- Australia is experiencing what is most likely its worst bushfire season in history, but I never thought I’d be trapped in it.
- I am based in Melbourne, Australia, but over New Year’s some friends and I decided to go travel toward a popular strip of beach towns on the South Coast of New South Wales.
- During my vacation, much of the region came under threat of bushfires that spread quickly and moved in unpredictable ways. We were evacuated to the beach town of Narooma and were left without power or cell service and had limited emergency supplies.
- I spent my New Year’s Eve in an evacuation shelter alongside thousands of other residents and tourists as bushfires roared all around us. Here’s how it happened.
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I spent my New Year’s Eve in an evacuation shelter along the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, stranded alongside thousands of other residents and tourists as bushfires roared all around us.
It was certainly not how I envisioned ringing in the new decade when I excitedly booked these travel plans with four friends months ago.
Before the trip even began, we revised our vacation plan several times, copping losses for Airbnbs and campsites that were already paid for but located in areas suddenly under threat of bushfires in the weeks leading up to our trip.
We were careful – to some of my Australian friends, overly so – in crafting our trip. We took every precaution, downloaded every app to keep tabs on bushfire warnings, and shrank the length of our trip to mitigate the danger. We are five smart, young women, travel-savvy and familiar with the areas we were travelling to.
My friends and I are based in Melbourne in the state of Victoria. We decided to drive from Melbourne up the South Coast of the neighbouring state of New South Wales, which has seen a tourism boost in recent years thanks to new developments and pristine national parks and beaches. When we left on December 27, bushfires were devastating Sydney and its surroundings. We thought it best to avoid those areas.
The first few days of our trip were perfect and featured clear skies and beautiful coastal breezes. We were among the 12.1 million domestic and international travellers who visit the region each year.
The last days of our trip played out like an apocalyptic nightmare, with angry red skies raining hot ash and smoke so dense you could taste it.
We started our trip in Eden, New South Wales.
This photo was taken December 27. The skies were blue, and the air was fresh.
There were no signs of danger. Our apps told us bushfires were far away and would not affect our plans.
But bushfires are sometimes unpredictable. And weather conditions can change the course of fires quickly.
The current bushfire season in New South Wales, which began in October, is the worst in recorded Australian history.
Bushfires have now also become so big they are generating their own weather through pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which create their own thunderstorms that can start more fires.
We drove from Eden to nearby Narooma, New South Wales, where we planned to camp for three nights. On December 30, at about 5 p.m. local time, ominous signs were posted around the campsite.
We got back to the campsite and saw the signs at about 8 p.m. local time. At that point, it was already starting to get dark, and we thought it safest to evacuate first thing in the morning.
We set our alarms for 5 a.m. and planned to drive straight back down to Melbourne. We went to sleep nervous but firm in our plans.
By 5 a.m., the sky had already begun to fill with smoke.
A fire was burning over 80 kilometers away (about 50 miles) close to the Bega Valley, but windy conditions quickly moved the fire north toward the coastal town where we were staying.
We packed up our gear and hopped in the car, hoping to get as far south as we could before conditions were forecast to worsen later that day.
We managed to drive for about five minutes before we were stopped by a man who frantically warned us that roads south of us had just closed.
We turned around and headed back toward Narooma. All roads out of Narooma were closed by about 6:30 a.m. local time.
The sky overhead began to darken and ate up the remaining sunlight that had only just appeared.
A line of cars stretching for miles began piling into Narooma right behind us.
Those in popular nearby tourist towns like Merimbula, Tathra, Bermagui, and Moruya were advised to seek shelter.
Many people who lived in rural towns or farmlands sought safety along the coast.
We registered at the evacuation shelter that had been set up in the Narooma sports and leisure centre.
During the morning, scores of people registered with the Australian Red Cross and piled into the complex. There were at least 50 dogs and hundreds of small children.
I met a sweet woman in her 90s who used a wheelchair and had escaped from a town near Cobargo with her son, who served as her caretaker. The son managed to save several of his dogs but had to leave his farm animals behind.
