Camping in the shadow of a catastrophe

Ellaine Downie and her husband were holidaying in Gippsland over the New Year break. Like many Melburnians, she’d read about fires from the safety of her suburban home and simply wasn’t prepared for what would unfold over the next five days. Here is her diary, with news bulletins added for context.

Monday, 30 December, 2019.
5am, 19C

Raymond Island, East Gippsland. The daily kookaburra heralds the day. Loud and strong, his strident call wakes the campers on Raymond Island in the Gippsland Lakes. He is like a bugler rallying the troops to take courage, especially today.

We have driven from Melbourne and are staying at a church campsite with about 90 others and will need courage to face this day because temperatures are expected to reach 45C in our area by 11am and stay that way until midnight. Today has been declared, in fire-speak, a Catastrophic Day.

6.30am, 23C

The sun is shining, the sky is bright blue and the lake is glassy, still. At the moment, it looks like a typical beautiful summer day on Lake Victoria.

I drink my Lady Grey tea and watch three kangaroos hop on to the oval where our tents are pitched, searching for a blade of green grass. We come here every year and I have never seen them venture this close to tents or humans.  But this year they are starving. The drought has dried out everything; the normally grassy patch where we camp is now mostly black sandy soil, with tiny tinges of green.

They pause and sniff the air – can they smell the dangers that await us today? Can they smell the not-so-distant smoke from the fires to the north of Bairnsdale that mercifully are not yet filling our skies?  They suddenly bound off down the track, heading for the water.  The water, the precious lake before us, will be where most living creatures – both human and animal – will also be heading today as the temperatures soar.

9.30am, 32C

News bulletin: “Reporters have been calling around to caravan parks throughout East Gippsland, where a range of attitudes are on display. Metung Holiday Villas, Metung, is almost empty with most people leaving early. Woodbine Tourist Park in Lakes Entrance is fairly full, with 110 people enjoying their Christmas holidays.”

I am heading to Paynesville on the five-minute ferry trip from the island. I need a decent coffee in an air-conditioned cafe, just in case the power goes out and all the coffee shops close. (Anyone would think I was a latte-sipping, inner city, whatcha-ma-call-it).

My phone dings. It is a fire alert from Victoria Emergency Services.  Paynesville and Raymond Island are on code yellow: Watch and Act. So not really in danger, but need to be prepared … for what?

I notice on the horizon to the north an ominous grey and white voluminous cloud beginning to build. I think the Bureau of Meteorology calls it a  pyro-cumulus – a fire cloud

10.30am, 38C

“Victoria is facing severe to extreme fire danger with a particular concern for deteriorating conditions throughout the day. Ongoing fires in this region exhibited very dangerous behaviour overnight and this is likely to worsen today.”

Another ping.  More fires being reported. More warnings. Time to get back to Raymond Island in case we have to evacuate (Really? I can’t really believe that is going to happen).

Part of our “fire plan” for the day is to visit my friend Jenny in Bairnsdale, 20km away in her air-conditioned house. As well as catch up on a year’s news, my husband and I can hide from the heat in the middle of the day for a couple of hours – so long as the road to Bairnsdale has not been closed.   

I check with the locals in the cafe. Roads into Bairnsdale are being kept clear because it is the main fire relief centre for East Gippsland. Hundreds of people are starting to pour into town from the fires with their precious goods packed in caravans, wondering how long they will have to stay and if they will have a home to return to.

Saturday, 4 January: Paynesville, overlooking McMillan Strait, with Raymond Island in the distance. Image: Peter Holloway

11.30am, 44C

“In East Gippsland, where several bushfires are burning unchecked, the wind gauge is showing speeds of between 20 and 40kmh. That’s only going to intensify in the afternoon and evening, with wind speeds pushing up towards 80kmh.”

On the road to Bairnsdale. Went back to camp, collected the car and we are now heading to Jenny’s. It is hot as hell, but at least the car is air-conditioned.

I wonder about the car, though – is it likely to overheat and leave us stuck on the side of the road in this furnace? Could the tyres melt? Silly thoughts really, as we head into the ordinary suburban streets of Bairnsdale and park outside Jenny’s house.

1pm, 45C

“The bushfire at Barmouth Spur is now also generating its own lightning. Terrifying. The fire north-west of Tambo Crossing is out of control and threatening homes and lives. It is too late to leave.”

It’s lovely to catch up with Jenny, especially inside her cool, dark house by the Mitchell River. She is so kind and generous, typical of many country people.

3pm, 45C

“There are more than 10 fires currently burning in East Gippsland, including three large fires. A wind change is expected to reach East Gippsland in the early hours of Tuesday morning which will likely increase the fire intensity and result in the fires rapidly changing direction and significantly increasing in size.”

Not wanting to overstay my welcome at Jenny’s I decide to go into town to do some “urgent” shopping. We will need some water pistols for a decent water fight later back at the camp on the island in this heatwave. The cool change will not come until at least midnight. How on Earth will we last it out?

Bairnsdale is mostly shut. Most businesses have signs on their doors saying they are closed due to the fires. There is a police helicopter in one park, several CFA fire engines straddling the central verge in the main street, police cars and ambulances making their presence felt. The main street is deserted.

