Bush Fires – A View From Australia

Posted on January 3, 2020

Part of me wanted to write something about the Australia fires this week. However, I realised I was not qualified to do such a thing. How can you possibly imagine how awful it is from thousands of miles away? However, my friend Trevor Hickman is there, in the middle of it.

Here, Trevor reflects on his Christmas holiday trip that evolved into scenes from a disaster movie…

Marlo is a small sleepy town in East Gippsland Victoria. It’s approximately four or five hours east of Melbourne and lies nestled in farmland to the north and bush on its surrounds. The snowy river concludes its 350km (200 miles) journey there, emptying into the sea through a wide estuary. There’s a huge sand bank and pelicans and other sea birds abound.

We’d visited the town a couple of times before. From land-locked Canberra it’s not the most obvious place to reach the sea – many Canberrans preferring the coast on the South East of Australia due to its proximity, but I’d grown to believe that the additional hour’s drive it takes to get there was worth it in return for the area’s laid-back feel. There’s a great pub overlooking the estuary and it’s a wonderful spot for watching the sun disappear over the horizon while sipping the local ‘Sailor’s Grave’ beer.

I’m an only parent and as such my life is busy and sometimes pretty stressful, so my two kids (Elijah aged 10 and Audrey 12) and I had decided to head there for New Year and relax in the solace. We took our new Christmas bikes and borrowed kayaks, I chucked fishing rods and lures in the boot. It was going to be the perfect adventure to see in the new decade.

Our first couple of days there were just that. We rode our bikes through the pristine Marlo State forest and also paddled out to the sandbank. It was great to be out of Canberra enjoying nature.

On Sunday I received a text message saying that everyone in East Gippsland should leave.

It seems ridiculous now that I ignored the warning. To give it some context though the area of East Gippsland is around 500km wide and the fires were at least 300km to the west. I don’t think anyone in the Marlo campsite where we were staying left. Even those closer to the fires didn’t all react. Bushfires are sadly a regular occurrence in Australia and the two fires that were showing on the map had actually been burning since November. It felt like leaving and heading home, would be akin to evacuating the house when the toaster sets off the smoke alarm in the kitchen. An over-reaction.

So we stayed.

We’d travelled into nearby Lakes Entrance on Sunday afternoon and there were some fire volunteers there, I chatted to them and they pointed out the fires to the west on a map. The message they were giving was important but didn’t seem urgent. They certainly didn’t impress on me that evacuating was the best option.

Monday was hot, we paddled our kayaks on the lagoon and watched fisherman on the jetty, then smoke started to arrive. By four o’clock the sky had turned a deep red. By five the sky was almost black.

There was a new state of panic and confusion, nobody really knew what was happening but we were sure it would still be ok. Then ash started falling out of the sky. People told me afterwards they had seen embers falling too on the roofs of houses. The inherent animal instinct that is in all of us could sense danger and hear the fire growing closer.

When smoke gets too thick it actually starts forming its own weather patterns (something else I didn’t know) so there was the frequent rumble of thunder (without rain) which all added to the eery un-comfortableness.

My kids understandably lost it and started crying. My little boy, who is usually self-assured and confident probably most of all. I put on an air of being calm and unworried, but my children knew it was a thin veneer. Then with a loud thud the lights went out and all electricity was cut.

Fortunately, we had our bike lights as makeshift torches. The campsite owners told us that we may be told to evacuate. Evacuation meant going to the jetty by the sea – it wasn’t much of an ‘escape’ really.

The night went on, then the signal on our phones went too. We were told later that the transmitter that serves the area has a generator, but one that only works for a short time after power is cut. No power, no phones, no roads out.

Reluctantly we went to bed (there wasn’t much else to do) but we knew we were all hyped up on a combination of fear and adrenaline. None of us slept. Just as I was nodding off to sleep the siren rang out. We jumped out of bed (we had all slept in our clothes) and ran out preparing to evacuate. Outside most of the campsite had done the same. The owner ran over and explained it was a false alarm. We went back to bed even more tired and scared than before.

The next 24 hours were strange. We were cut off from the outside world. Not in immediate danger, but then not really ‘safe’ either. We would take regular trips to sit in the car and listen to ABC news bulletins. Some people discovered that if you drove to a nearby hill you could get one-bar on your phone from the transmitter in nearby Orbost. We became acquainted with the emergency room at the fire station which served the kids pasta and had a working TV (from a generator).

The radio was full of warnings, callers told about horrific incidents. One lady reported how her isolated township had all fled to the sea and she had stood knee deep in the sea watching her house burn. It was terrifying. Livestock was perishing and the news of the first deaths started coming through. Most news reports talked about Malacoota an area to the east of where we were (and somewhere I’d looked at visiting) where the town had become completely cut off by fire and 4,000 people (3,000 holiday makers, 1,000 locals) were stranded.

The fires spread quickly, joining in places to become super-fires, jumping both roads and rivers. You always think you understand the speed which fire travels but without witnessing it, I think you always underestimate it. The East Gippsland area is heavily wooded and people showed me photos of the fires ‘crowning’ – burning above the canopies. To give that some sense of scale, some gum trees can grow over 300 feet tall.

I also learnt that in a bushfire trees by roads (unsurprisingly) fall onto the road. Often to then pass through the roads emergency services literally have to cut themselves in and then often when they are leaving have to cut themselves out from fresh trees that have fallen behind them. It’s a dangerous time for them, and firefighters have died from falling trees.

