'It took six weeks to cry': Reflecting a year on from the South Coast fires

'It took six weeks to cry': Reflecting a year on from the South Coast fires

It took six weeks to cry.

For years, the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner and Narooma News had prided ourselves on our emergency services coverage.

In November 2019, our tiny newswroom was galvanised when RFS Batemans Bay Captain Ian Aitken said he had two maps.

One showed how far, in 1994, a fire had spread into the suburbs of Batemans Bay. The other showed how many new houses were now in harm's way.

It was a warning that needed to be shared and cadet Andrea Cantle was assigned to write our Friday, November 22 front page.

Four days later, on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 26, the Currowan fire ignited in remote forest west of the Clyde River.

A few years earlier, a fire in the same area had, for several weeks, tested remote firefighters and only torrential rain had extinguished it.

Bay Post & Moruya Examiner and the Narooma News editor Kerrie O'Connor and journalist Claudia Ferguson surveying the destruction at Rosedale.

Bay Post & Moruya Examiner and the Narooma News editor Kerrie O'Connor and journalist Claudia Ferguson surveying the destruction at Rosedale.

In the 1950s, such a fire had burned all the way to coast. The signs in November 2019 were ominous: the bush was dusty-dry with no rain in sight.

As editor and as an East Lynne resident, I feared this fire could also reach the coast.

Hot dry winds could push it north and south and bring Captain Aitken's 1994 nightmare back to life for Mogo and Batemans Bay. In such conditions, if anything else ignited near Moruya, Narooma, or Ulladulla, it would be hard to stop.

On Wednesday, November 27, the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner and Narooma News called a news conference with the South Coast Register and the Milton-Ulladulla Times to plan our combined coverage.

None of us could know this would become a series of fires we would simply be unable to cover properly, despite working punishingly long days.

We would be unable to tell everyone's stories. We would try, and fail.

On November 30, the Currowan fire jumped the Clyde River and I evacuated my family. I kept covering the fire from a motel, believing my home would burn. Like so many of you, I had to let go.

SO MUCH LOSS: Homes and livelihoods were lost on the coastal hinterland from the Southern Highlands to the Victorian border, including in the inferno at Dignams Creek. Picture: Kathryn Johnston Photography

SO MUCH LOSS: Homes and livelihoods were lost on the coastal hinterland from the Southern Highlands to the Victorian border, including in the inferno at Dignams Creek. Picture: Kathryn Johnston Photography

Thankfully, my neighbour saved our home by scraping a containment line by torchlight on his tractor on Monday, December 2 and extinguishing roaring fires the following night. No help could reach him.

We chainsawed our way home on December 4, after publishing the Eurobodalla Independent with the following headline: "Whole shire must prepare." On a burning road, I downloaded a voice mail message, an invitation to the launch of the Love the Bay campaign that night. I love the Bay ... and was afraid for it. I would spend that evening and coming days reporting and quenching spot fires.

They proved easier to extinguish than my fear that this fire would destroy much more than it had, that our whole beautiful Eurobodalla Shire was under threat.

On New Year's Eve, five weeks after its birth, it would turn its blazing gaze back on Batemans Bay and the Badja Fire would blast through Belowra and Nerrigundah.

COVER STORIES: The Eurobodalla Shire was under threat from November to Autumn. On New Year's Eve thousands thronged the Narooma Evacuation Centre ... and gave thanks when the wind turned in their favour. Picture: Maggie Havu.

COVER STORIES: The Eurobodalla Shire was under threat from November to Autumn. On New Year's Eve thousands thronged the Narooma Evacuation Centre ... and gave thanks when the wind turned in their favour. Picture: Maggie Havu.

Through December, January and February, the Currowan blaze would meet fires deliberately and naturally lit to the north and south and form a super fire that would claim the lives of people and hundreds of homes from Nowra to the Victorian border.

On New Year's Eve, Andrea and I blocked smoke under the Bay office doors with doonas.

It became a refuge for residents who brought teenagers, a dog, a cat, a rabbit.

We reported as the sky went black and our town burned. Andrea tweeted a video of Orient St and Greta Thunberg rewteeted it.

Cars exploded in the industrial area and we hurried to cover the loss up there.

We knew Mogo and Cobargo were devastated but could get no further information with roads blocked and power and phones down.

When the internet failed, we relocated to the safety of my pre-blackened home, meeting the deadline for the next day's January 1 Bay Post/Moruya Examiner by solar power and satellite internet. We learned with horror what had occurred in Surf Beach and Malua Bay.

For the next week, we worked 14-hour days, Andrea sleeping on my lounge room floor, returning daily to report from the fire grounds, until power was restored.

On January 7 RFS Inspector Kelwyn White texted me a number: 380; the number of homes lost in the Eurobodalla Shire.

I double-checked it ... and cried. I cried because people had died, were homeless, because it is our job to tell stories and we had not been able to tell everyone's stories, to drive down every road and let people be heard.

I cried because reading that number told me that we would not be able to tell those stories anytime soon.

Then I made a promise: if we could not tell all the stories, those we could tell would be told with dignity.

By the time the rain came, fire would claim 501 homes in our shire and another man would be dead. It would bear down on Dignams Creek, Moruya and Bodalla and reporter Claudia Ferguson would step up to cover the destruction of her childhood home.

So many stories remain untold.

Why does it matter?

Because, for many of us, to be heard is to heal. To be listened to is to be loved.

We have got through this crisis because so many people lifted themselves from their own fear and distress and listened to what someone else needed.

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Sometimes they could provide practical help, sometimes they just bore witness.

We have listened to each other in supermarket queues, at the hairdresser, at work and standing in the street.

We have listened to each other in supermarket queues, at the hairdresser, at work and standing in the street. To be listened to is to be loved.

Storytelling does not rank above safe shelter, but it is not far below.

It is our emotional, communal safety net.

To be listened to, to have our experience acknowledged, is a powerful thing.

If you would like your story told, please reach out.

Our individual stories are chapters in a larger, crucial narrative.

The fires have changed forever the conversation on climate change.

Fire is Australia's ancient story, written anew in extreme weather.

Its lessons are not optional.

Kerrie O'Connor is the editor of the Bay Post & Moruya Examiner and the Narooma News

kerrie.oconnor@austcommunitymedia.com.au

This story 'It took six weeks to cry': Reflecting a year on from the South Coast fires first appeared on Bay Post-Moruya Examiner.