Where will I get water pistols?  The toy shop is shut. So I head to Bunnings and buy three spray bottles instead.

When I arrive back at Jenny’s house to collect my husband, her daughter and grandchildren have arrived. They have fled their brand new house in Wy Yung due to the impending fire.

Her son-in- law and a friend have remained at the house attempting to defend their property. We are all very upset at the prospect, but try to remain calm for the sake of the children.

We need to leave Jenny and her family to wait out their battle without us hanging around.

As we drive back down the road towards Paynesville and Raymond Island, the monstrous pyro-cumulus cloud in the northern sky is growing ever darker and larger, like Colossus bearing down upon us.

4pm, 44C

“An emergency warning issued at 3.25pm has called for residents of Bruthen, Bullumwaal, Clifton Creek, Deptford, Fairhope, Fairy Dell, Granite Rock, Mossiface, Mount Taylor, Sarsfield, Waterholes to leave the area.

“The warning states: You could be impacted anytime within the next 30 minutes. Leaving now is the safest option, before conditions become too dangerous. Emergency Services may not be able to help you if you stay.

“The Mallacoota fire has generated its own thunderstorm and each of the 20 fires burning in the state have the potential to create its own weather.”

5pm, 43C

“Police and Water Minister Lisa Neville says ‘it is undoubtedly a very dangerous position in the areas of Mallacoota, Lakes Entrance and Bairnsdale’. A Watch and Act warning issued for the Mallacoota area has been upgraded to an emergency warning. An out-of-control bushfire at Wingan River is bearing down on the Mallacoota area and could reach it by 6pm.

“The bushfire in this area has been creating its own weather patterns, and the State Control Centre warns that smoke from the fire could generate lightning strikes. People are urged to take shelter indoors.”

Raymond Island. It is stinking hot everywhere. I’m not sure how the other campers have coped this afternoon – I presume by dunking themselves regularly in the lake. A children’s film is showing in one of the halls.  Apparently others have gone to see a movie in Bairnsdale – a great idea while the power is still on.

I can’t stand being out in this cauldron any longer. I change into bathers and an overshirt and hat and go jump in the lake.  Exquisite! I remain cool for at least 10 minutes before I dry out again and repeat the process over and over again.

6pm, 43C

“People in Buchan are waiting anxiously to see which way the wind will blow tonight, as fires burn to the north, south and west. The firefront is about three or four kilometres from the town and residents and holiday makers will be on edge for much of the night.

“The Transport Department has put out an alert saying the Princes Highway in East Gippsland is now closed in both directions between Bairnsdale and Genoa.”

The whole camp gathers for dinner and they all look exhausted. From little toddlers to grandmas and grandpas, the toll of the day’s heat is written on their tired faces.

The children are scared. The parents are scared. Our wonderful church camp is suddenly no longer a place of fun and laughter.

Time for the spray bottles! We wander up and down the queues of people waiting for dinner in the big hall spraying everyone to the sound of delighted squeals.

Smiles return to some faces.

During dinner we have a slight reprieve. Several people who are eating outside, rather than in the stifling hall, come running indoors to tell us that a slight south breeze is blowing off the lake.

Great excitement. We all rush to the beach and paddle for a while. But the breeze soon stops and the temperature drops a whopping six degrees. It is now only 37 degrees.

7.15pm, 37C

“The State Control Centre says there are 35 ongoing fires across Victoria, with 28 of those in the East Gippsland region. About 185,000 hectares have been affected by ongoing bushfires across the state. This includes about 180,000 hectares of land affected in the East Gippsland region.”

Our camp directors have called a meeting of all adults to update us on the fire warnings, the weather and the possibility of an evacuation. So, while the children are outside continuing their water fights, the adults gather sombrely in the hall.

Our camp directors are amazing – so calm and trustworthy.  All formal activities are cancelled and we are encouraged to go to the beach, keep wet, drink lots of water and wait out the night until the cool change comes, expected about midnight.

They also warn us that if our area becomes classified as “catastrophic” we will need to evacuate. We are told the ferry will only transport people, not cars. Some people may choose to drive their cars across to Paynesville tonight in case an evacuation is called.

There is an almost audible rumble of angst. Even so, most of us are a bit sceptical that such a thing will eventuate. Not to us – a bunch of city slickers who only ever see bushfires as another report to ignore on the nightly news. The fact there is even a slight possibility we could get caught in a bushfire is a sobering and rather frightening experience.

8pm-11pm, 36C

“An emergency warning has been issued for the Lakes Entrance area telling residents and visitors that it is too late to leave the area and that the safest option is to shelter indoors.”

On Raymond Island we have access to two beaches. The families with little children all go over to the beach with more sand, which looks over the water to Paynesville.  As well as swimming, some will go prawning. It’s another excellent distraction to wait out the heat.

Others pop down to the other beach, which faces south-west, taking plastic chairs to sit with their feet in the water and watch the sunset. They are stunned by its brilliance – an orange sun piercing through smoky charcoal-coloured clouds. Crimson reflections on the still water. Black swans gently duck-dive before us.