Later, we learned, that Cobargo and some of its surrounds had been wiped out by the flames. Two people died trying to defend their properties.
After registering, we gathered food and other supplies at the only supermarket in town.
We arrived at the supermarket at 7:30 a.m. local time.
Most of the essentials, like milk and bread, had already been cleared out.
Nearby, the only pharmacy in town ran out of emergency supplies, like gas masks, flashlights, and medicine within hours.
Outside, smoke began to billow overhead.
And all sunlight was eclipsed.
It was impossible to tell what time of day it was.
All power around us went out, and cell service stopped working, leaving us in both a physical and a communications blackout.
We watched as the sky overhead turned from gradient grey …
… to dusky orange …
… to an unsettling purple.
At its worst, the sky was blood red, as fires crept closer to the town.
In the afternoon, the leisure centre had gotten so full that a secondary evacuation shelter opened at the beach club across the road.
The usually bustling club was repurposed into a temporary refuge for people fleeing the fires, particularly young families.
Hundreds of people were piled inside, sleeping in the restaurant, in the function room, and on the floors.
My friends and I sat at a table and attempted to pass the time by playing card games, though it was almost too dark to see inside.
My friend Maddy and I decided to sit in the car to pass the time and listen to the radio for updates on fire conditions.
We also fashioned masks out of the tea towels we had used while camping.
It was not glamorous, but inhaling the smoke outside pierced our lungs like hot needles.
We were anxious and felt trapped.
At one point, the temperature cooled and it began to rain.
But the rain turned out to be mostly ash and soot that stained cars and skin.
And the cool breeze alternated between hot smoke in a way that left my body shivering.
Many people chose to stay indoors because of the air quality, leaving the streets eerie and quiet.
Businesses were shuttered, as well.
The town looked as if it had been gutted by war or the apocalypse.
We learned from a local resident that Narooma’s name came from the Aboriginal word for meaning “clear blue waters.”
But the water that day was murky and cast red.
Despite the uncertainty, I was moved by how positive many people appeared.
This group of friends had set up a gazebo near the water and played music.
We politely declined their offer to share a beer with them, though we appreciated the sentiment.
Children played outside, and their laughter cut through the ominous silence.
In the frenzy of the day, we actually forgot it was New Year’s Eve.
Someone had actually set up a disco ball against the backdrop of an angry silver sky.
It was surreal.
And I was almost in disbelief when I saw that a DJ booth had been set up just steps away from the evacuation centre.
The DJ called himself the “Renegade Fiyah Service,” a riff on the “Rural Fire Service” the volunteer-based fire agency in New South Wales working tirelessly – and largely without pay – to fight hundreds of fires in the region.
“I approached the officials at the evacuation centre and advised that we were able to setup a party there to gift to the community – I was blown away immediately that they were fully supportive and keen to see it happen,” the DJ wrote in a Facebook post days after the event.
“Crowds of families and small children had started to gather relieved for some entertainment – the community was engaged, connected and grateful.”
Children and adults were dressed in festive gear as day turned to night.
We felt overcome by a sense of relief seeing people enjoying themselves despite the danger that surrounded us.
We were determined to make it to midnight, and we did. Thoughts of a new decade were comforting when our immediate future had been shrouded in doubt.
We slept overnight on the floor of a motel room.
We kept our bags packed in case we needed to suddenly evacuate. The night felt endless, and I was able to sleep for only a few hours.
Weather conditions were expected to be more favourable the next day, leaving open the possibility that a small window would be opened to leave Narooma.
But beyond that, conditions were set to worsen, and there was talk of being stranded for days.
At 9:30 a.m. on January 1, officials held a town briefing and announced that a single road had been opened out of Narooma for those able to evacuate.
Emergency services told us the only way out was to drive south toward Cooma, a 200-kilometre journey during favourable conditions.
They advised those looking to move on to bigger cities to drive onward from Cooma to Australia’s capital, Canberra, which houses a major airport and serves as an entry point for the Hume Highway that connects Sydney and Melbourne.
