There’s nothing special about me this week. I’m one of many hundreds, maybe thousands, worried about their homes burning down. My home in Cabbage Tree Creek, East Gippsland, might be burning as I write. I have a fire bunker which was about to get installed when the fires started and now no heavy machinery available. Sprinklers were going to be installed next year. Oh well.
As I write this it is Tuesday afternoon, December 31, 2019, and I’m seated on the grass at the Orbost cricket oval leaning against the back wheel of my Hilux dual cab. It’s packed with a few of my precious things, clothes, food, water, blankets and some equipment: a shovel, axe, buckets, hessian sacks, pliers and wire-cutters, and hay and grain for the goats, which are currently at a friend’s place.
I’ve cunningly parked where I can be through the fence and getting water from the municipal pool in minutes. The cricket nets are next to me and they include a useful concrete pad and I don’t think this grass will burn. There are sprinklers around the ground, I think that’s part of the reason we’re here. It’s calm now, a cool change arrived that will last a few days. Saturday, we are told, will be the next dangerous day.
I can’t go home and so I have time to write what’s happened.
My wife, our foster daughter and her baby son, my daughter and son, both primary school age, left Cabbage Tree early on Monday, just in case, to get out of the way. They went to Eden at about 8am, just for the day, we hoped.
We’d been packing since 5am. We slept very little the previous night. Instead, I spent a good deal of time reconciling myself to losing my house, innumerable outbuildings, and a lot of work over the past ten years, and all the meaning and memories that represents.
My house is not well-defended. It was already too late to do anything very useful. I left at 10am with a trailer full of the more expensive gear we own, generators, water-pump, mulcher, chainsaw, rifle, power tools, and swags and tents and a suitcase of clothes for each family member, and musical instruments. I filled the back seat with my stuff and camping gear to use while I wasn’t at home. Getting the goats to walk up planks onto the tray of the ute took ages and was enjoyed by no-one. I left the chickens to escape as best they may.
When I got to Orbost my plan was to tie my goats up in a cool, shady gully near the high school, which is adjacent to the sports centre where I thought the relief centre had been set up.
In fact, Orbost did not have a relief centre.
A small sign on the door said that it was closed and for relief people should go to Lakes Entrance, Bairnsdale or Sale. A yellow Ford sedan swings in and the driver’s window winds down as I’m about to pull away. An elderly lady says: “Is it open?” and I say: “No,” and she asks: “Why not?” and I say: “I think that’s a very good question”. We talk and she tells me she’s asthmatic and getting away from a farm north of Orbost. She decides to go back.
I drive to my friend Deb’s place and leave my trailer and talk about goat-storage options. I decide to use her shady gully for the moment because I can walk them from there to a couple of options if I need to. I don’t want a fight getting them back on the tray. Deb is calling everyone about everything, especially ABC Radio, which has incorrect info. I tell her I’ll be back but have to deal with goats. I’ve just tethered them in that gully when Deb calls about a meeting, happening soon at the arts centre, she’s the chairperson and I’m a volunteer there.
When I arrive the upstairs is packed. I find one shire staff member and several volunteers struggling to deal with the mass of demands. I bust out the spare chairs and leave them around the room. A short time later I grab the Country Fire Authority (CFA) guy a whiteboard to use for his map.
There are two CFA members and about 70 others. Many are recording what the CFA is saying, on phone cameras. They do a presentation about how there’s a lot of fire and it is very bad. They say the roads are about to be closed in both directions and they advise people not to use them; that people should activate their fire plans. They’re very sorry about having no relief centre but that’s the shire’s job not theirs and they know nothing about it.
The crowd is not happy when it comes to question time. A number of people want to leave if at all possible. The CFA guys go into the situation in a little more detail and then decide they actually do advise people to get out and go to Lakes Entrance. There are more attempts to get advice out of them and it’s all breaking up when two police officers come in and tell people that there is now a relief centre at the cricket ground and that it is going to be tough on everyone. They tell people to get out of town on the Lakes Entrance Road and that road only if they need to. They have apparently told people in the caravan parks to leave Orbost now. They say watch the Victorian Emergency app and listen to ABC Radio.
