home. As I hugged them they told me how much I smelled like smoke. I hadn’t even noticed. I messaged those who were still on the road and checked they arrived home safely.
I fell asleep happy to be home, but worrying for my family and friends still stuck on the coast. I prayed tomorrow would bring reception, and rain.