opinion

The South Coast bushfires, White Island, and the narrative we keep telling ourselves.

It’s just after 10pm in Narooma, a coastal town 350km south of Sydney.

My family and I have had dinner – rice we bought from the IGA in the small window it was open, with cash we were fortunate enough to have on us, and tofu we cooked on the gas-powered barbecue.

There’s no power, so when you look outside there’s almost total darkness, apart from a few windows lit up by candles provided by emergency services.

There’s no mobile phone coverage, so I haven’t been able to communicate with my partner or sister for 48 hours. No service and no wifi also means the Fires Near Me app, and all the websites and media to assist in providing crucial information about what we should do, are inaccessible. The only regular updates we have are coming from ABC radio, which I listen to by sitting in my car every few hours. The updates, however, are conflicting – stay where you are is one resounding message, while another is to leave if you can.

 

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12 hours later I’m home, smelling like smoke and with my clothes covered in ash. Some people are still stuck on roads they entered this morning. Some towns have no running water, while others have been told they’re undefendable from the fires. Some people are staying to try to protect their homes and businesses, while others are trying to leave but don’t know how or when to go because of conflicting information. Today I saw a tiny snapshot of the destruction that’s taken place over the last 72 hours – destroyed homes, blackened paddocks, and hundreds of dead animals on the side of the road. If nothing else, it puts everything in perspective. If coming into 2020, you have your health, somewhere to live, and know your loved ones are safe, you have everything.

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Whether we can leave is a question we’ve been grappling with since 9.30am that morning. At a town briefing, emergency services explained that the only way out of Narooma is to drive South to Cooma. There’s no petrol available in or around Narooma, because you need electricity to pump it, and Cooma is the closest place to get fuel. The police don’t want anyone to attempt the journey to Cooma without a full tank of petrol.

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At the night draws on, I become restless for information. How will we know when roads reopen? What if there are new details we should know about our safety? Is there any indication whatsoever about when we’re likely to get power, or petrol, or a way out?

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The line for a Telstra phone booth in Narooma. Image supplied.

The only place we've learnt we can get pockets of wifi is a Telstra phone box near the post office, so I get in the car (which I shouldn't, because I should be conserving the little petrol I do have), and drive there. Driving up towards the main road, my mouth opens in shock. The sky is pitch black, apart from a ring of light emerging in the distance - the now distinctive image of catastrophic bushfire. The further I go up the hill, the more clearly I can see that it's a wall of flames, closer to us in some parts, and more distant in others. If it keeps burning, I realise, we'll eventually be forced to evacuate to the beach, like those in Batemans Bay, or Mallacoota. Once you're on the beach, surrounded by fire, how do you get out? How long could that take?

It's January 1, and so far, it's been anything but a happy new year.

***

The sky in Sydney city today is relatively clear, and I can see blue for the first time in days. It's warm and the air is fresh, with no hint of smoke - at least none that my nose can detect, after having been so immersed in it until late last night.

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I sit in a cafe as the people around me talk and laugh and drink coffee. Some people are back at work after a Christmas break, excited to only work a day or two until the weekend. Others are still enjoying holidays, walking dogs and fitting in exercise classes and spending vouchers they were gifted at Christmas.

It seems, however, that a small number of the lucky ones - the ones in cities or towns or suburbs that happen to be 50 or 100 or 300km away from danger - have a story they're telling themselves about that distance.

Tracey and her family ran for their lives from the NSW bushfires. Post continues below.

On social media posts about the South Coast bushfire crisis, some commentators stand out from the others. A single story on the Illawarra Mercury Facebook page attracted these comments:

"All I see is dumb people."

"There is no reason for tourists to be in this area at this time. The warnings were prominent. And before NYE. And the worst thing is that they’re banging on about being displaced or in danger?"