At the meeting a well-known Orbost Chamber of Commerce and logging industry leader asks the CFA: “Why are you telling tourists it is unsafe? Our local businesses need tourists”. A CFA member politely tells him that it is unsafe. The chamber leader, however, has total confidence in the local CFA and he knows the fire history very well (no doubt about that, to be fair). His attitude is likely to be shared by many old Orbost people. They’re stoic and loyal. He’s also setting up an alternative relief centre, at the local football oval.
I have my head in my hands as he’s speaking, holding in all the incoherent emotions for a minute. Later I think that’s the attitude that got us here in the first place, putting ‘the economy’ before everything else. I fantasise about asking him: “How’s that ‘World’s Best Practice Forestry Management’ working out for you?”. I fear that he’s motivated by the desire (the expectation, even) that he and his contractors with their heavy machines on the fire front are the heroes of this situation.
But this catastrophe is happening on their watch.
In East Gippsland, as far as many are concerned, these people will escape responsibility and even scrutiny by scapegoating ‘the greenies’. The newspapers they read, the television they watch and their representatives at local, state and federal government have told them this is true. They are loyal and trust their own. They trust their institutions to work, like all good conservatives do. The policies of the Greens are the polar opposite of how our forests, climate change and emergency services spending have been managed; but that doesn’t seem to matter. After these fires I expect there will be a public outcry demanding that whatever hasn’t already been burned should be burned.
The meeting breaks up. After looking through the hoses at the centre I decide to buy more basic provisions and have a think about what next. The girl who serves me is very cheery, says there’s nothing to worry about, but I’m shaken and tell her what the police said just now. Her certainty that everything is normal disturbs me.
At the cricket ground relief centre, Jenny (an admin of Orbost Chatterbox Facebook group) walks in and we talk about communications and health and try to get things working in the relief centre.
Her husband is a sparky and tells me there is no generator at the Newmerella CFA. I find this amazing and tell him to get one off my trailer. The only power here is to the kitchen and a couple of power-boards for mobile phone chargers. The Optus network has gone out.
We call the ABC to correct their information about the relief centre. I drive down to the Orbost health service to ask about face masks and smoke-related health messages, planning to refer people to their information and give them a number to call.
But they don’t have any masks to hand out and say they may provide relief but only for a short time. I go to the Orbost State Emergency Service (SES) about face masks. They don’t have any but they do have mattresses and can probably get stuff in if we give them a list. I also check that everyone has left the caravan park, and get into trouble with the owner for driving too fast. Apparently most people left in the park are locals. There were 11 vans and a tent at that time.
No way out
My wife calls. Fires have closed the road south so she’ll be staying in Eden. There’s very little accommodation anywhere. I tell the kids to be brave and that I love them.
Back at the relief centre there’s not much to do so I move my goats out of the gully and over to a friend’s place about five kilometres out of town. There’s a solid stockyard and the house is very well defended with multiple (and spare) pumps, generators, hoses and water tanks. When I get there, they offer me a half-converted shipping container to stay in. It looks very good but I’m not ready to do that yet.
I’m just leaving when my wife calls again. Eden is threatened and she’s on the football oval with two tents and the sleeping bags I added to her car this morning. There’s a barbecue and a jumping castle and the kids are making the best of it. She wants to get out. We talk about what next. She runs the community centre in Cann River, she’ll be needed there. If we knew whether we has a house, she could go back there, with the goats, and I could take the kids to my Mum’s in Perth.
For now, however, she can’t get out of Eden. I can get out of Orbost but not anywhere near the direction of her and the kids. She wants to know how we can we get this move happening immediately. The air quality is shocking and she’s feeling sick. We can’t decide but we love each other very much. We’ll talk again tomorrow.
