Peter Hillery, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Ring, ring …… ring, ring….

Who could be ringing at this early hour I thought as I stumbled towards the beast that had woken me?

“Hello” I mumbled into the phone.

“Dad – Quaama and Cobargo have been burnt out!”

“What!”  I exclaimed.

We live in Bega, a regional town in south-eastern New South Wales.  Bushfires had been burning in areas around us for the last couple of months.  Batemans Bay and north eastern Victoria, both about two hours drive north and south of us, had been on alert but Quaama is only about 30 kilometres north along the Princes Highway and Cobargo is a further 15 kilometres.  This was serious.

Our daughter lives in Tathra, about 15 km east, which was devastated by bushfires two years ago.

“We’re evacuating. Can we come to your place?” she asked.

It is New Year’s Eve 2019 and we start preparing for the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen.  The day before our other daughter, with her husband and two children, left for her home near Bungendore, cutting short a beach side holiday with her sister in Tathra.

For the next six days our granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law stayed with us in Bega watching the catastrophe unfold.  As the fires crept closer from the north, west and south we followed the Rural Fire Service Fires Near Me webpage, the emergency broadcasts on local ABC radio, road closures on the Live Traffic website, satellite hotspot images website, the local Council live streaming updates from their major Evacuation Centres and similar websites from north eastern Victoria.  As the situation worsened, we monitored these sources overnight.

Smoke around us at midday 31 December 2019

Two days into the new year, I got a message from a relative near Canberra whose neighbours, a young family, were holidaying near Batemans Bay and were advised to evacuate.  The Kings Highway between them and Canberra was closed and they were trying to go via Bega and the Monaro Highway through Cooma.  As there was no fuel in their area, they were trying to get some in Bega.  She asked if we could look after them if they were unsuccessful.  They were lucky and managed to get home.  Soon after, all roads north, south and west of us were cut – there was no way out of the Bega Valley.

But we were very lucky as all services (water, electricity, phone, internet, etc) were maintained – not so in most other places.  Bega and Merimbula became major evacuation centres with thousands of people occupying public places like showgrounds.  Hundreds of others were looked after in churches, schools, halls and private houses.  Apart from burnt vegetation and soot, our biggest concern was smoke.  We had at least 5-6 weeks enveloped in smoke; on two days it was so thick we had the lights on all day.  Our solar cells produced only 0.03 and 0.60 kWhr where-as normally they generate 24-25 kWhr on a good summer day.

Our other concern was spot fires from burning embers being blown onto our place.  We spent some time maintaining water in our gutters.  A fire front coming into Bega would be most unlikely.

The two major supermarkets remained open throughout this crisis, but most of their staff couldn’t get to work, or were protecting their own property or were fighting fires with the Rural Fire Service.  This resulted in the stores limiting customers to numbers they could handle.  Most customers had to wait in a queue outside the store.

The information provided by local services was outstanding.  The local ABC radio provided continuous updates throughout the whole crisis.  The information provided by the Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Services, the Police Service and Bega Valley Shire Council via its regular briefings to Evacuees and live streamed on the internet was outstanding.  Our Mayor, a young women with her own children and husband to worry about, did a magnificent job of coordinating these information sessions.  The Defence Forces have also done a lot of amazing work here.

As the bushfires were brought under control, we became aware of the devastation caused. In our shire over 400 houses have been lost.  This does not include other sheds/buildings, equipment, fences, livestock and native animals.  We have lived in Bega for four years but know the former residents of seven houses that burnt down.  Unfortunately, many people were either not insured or under-insured.  The Bega Valley is one of the lowest socio-economic areas in Australia and many residents took their chances with insurance.  Many who were insured have found out that there are now much tighter regulations for buildings and their insurance cover won’t cover rebuilding to these higher standards.

Dark skies at 4:30pm 4 January 2020

A hidden but large problem is for all the small businesses who were not directly affected by the bushfires.  Tourism is a huge industry in this region where most small businesses make up to 70% of their annual profit during the summer holiday period.  That is all gone and most have now got accounts for all the stock they pre-ordered.  Many have had to lay-off staff in a very high unemployment area and sadly many will close their doors.  The devastating effect on regional and small communities will be unbelievable.  I worry about their long term viability.  Charities, like Vinnies and the Salvation Army, that provide support in these circumstances are likely to be inundated.

This tragedy has been repeated up and down the east coast of Australia, around Victoria and onto South Australia as well as other areas.  The rebuilding of these communities will be a task of immense proportions, unlike anything Australia has ever seen.  I pray that our leaders, local, state and federal, will rise to the occasion.

Let us not forget the fundamental cause: the change in our climate which produced the conditions that allowed this disaster to occur.  My hope is that, as a community, we can recognise this, get over the finger pointing and blaming, and work together to address the real problem.  I urge all Friends to work towards this achievable goal.


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