"Tourists caught up in this event did so willingly. Everyone has access to the news. You only have to look at the sky the past few weeks/months to know this was no ordinary summer. No, the reason they decided to travel was threefold: 1) we’ve paid for it and won’t get a refund, 2) it’s the beach so we’ll be safe, 3) it won’t happen to us. Selfish and self-centred which has resulted in needed resources having to be deployed just to get them to safety."

"Stupid people...... I travel A LOT, but I made the informed decision to stay at home.... Seems to be that some people didn't head the warnings, others just blatantly ignored them."

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There were warnings, they say.

There's been fires on the South Coast since October.

Emergency services now have a huge task at hand because people are idiots and didn't listen.

You knew this could happen, and you went anyway.

Of course, as someone who travelled on December 28, these comments simply aren't the truth. On the Saturday I left, there were no bushfires in the area above advice level, and no roads on my journey south were closed. There were no clear, unambiguous warnings that beachside locations were under threat. Even the modelling published by the RFS did not predict what happened on New Year's Eve.

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The sky on December 31 at 10:30am. Image supplied.
We’ve never had a bushfire season like this one – where warnings go from capturing our attention to slowly becoming part of the backdrop of summer. Where the term 'catastrophic' is so pervasive, it loses part of its terror.

People who travelled to the South Coast did not know the risk they were taking.

But the question - why were you there? - is a familiar one. Perhaps the people who aren't saying it out loud are quietly thinking it, taking comfort in the belief that there's no world in which they could have been affected, because they would never have been there in the first place.

***

On the morning of December 9, 2019, hundreds of people woke up to a beautiful, clear day in New Zealand, with a plan to visit White Island in the Bay of Plenty.

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When the island erupted at 2.11pm, 47 tourists were on it. Fourteen of those people would never come home.

In the hours and days after the disaster, as we heard reports of unimaginable burns and Australians who had lost family and friends, one highly googled phrase was: why were people on White Island when it erupted?

It's an important question, and one that will likely feature heavily in investigations in the coming months.

On November 18, GeoNet had increased Volcanic Alert Level to level two, indicating that volcanic activity was higher than normal. But what does that mean for someone who isn't a geologist? Surely, most of us would assume, if there was a significant risk, tourists simply wouldn't be allowed to visit.

But those lines that govern decision-making are arbitrary and imperfect.

When those tourists met their smiling tour guides, no part of them would have doubted that they were safe. To cancel might have felt hysterical. Silly. Overly cautious. Every day we take risks - why was this one any different?

***

Perhaps when people asked Google why people were on White Island when it erupted, they were really asking: could I have been on White Island when it erupted?

The next step, of quietly telling yourself that couldn't have been you, because you'd never take that risk, and you've never been to New Zealand, and you don't tend to travel in early December, is instinctive.

Those thought patterns mentally protect us, and allow us to feed ourselves the narrative that even though people just like us found themselves in a situation they never could have imagined, it could never actually be us.

The alternative - that these disasters are random, and out of our control, and don't discriminate -  is terrifying.

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A burnt building in Cobargo on the way home from Narooma. Image supplied.
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Of course it's easier for Australians who aren't in the South Coast right now to tell themselves a story that separates them from the danger.

I never would've taken the risk.

I would've heard the warnings. 

I would've seen it coming. 

And who knows, maybe some people would have.

But the resounding question to ask in times of crisis is not: why were they there?

It should simply be: how can we help?

To help those affected by the South Coast bushfires, you can donate to the following organisations:

The Australian Red Cross.

The Salvation Army. 

State based fire brigades like the NSW RFS and the Victorian CFA. 

Givit.

Wires.

The Rescue Collective.

... And there's more.

Mamamia Out Loud, our bi-weekly podcast, is coming to Melbourne for a live show, with 100 per cent of all ticket proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery fund.

It's a brand new show, full of laughs and news and opinions and a few special surprises, with Mia Freedman, Holly Wainwright and Jessie Stephens, on February the 11th. You can buy tickets right now at mamamia.com.au/events. See you there! 

READ: Bushfire relief: Here's how you can help as we prepare for Saturday's catastrophic conditions.

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