All roads both in and out of Marlo and Orbost were closed.

The area around Marlo is heavily wooded and we knew we were at risk. Fortunately, we could also reach Orbost which had a supermarket. I drove there with the kids but of course there was no power. The supermarket was open and people were busily buying rations. I bought about 30 cans of beans, spaghetti, soup and long-life milk. We really had no idea how long we’d be cut off from the outside world for. The supermarket had a generator so there were some lights, but it was still akin to a disaster movie. The kids and I joked about how long in was it acceptable before turning to cannibalism.

On Tuesday night we tuned into the radio and the head of the incident centre said that the Princess Highway would be opened on Wednesday for a limited (10am-12pm) window to allow people to leave. The opening was only westbound which served the vast number of holiday makers who travel there from Melbourne. Where we had come from (the north) was now engulfed in fire and the east (where we could also have ‘escaped’ to the NSW coast was also heavily affected and the road closed in that direction as well).

I agonised over leaving. The drive to Marlo had taken four hours, the drive home if we took it, would take 14 as we’d have to go via Melbourne. I’m a dreadful procrastinator. We sat in smoke and without power or phone reception and pondered our next move. Would the road to the east open up the next day, or maybe not for weeks, there was no way of knowing. My daughter told me she just wanted to go. It was the most sensible and pragmatic choice – made by a twelve year old.

Just before the Highway opened, I visited the fire station again. I chatted to a police woman and her colleague. They didn’t have much more information than we did (they said they relied on the ABC as well). I told her my issue. The police woman looked me in the eye and said, ‘get out while you can still get out’. We immediately ran back to the car and threw everything into it.

Our drive back home was an adventure to say the least. Our neighbours in the campsite offered to put us up in Melbourne – it was so so kind given that we didn’t really know them and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. So we over-nighted in Melbourne and then spent the following day driving back to Canberra. Albury and Gundagai along our route were also massively smoke affected as there were also huge fires affecting that area and there were other refugees like us escaping the area.

We didn’t reach Canberra until around 9.30pm. We reached a city which, while we haven’t had fires is engulfed in smoke that has reached the city from fires burning to the south and east. The city has sold out of smoke masks.

So, I’m left with a mass of emotions. I feel stupid as I didn’t leave when we were first warned. I feel guilty that I put the kids through such an emotionally terrifying episode. I feel grateful that we got away and feel so sad for the people still stuck in Malacoota who are now being rescued by the navy and the army, by sea and air. The road is impassable. I think if we had stayed we would have been stuck for a long time and who knows what this weekend (which is forecast to be a ‘peak’ danger period will bring). Power has still not returned to the area.

People have lost their lives and others have lost their livelihoods.

Canberra, the city I’ve called home for ten years is also a fairly unpleasant place at the moment. I’ve always taken fresh-air for granted(!), and the city is famed for its beautiful blue skies, but it’s been blanketed in smoke for weeks now. My clothes all smell of smoke and if I wash them, I dry them outside in the smoke filled air.

Also are the bushfires Australia’s new ‘norm’? I guess we won’t know the answer to that for some time, but with climate change the main contributor it’s an easy conclusion to jump to.

Being employed by the government I have to remain impartial in my views, but it’s disappointing that in April last year our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison refused to meet with no less than 23 former fire chiefs who had encouraged him to bring in more plane water-bombers. Instead the government chose to spend 250 million on a Prime Ministerial jet which the PM named after his favourite rugby league side.

Also, while being impartial it’s difficult to judge positively the fact that Morrison went on holiday to Hawaii just as the bush-fire emergency was just starting to take hold. Not a good look.

When Morrison finally did appear (at fire-hit Cobago where two residents have died) he was heckled on arrival. One resident refused to shake his hand and another, who Morrison suggested was ‘tired’ was actually angry about the fact that their house had burnt down. Like his Hawaiian holiday the Cobago trip was an unmitigated PR disaster.

Australia’s economy relies on both digging up and burning fossil fuel. We are a country rich in resources but with a government who is fixated on old methods of power generation rather than exploring other alternatives (with a giant inland area that is getting increasingly hotter we surely should have far more investment in solar for example?).

News of communities and their personal experiences are also gradually emerging. 100 people sheltered in a school in Caan river, lives lost as well as houses, livestock and the huge natural disaster affecting wildlife. It will probably take years before the area recovers and only then if fires don’t become a regular occurrence.

Morrison has stated that the fires are not political, but leading a government so opposed to the science of climate change and so convinced that the way forward is to continue to dig up and sell and burn coal it’s hard to make sense of what he’s saying. As a practising evangelical Christian, he’s also previously sent thoughts and prayers to those affected by bush fires. The government are committed to returning the country’s budget to a positive figure, opening the cheque book to help fire-hit communities doesn’t fit that narrative.

Meanwhile East Gippsland and much of the NSW coast continues to burn. There’s rain forecast in the area for next week which I really hope transpires. In some isolated communities the only tactic to fight the fires is to allow them to burn themselves out, but that sometimes takes weeks and devastates huge areas of the country.

I hope one day the three of us can return to Marlo and enjoy the holiday we were so looking forward to and I hope that the huge scars that are left by these fires, and they will be huge, lead to a change of direction in terms of economic policy. Unfortunately it will take more than thoughts and prayers for that to happen.

Written by Trevor Hickman in Canberra

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