Seven adults are sitting upright in silence, heads turning gently from side to side, taking in the wonders of creation.  I suddenly think we look like those mechanical clowns in a sideshow, the ones who slowly turn their heads together, mouths open, waiting to have a ball thrown at them. Just for a lark, I make them all pose and slowly turn their heads in synch… while taking a video of the whole silly lot.  A shame I didn’t have a ball to throw!

At 8.45pm, as he does every night on the dot, our kookaburra cackles his loud and wonderful song, reminding us that God gives us laughter and good things, even in the midst of anxiety.

11.30-12.30pm, 35C

Everyone is too tired to stay outside any longer. One by one we creep off to bed and try to get some sleep. It is still 35 degrees.

One more dunk in the lake before retiring. Wet towels on the face and feet give minimal help in coping with the heat in our tent. Nobody has any powered sites here so there are no fans, except little battery-powered ones. Mine is miniscule and I can’t get it to sit in the tent pocket to blow on my face, so I give up. I’ll just have to wait it out with wet cloths.

I read a book to make my eyes tired to get myself to fall asleep. I want to fall asleep. I want to forget about the heat, the humidity, the danger.

Wednesday, 1 January: Raymond Island beach. Image: Peter Holloway

Tuesday, 31 December
1am, 35C

I wake with a start! The tent is flapping wildly. The nearby flag poles are rattling noisily. There is a great racket coming from the nearby tents. Half asleep, I automatically stumble in the dark towards my suitcase at the end of the tent and reach for … a cardigan? What am I doing? What is going on?

I pause … and smile … and silently give thanks. The cool change has come. 

8am, 19C

It’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s also Recovery Day. People of all ages pursue quiet activities, mostly by themselves, in some shady spot. It’s much cooler, but everyone is suffering from heat exhaustion.

By the evening, however, we remember it is New Year’s Eve and a time for having fun. A disco is run for the kids and all 90 of us play team games out on the oval with much-needed laughter.

Raymond Island is a picture of quintessential summer holidaying, but not too far down the road the story has been terrifyingly different.

You only had to switch on the radio to get a grim reality check.

“About 40,000 people in East Gippsland have been urged to leave ahead of extreme fire danger today. Homes and lives are under threat and many people have been told it is too late to leave and they need to take shelter. Roads in and out of Lakes Entrance are closed and the Princes Highway is also closed.”

“Terrifying scenes saw glowing red skies and pitch darkness at mid-morning. Towns across the East Gippsland region remain cut off, with roads, electricity and other services cut.”

“There are horrifying photos coming out of Sarsfield, just north-east of Bairnsdale. Up to 20 houses are lost.”

“There are 14 emergency warnings in Victoria due to these awful bushfires. Fires are threatening homes and lives in East Gippsland and in many places it is too late to leave.”

“The most recent warning from the CFA is for those in and around Mallacoota to take shelter indoors immediately to survive. ‘Leaving now would be deadly’, the CFA said.

“The Genoa-Mallacoota Road is closed. The bushfire is travelling from Wingan River towards Mallacoota, and there is potential for lightning.

“A bushfire near Jingellic is burning across the NSW-Victoria border. Multiple properties are feared lost. Fires are creating their own storms, generating lightning in some firegrounds. Four people are missing in Victoria. The Australian Defence Force is sending military air and sea assets to Victoria to assist with evacuations.”

Thursday, 2 January, 2020
7pm, 21C

Another bushfire briefing is held with the adults at camp. Searing heat and strong winds are being predicted for our area on Saturday so the decision is made to evacuate early tomorrow.

Friday 3 Jan, 2020
9am, 19C

Evacuation Day. Just as we are all leaving the island, a State of Disaster is officially declared. We drive off into a blanket of thick smoke, visibility poor, totally surrounded by the oppressive grey cloud, smelling the awful odour for the next 200km. What would we do if the fire jumped the highway? Or if they closed the road to Melbourne before we got home?  Where would we be able to take refuge as we fled the fiery holocaust that threatened our lives? 

Fortunately, we all make it safely back to Melbourne, feeling drained, feeling edgy, feeling thankful.

Never again will we ignore “just another bushfire news report”, or think of bushfires as something that only happen to other people – or to “dumb” people who choose to live in fire-prone country.

Now we understand.

“Thousands of people have evacuated from north-east Victoria, East Gippsland, and the south coast of NSW. 

“It is the largest peacetime evacuation in Australian history.

“Residents and tourists who remain in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria have been warned they could face extreme, unpredictable and potentially fatal bushfires.

“They have been told to get out tonight.

“The death toll from the fires since 30 December has risen to 10, with two people confirmed dead in Victoria.

“Twenty-eight people remain unaccounted for in East Gippsland.”    

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Uniting Bushfire Appeal

www.vt.uniting.org/uniting‐vic‐tas‐2020‐bushfire‐appeal

Money donated will help meet immediate needs and also enable longer term relief and recovery.

Frontier Services Bushfire Relief Appeal

www.frontierservices.org/donate/bushfire-relief-appeal

Money donated will aid trauma counselling and emergency relief to people in the Gippsland area.

Self-help toolkits and information factsheets can be downloaded here

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