Gotta do what you can
It’s a bit past 9pm as I pitch my tent and settle into a night on the cricket ground. I can’t sleep much. The crowd builds during the evening. A couple of horse floats has grown into maybe ten and there’s plenty of families on blankets. There are several generators humming and the coming and going of fire trucks. It’s hard to sleep.
People tell me they heard the roar of the fire as it approached Orbost, a little like the sound you hear from Marlo when the sea is stormy and the southerly wind blows. I didn’t hear a note of that.
About midnight the wind changes to a southerly. It’s been getting cooler quite rapidly. There’s a smattering of rain and someone starts blasting their car horn at regular intervals, a bit like when a player kicks a goal at the local footy. Hopelessly awake again I pop down to the arts centre where I volunteer.
I drag out the big fire hoses from inside and wet down around the base of the building and the more obvious ember risks as best I can. This building is all about timber, architecturally of course but also historically, and there’s a timber-work show inside and a collection of fine woodwork. The exhibition is supposed to open Friday night. There’s a bloody gas storage site next door and the building is surrounded by eucalypts, but you gotta do what you can.
Ruth Hansen, who got the place built 15 years ago, had obviously done the same as I’m now doing about an hour prior. We first did this together at about 7pm. I wonder if the great ironbark poles have actually absorbed a bit of water. I’m very concerned about the long planks that clad the building catching. There’s so many edges fire could shoot up. I feel very Quixotic wielding my hose. It takes an hour.
Around 2am I am awoken by an SES guy, I think, with a torch, and told that everyone has to get into the cricket club buildings just in case of severe ember attack on the town. A number of cars leave at this point but there are still about 150 assorted vehicles and, I’ve been told since, more than 300 people to accommodate. Tourists and locals, lots of kids.
I pack my bag carefully and cross the oval. People are milling about and I check the rooms. The front is dominated by elderly and disabled people, some apparently experiencing distressed breathing.
The middle rooms are hot but only moderately crowded. There’s mattresses on the floor and a lot of bewilderment. I find no officials informing people of what to do. At the front of the building I sit on the wrought-iron and timber bench and try to understand the patterns of light and colour and smoke in the glowing pinkish-red sky to the north. The hill profile is clear and the fires on them brightly-spotted by individual burning trees I guess, flames discernible on the closest.
Fire trucks come and go from the station that borders the cricket ground, across the road to the north-east. Trucks park where sedans and station wagons normally watch cricket. The air is not too bad and the town is not very dark. I pop down and water the arts centre again.
Back at the cricket oval I pull out two blankets and a pillow, lie on the plastic-turfed concrete by the nets and try to sleep. I listen to ABC Radio when I can’t. It’s almost dawn already but the light is dim and brown and the sky is all smoke-covered.
I wake on Tuesday December 31 and try to ‘get on with it’ in a cheery manner. The air is smoky. There’s fewer vehicles on the cricket oval, although the road is closed in both directions. Eventually I push my stuff into the car and head off to milk my goats.
There is a police car but no apparent patrol at the highway turn-off, but I meet a fire truck on the way. I thought they’d stop me so I pulled over to talk to them. They are young country chaps mostly, with only a vague idea of where they are, on the watch for looters.
After milking the goats I leave a bottle of their milk for the owners of this place. One of them says he’ll make mozzarella cheese from it. There’s no police car on the way back but a big black sign with digital gold-letter grids says: “Road is Closed”.
My thoughts turn to coffee and driving down the main street I see several shops open. They must have back-up generators or solar batteries. People are milling around the front of Ruth’s café and I think perhaps she is open, but it turned out to be other refugees.
Ruth is housing five dogs other than her two, three cats locked in a bathroom, and six people in addition to her six. There’s been no word of her son and his partner who defended their house at Martin’s Creek overnight. Burning trees block the Bonang Hwy in their direction, no doubt in many places. The landline doesn’t seem to have been cut, but may have been. Everyone is very anxious.