But uncertainty remained. We were cautioned that all gas stations in or around Narooma were closed because electricity was needed to pump the gas, and only those with a full tank of gas were advised to make the journey to Cooma or risked getting stranded in the path of bushfires.
The rush to get out of Narooma was extraordinary. Hundreds of people loaded up their cars and slinked away from the safety of the town.
With only half a tank of gas, we nervously made our way out of Narooma, trailing behind the caravan of cars.
The sky was pink, and fires flickered on in the distance.
Dense bush areas were razed, and charred trees lined the road.
We were incredibly lucky – there was a small gas station in the city of Tathra, about 85 kilometers, or 52 miles, south of Narooma nestled along the road we were travelling on.
We were able to fill up our tank and safely continue our journey. The owner of the gas station wished us safe travels with a smile, perhaps unaware he had just saved our lives.
We drove along the Snowy Mountains Highway, enveloped by heavy smoke from the Werri Berri Fire burning just several miles away.
Visibility on the winding, mountain road was no more than 300 feet, or 100 meters, on either side.
As of Saturday afternoon local time, the fire had burned through 15,000 hectares, or 37,000 acres, of land and remained out of control.
Officials had warned that dangerous fire conditions were forecast for Saturday, meaning the road may be closed for those still attempting to evacuate.
Our drive from Narooma to Cooma took us roughly four hours.
There were at least 100 people inside the local McDonald’s, a welcome sight as we entered the town.
After a quick food and rest stop, we continued on toward Canberra, eager to get there in case conditions worsened.
Exhausted, we made it to Canberra just before 4 p.m.
When we arrived in Canberra, the air was hot and thick with smog, as winds brought smoke from distant fires into the city.
On January 1, Canberra’s air-quality rating reached hazardous levels. By Thursday, the city recorded the worst air-quality index of all the world’s major cities, with air 23 times the global hazardous level, according to The New Daily and Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The poor air quality led to the death of one woman who went into respiratory distress after stepping off a plane at the Canberra airport.
I booked the soonest available flight out of Canberra and back to Melbourne.
And as the plane took off, I could see plumes of smoke towering into the sky below me.
I arrived back in Melbourne at about 9 p.m. local time on January 1 after what felt like the longest two days of my life.
My friends made it back home safely shortly after. It was remarkable and upsetting how normal things seemed in Melbourne despite the deadly fires burning across Victoria and beyond.
But what Australia is facing isn’t normal – or, rather, shouldn’t become the new normal.
Bushfires in Australia are common during the hotter spring and summer months, though scientists have said Australia’s fire season is beginning earlier and becoming more extreme as a result of climate change.
Officials have said this bushfire season is likely to be the worst on record, as millions of acres of land have already been razed.
Australia’s fires have burned more than twice as much land as the summer’s Amazon blazes and are part of a terrifying weather trend that raises the risk of more large fires in the future.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday confirmed the death toll from bushfires raging around the country had risen to 23, and he warned of “another extremely difficult next 24 hours,” with dangerous conditions forecast.
Ecologists from the University of Sydney have estimated that nearly 500 million mammals, birds, and reptiles have been killed in the bushfires since the season started in September.
Numerous outlets have described the fires as pushing the country to the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
This was certainly not how I envisioned my start to the new decade.
I was extremely fortunate, though, as many have lost a loved one or their home in this disaster.
I experienced only a temporary glimpse of the pain wrought by these fires before I was able to retreat to the comforts of a big city sheltered from the horrors of what’s going on around the country.
I am immensely proud of the Australian Red Cross for taking care of thousands of scared and stranded people. It provides not only a physical shelter but also the emotional support that is nearly as important.
So, yes, while I may have been trapped by the bushfires, I have entered into the new decade healthy and safe and alive, and for that I could not be more grateful.
If you can, I encourage you to donate to organisations that are helping rescue services and victims of bushfires as they navigate this terrifying fire season.