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"When we were told to evacuate Batemans Bay on New Year's Day, my gut told me to stay."

It is New Year’s Day. We pull into the evacuation centre at Batemans Bay, and my phone starts buzzing wildly with messages from my husband back in Canberra: *ping* “Are you OK?” *ping* “NSW RFS just advised that…” *ping* “I haven’t heard from you for ages, I’m getting worried”. Then finally *ping* “Go now. Leave as soon as possible. Conditions favourable today but not tomorrow. Aim for Nimmitabel” followed by directions for detours around the worst of the road closures, and finally, “Good luck”.

Go?

I sat in shock, trying to take it in. Really? We didn’t have much information. We hadn’t had power or mobile phone reception for days. ABC Local Emergency Radio had ceased broadcasting, which was a big loss because it was – besides rumours – our only source of relevant updates on the fires, local weather and regional road conditions. I couldn’t get onto the NSW RFS ‘Fires Near Me’ page or NSW Live Traffic information.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons speaks about the bushfires on the Today show. Post continues below.

Video by Channel 9

Driving into Batemans Bay, we had seen how the fire had burned right up to houses at Surf Beach, just to the north of my parents’ coast house at Lilli Pilli. The last emergency text we had received from the NSW RFS was that it was “too late to leave” and to “seek shelter as the fire arrives”. The previous day, New Year’s Eve, we had watched from the roof as helicopters filled up with water at our local beach, only to dump the water at nearby Malua Bay fires and make the short trip back to the water. We had seen NSW RFS tankers tirelessly racing up and back George Bass Drive for the previous 48 hours. The fires seemed to be everywhere. We had felt the fierce heat of the fire come, and then subside with the easterly wind.

I wondered whether to leave the relative safety of the coast house. We had food, we were making do without power, the water was on, and our neighbours had just invited us around for a cup of tea. It also probably helped that my parents’ house is affectionately referred to as “the bunker”: a hulking modular mass of concrete and double brick. The fire had hit north and south of us, but we were safe. Surely we were going to be okay. Maybe the worst of it was behind us, and we had been spared.

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Batemans Bay fire
A display house on fire in Malua Bay. Image: Supplied.

My gut said stay. My gut said don’t end up like one of those burnt-out cars with molten metal oozing onto the blackened bitumen. What if this, what if that… so many risks. Don’t take the risk. My gut said you are safe now. I had very little information but I knew there was a fire out there somewhere, and my own little piece of the South Coast was okay.

Think, think, think. There must be a way to find the ‘right’ answer… But it was a complex problem: connectivity of variables, time as a relevant factor, in-transparency of the situation (i.e. I didn’t have the information when I needed it). I tried to think about it in terms of risk matrices: assess the impacts of risks on one side and the probabilities on the other. But I floundered. I couldn’t solve this. I couldn’t analyse my way out of this. There was so little time. I had so little information. There was no ‘no risk’ option. I knew that failing to make a decision, would itself be a decision. That, and I was scared.

So I decided that the fundamental question was not whether to stay or go, it was whether to trust my gut or trust that message. Do I trust what I was seeing around me, or trust someone who was watching the broader situation from afar?

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Batemans Bay fire
The view from George Bass Drive on New Year's Eve. Image: Supplied.

On January 2, the fires reached Lilli Pilli. It burnt all the way to the water. Homes were destroyed. The situation is still evolving, but the fire is still “out of control”.

We weren’t there. We packed up and left on New Year’s Day. There was a window to leave, and we got out.

NOTE: Not long after I left the South Coast, the NSW RFS issued a "leave now" warning for the area in which I was staying. This article is simply my reflections on making the decision to evacuate. I do not encourage anyone to leave bushfire affected areas if it is not safe to do so. Please refer to the fantastic information on the NSW RFS website, including in relation to planning and preparing for a bushfire and current fire information.

Always follow directions of emergency personnel.

What you can do:

It is truly a disaster at the South Coast. I encourage you to make an online donation to support the incredible volunteers and organisations at work in the area - they are truly making a huge difference:

Volunteer NSW RFS firefighters.

Australian Red Cross Disaster Recovery and Relief.

St Vincent de Paul Society Bushfire Appeal.

Salvation Army Disaster Appeal.

Featured image: Supplied.

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