I drive to the eastern side of town where I get a view towards my house. Clearly there is a fire about halfway, in the Murrungowar area. I think I can see the smoke of the Mallacoota fire and maybe Cann River. A farmer comes out to check on me. I’m standing on the roof of my car, parked near his driveway, and we talk. He’s not optimistic about my house surviving but in a kind of sincere way he achieves a caring attitude. It’s tricky to pull off, but these are extraordinary times.
By the time I get back to the relief centre another shire staff member has arrived. She’s a well-connected Orbost local with a long record of service in the library and council services counter. She’s good at this. Librarians are quietly powerful people.
The relief centre is coming together and I spend the afternoon receiving and sorting emergency food and water. There is a tense discussion between the shire worker and one of the CFA guys. He says it is not an official relief centre, she says it is. They call the Incident Control Centre and she’s right. He’s not unhappy to be wrong and quickly moves on to other business.
There’s a lot of back-burning going on. The general mood in town is relief that it’s all over and people are consolidating, resting. I spend several hours sitting by my car and tent writing a long essay about the recent history of climate change policy. It swings between incandescent rage and trying to methodically and reasonably pick apart the many ways the right wing of politics and media have lied and obfuscated.
It takes moments to mislead people. It takes a lot longer to carefully, logically get at truth. Hundreds of paid professionals in politics and media have worked hard on these obfuscations. That is how we do politics: by media spin. Success is good media. Failure is bad media. It is not real but it’s how you get elected.
Family rule number one
My wife calls. Eden is awful and she’ll be spending another night on the football ground. A friend of my uncle’s offered them a caravan at their house but by the time she got back to them they’d given it to somebody else in need. There are hundreds in Eden. She hopes to get out to Canberra tomorrow, if the road is open. She’ll take a hotel room and see what eventuates.
We talk but there’s little to say because everything is unknown, except comforting words of love and support. I talk to the kids and add a lecture about how this is a real emergency so you must be brave, how we are strong and resourceful people and we’ll get through. Remember that family rule number one is ‘no family death’. The moment I’m off the phone I’m overwhelmed with emotion.
By the evening almost everyone has left the cricket ground and I pack up my tent and drive to be with the goats. It’s very safe there with the proudly German owner and his ‘what you need and double it’ approach to pumps, generators, tanks and dams; and very defensible in a paddock with the only nearby trees planted in recent years.
Glimmers of hope
On my way I go to the house of the biologist friend who helped me sort food, at Orbost. I want to commiserate about all the plant and animal death. We debrief a bit, it’s hard to get it in perspective. She’s a charming and intelligent lady. Her mother’s partner won’t leave and so her mother won’t. Her kids are long gone, staying with her partner’s parents. She’s glad. Everyone I speak to who has sent their kids away says that. She’s worried about her mother.
I ask the question that’s been horrifying me: as a result of this catastrophe, given the extent of the fire and the places it has burnt – basically the south east Australian parks and reserve system – didn’t a whole lot of species just leap like hot embers onto the near-extinction list? She’s not sure, says it depends on the severity of the fire, where it burned slowly enough to allow escape, how things regenerate; but she sees glimmers of hope.
Her partner comes home and after a beer and a chat tells me what he knows about the fire, and he knows a lot. He tells me about it a calm, steady, manner because he’s competent and professional and a karate black-belt. He thinks the worst is past because so much has already burnt. My house is in great peril but one of the fires in my area is near the communications tower and the fire teams will do almost anything to save that. Another of the fires near my house has travelled about 300 kilometres in a straight line from north of Swifts Creek. We are all aghast at the extent of the fires, the destruction.
I drive to my new address and sleep. There’s a bed and half-finished cupboards, sink and shower. I only need the bed.
I think about Australia’s climate policy. How is it we’re too small to help but we’re not too small to consistently sabotage every international climate talk? Is there any other area of life where we say our contribution is small so we shouldn’t have to do anything? Any other subject in our highly technological life where almost half the population doesn’t believe the science? The right-wing of politics and media owes us all a big, grovelling apology; but, personally, I can’t forgive them this utterly avoidable, obviously impending, gross catastrophe.
Despite being surrounded by bushfires, Scott’s property remained intact.