There’s no lights. No power. No reception.
Above me, smoke billows, with a thick, menacing orange glow on the much-too-near horizon.
Normally, the chatter of birds is almost deafening. But now, I hear nothing.
Nothing but sirens. And helicopters.
And in the distance, I can see those normally chirpy birds – flying away, as a wall of fire approaches the tiny towns of the NSW south coast.
My mother’s words were sharp as she tapped on my bedroom door. It was just before 7am on New Year’s Eve.
Only hours before we’d been discussing our plans for the day. A trip to the beach in the morning. We’d drink. We’d relax, listen to good music — maybe play a game or two of lawn bowls at the local club.
It was going to be a good day. But it never happened.
Instead, our morning was spent hastily sifting through belongings, packing the car with necessities and irreplaceables, and filling up the bathtub and sink with water. We closed all the windows and doors, turned on the sprinklers, grabbed the dogs and held wet towels over our bodies and mouths.
I didn’t have time to stop and think that this might be the last time we’d see our home.
All I knew was this intrinsic need to move, my senses screaming at me to run as the smoke edged closer and closer to town.
Overnight, the fires grew to catastrophic proportions.
I’d set up watch alerts months before and even the night before, when I checked the Fires Near Me app, it all seemed so far away.
But the next morning, black smoldering leaves fell from the sky.
As we drove away I saw neighbours on roofs hosing their homes, roads blocked by emergency services and smoke turn black. Angry. Hungry.
At the Batemans Bay Hanging Rock evacuation centre, hundreds of tourists and locals flooded in, huddled in cars with their pets and kids, hiding from the ever-thickening smoke.
New plumes rose in every direction, with the closest spot fire less than 100m away, lit by leaping embers. All I could hear were sirens, and the cacophony of helicopters and planes dropping water all around us.
But in a split second, everything changed.
The sky turned a furious deep red, and the wind howled with hot, thick smoke. Even with sunglasses protecting my eyes and a washcloth protecting my face, I couldn’t see, or breathe, a flurry of ash whooshing for my eyes.
It was Armageddon.
‘I’M SCARED, AUNTY ZO’
My sister Jacqui had been out for a walk with her two young kids and dogs when the worst hit.
“We were waiting in line at Subway because it was the only thing open for food,” she told me.
“One minute, the sky was blue and grey with a smoky haze. It felt like I blinked, and suddenly the sky was orange, and it was almost as dark as a midnight sky — except it was around 12 in the afternoon.”
The family took refuge in Jacqui’s work nearby. That’s when she called me.
“I’m scared, Aunty Zo,” my godson told me, his voice quivering.
“It’s okay, buddy. It will be okay,” I had to tell him.
“You are in the middle of town, and they will protect you with everything they’ve got. Don’t panic. I love you. I will see you soon. It will be okay.”
Of course, I didn’t know if any of that was true. But freaking out is the worst thing you can do in an emergency situation. And even though we were all terrified, we knew we had to keep calm.
It felt like someone had stuck our little town into a furnace. With my mum and dogs in the car beside ours, we anxiously watched the nearby tree tops for embers.
“If the embers hit those trees, we run for the beach,” my partner said.
At least in the ocean, we’d be safe. We hoped.
It felt like an eternity.
Even inside the cab with a towel over my mouth, I struggled to breathe. While we could, we called and texted our friends and loved ones.
“Where are you? Are you safe? I love you.”
I don’t know how many times I sent that message that day.
Hours passed, and the sky eventually began to lighten again. The smoke was thick, but the helicopters moved onto other areas, along with our brave, brave fire fighters. The danger was elsewhere now.
As a journalist, I kept my town updated the best I could with what was happening. Because no one really knew what was happening. We spent hours — if not, days — not knowing if our friends, our families or our homes survived.
And not all of them did.
Not knowing is one of the scariest things you’ll ever experience. Is Katey okay? Is Bron? Is Bree?
But with no communication and no real information, we were flying blind. All we knew was what we could see — and maybe the occasional text we could manage to send.
We stayed at the evacuation centre, huddling together on the cold steel ute tray, holding towels over our mouths to lessen the smoke.
Every time a fire truck blasted past us — which happened throughout the night and early hours of the morning — I kept thinking: What’s coming now? Who is in danger now? Are we?
There was no New Year’s Eve countdown.
No sound, apart from sirens in the distance. My head and throat hurt from the smoke, thicker than any I’d ever seen.
And the local club we planned to have a few celebratory drinks at? It burned down, now nothing more than charred, smoldering ash.
Although we were terrified, we were safe. I cannot imagine what the people closer to the fires felt. Or what our amazing volunteers felt while they risked their lives to save ours.
Days later, I’ve evacuated from the area. It’s the first time I’ve had power or reception to tell this story. I’m safe, but my town is not.
Prayers are not enough.
My town has been absolutely devastated, with some even now still without power and reliable reception, as well as limited food and water — and still not much information on what’s going on.
Please, if anyone in power reads this, PLEASE stop this from happening again.
Focus on bushfire prevention, and better management of our national and state parks. LISTEN to the people who have lived through this. HELP all the people who have lost their homes, and everything we’ve ever known.
I never want to have to hug my crying godchildren who were scared for their lives again. I never want to feel this deep, deep ache in my chest for those who have lost everything.
Don’t let this tragedy be for nothing.
We need to change.
Please do more.