'Nowhere else to go': Some defy warnings to flee Australian fires

Crews clear debris from a roadway near Jerrawangala, Australia on Jan. 2, 2020.
Crews clear debris from a roadway near Jerrawangala, Australia on Jan. 2, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NOWRA, AUSTRALIA (NYTIMES) - The smoke is still smoldering from the wildfires that ravaged the small seaside town of Broulee, Australia, on New Year's Eve, when sand dunes erupted into flames and entire neighbourhoods were decimated.

Water and food is running low. Shops are taking only cash, and radio is the main source of information. The fires could intensify this weekend, as strong winds and high temperatures threaten to create even more dire conditions in the town and more than a dozen others.

Clarinda Campbell and her two children left Broulee and headed for safety. Her husband, James, stayed behind to defend their home.

"I feel like it's not real," said Clarinda Campbell, who was with her children at a family property in Surf Beach, about 8 miles away.

"I've gone to sleep every night and woken up every morning hoping that it was just a bad dream."

Authorities urged tens of thousands of people, mainly along Australia's southeastern coast, to evacuate before this weekend, which is expected to be one of the worst periods in the country's already catastrophic fire season. The populations of many of these towns swell during the holidays with travelers looking for a break at the beach.

Not all residents were heeding the warnings to leave. Some wanted to protect their homes from the blazes. Others worried that fleeing could put them in more danger if they ran out of fuel, encountered fallen trees or ended up in another fire zone on the clogged roads.

While the past few months have been particularly bad, Australians are accustomed to the unpredictable nature of wildfires, an annual occurrence on what is the most arid continent on Earth. Many are therefore willing to take their chances, to the dismay of officials.

Rob Rogers, the deputy fire services commissioner for the state of New South Wales, was blunt: There would be no help for anyone who ignored the warnings to leave.

"We've been very honest about the risk, but if people choose to stay, that's on them," he said at a briefing on Friday. "Do not expect there to be a fire truck when you ring."

When the fires swept through on New Year's Eve, Bernard Kreet huddled with 300 others at the local golf club, waiting to see the damage in the suburb of Catalina, where he lives. In the end, Kreet said that about 20 homes had been destroyed. Power was restored on Thursday.

 
 
 

With concern of more fires, tourists were asked to leave the area, and many locals followed. Kreet said he thought the town would be spared, even if he expected further disruptions and supply limitations. He is hosting two families who have evacuated from other places.

"It's so hard to get out of town," he said, adding that the roads in many seaside towns were not built to handle so many travelers. "It's chaos down here."

Communities have rallied together, knowing that they will have to depend on one another. They are holding neighbourhood meetings to come up with contingency plans in case the fires get worse and they need to head to safer ground. They are sharing food and supplies, and taking others into their homes.

Justin Brady had moved to Mallacoota in the state of Victoria just a few months ago, building a beach shack in the vacation spot he had been visiting for 25 years. It was destroyed on New Year's Eve, when the skies there turned blood red from the fires.

The roads to the town are unpassable, with trees down and embers still burning. The government is evacuating thousands from the coast via a Navy ship.

The first boatload carrying about 60 people was expected to land early Saturday in Mornington Peninsula, according to Sam Hearn, the region's mayor. Hundreds more, together with their pets, were expected to arrive on a larger naval vessel that afternoon, he added.

"I've made the decision to stay because I've got nowhere else to go," Brady said.

He has been staying with family, with three generations under one roof. A musician, Brady has been teaching the grandchildren harmonica to cheer them up. "I feel like there's stuff I can do here," he said.

Brady and others in Mallacoota know that staying is a risk, especially given the potential for more fires. There was initially a warning that the town's water supply had to be boiled. While that has been lifted, the power is still out.

Across Australia, the threat of more damage is significant. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service on Friday drastically expanded its estimate of the amount of land at risk from spreading fires. The weekend is expected to bring high winds and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 38 Celsius.

The combination of drought, heat and wind has made for an especially ferocious fire season. While the wildfires started in the bushland, tinder-like vegetation dried from years of drought then incinerated under heavy winds, spreading blazes toward cities, across farmland and even into lush rainforests.

 
 
 

The fire season, which usually follows a predictable pattern, has turned into a volatile disaster with no clear ending.

On Friday afternoon, people were told to evacuate Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia state, where at least one fire had ravaged a national park, destroying about 35,000 acres. It was still burning freely, authorities said.

Fires now ring much of Australia's east and south-eastern coasts.

The streets of Broulee, normally bustling with people, are eerily quiet. About 80 per cent of residents have left, estimated James Campbell, who had called a meeting of neighbors to discuss their plans for the fires this weekend. If a fire approached from the south, it would block the town's usual exits and push residents down to the beach.

To help protect his home, he borrowed equipment from a former firefighter neighbour across the street, put water into buckets and hooked up a fire pump to the backyard pool, which holds about 6,600 gallons.

"You shouldn't have to deal with this once in a lifetime, let alone twice in a week," he said.

His parents lost most of their property in nearby Jeremadra, although their home was somehow saved.

"You can't imagine what it looks like," James Campbell said. "Just matchsticks. The trees are all burned. Where there was dense undergrowth is now just sand."

On Saturday, Clarinda Campbell will wait nervously for her husband to call to say that he is safe. During the fires, cellphone services are especially spotty, if they exist at all. He will have to go to a nearby hilltop to get reception.

"I'm trying to get word to him to say I want him to leave," Campbell said. "We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."