A lucky escape from the firestorm

January 23, 2020
The small New South Wales town of Cobargo was devastated by bushfires around New Year's Day.
The small New South Wales town of Cobargo was devastated by bushfires around New Year's Day. Photo: David Mcevoy

David Mcevoy, an environment and LGBTI activist, was visiting a friend in Cobargo, NSW, on New Year’s Eve when the catastrophic bushfires hit the historic town. Green Left’s Rachel Evans talked to him about his escape from the firestorm and the community’s resilience.

What days did the fires hit Cobargo?

The day before New Years Eve, there had been a fire nearby and ash was everywhere. We hosed the property down and at bedtime there was no danger. But at 4am, we had to evacuate due to an uncontrollable bushfire. I could only get what I absolutely needed and I travelled with my friend’s mum to help her with the dogs. He and their housemate intended to follow soon after.

We pulled out of the carport and an entire mountain was on fire, lighting up the town and surrounding area. It was unlike any “normal” bushfire.

When we arrived at the end of the street, the fire was racing up the other side. We turned on to the road out of town and the fire was in the paddocks. We realised the whole town was surrounded.

It was horrific: cattle and horses were running frantically in circles trying to escape. Trees were not just burning, they were exploding.

As we drive out of the town, the fire was on both sides of the road and closing in fast. We only just made it through.

My friend and his housemate were two minutes behind but they could not get through. They went to the town centre to fight the fires with garden hoses. 

We made it to Bermagui but as the flames came closer, we did not know what happened to those trapped in Cobargo. As the red glow came closer and Bermagui came under threat, we prepared to flee onto the beach.

The next day around 8.30am we realised the sky had been completely blacked out by the smoke and ash. It stayed that way until around midday; the only light in the sky was the glow from the fires.

The fires started generating their own weather conditions; the thunder and lightning was so intense the ground was shaking. It felt like something from an apocalyptic movie.

Things started to settle that afternoon, but the smoke hit and we were stuck in Bermagui with no electricity or phone service. The water was contaminated and the sewerage system stopped working too. There were spot fires burning for nearly a week after.

A few days later, the fires came back and we were urged to evacuate to Bega. That was near impossible as there was no fuel to get there and people wanted to stay and protect what they had left. People thought that since the entire area was already burnt, we were in the safest place.

What was the official advice?

The official advice was to keep up with the “Watch and Act” warning app. There was no real warning for this one though: the fire came out of nowhere and grew out of control.

With the drought hitting the region hard, everything was dry and was fuel for the flames. Most of the buildings are turn-of-the-century timber structures which went up like matchsticks.

Three people died in Cobargo: an 84-year-old man, and father and son Robert and Patrick Salway. As amazing as the emergency services were, they were not equipped for what they had to face. Had they had the funding for more trained people, better equipment and services, the area could have been better protected.

What were the evacuation procedures like?

They were completely inadequate! Nearly everyone on the South Coast, residents and holiday makers, were evacuated to Bermagui, a tiny seaside town. It was not prepared. People were panic-buying and the local supermarket was depleted in a couple of hours. There was no plan. Authorities had to ask the tourists and those who did not have to be there to move on to Narooma.

What was the outcome of Scott Morrison’s visit?

Cobargo is now famous after Scott Morrison’s stage-managed visit when he attempted to shake hands and was told to fund the Rural Fire Service properly. That put Cobargo on the map.

What does the community face now?

They are cleaning up, trying to rebuild and start over. There is concern about asbestos from some of the destroyed buildings, which is being investigated.

It will be some time before we know the full extent of the damage. There are many isolated properties that have not been able to be reached. A lot of people did not have insurance. A few organisations are giving grants to those affected and one major bank will waive a year’s worth of mortgage fees for customers affected by the fires.

The Cobargo Bush Fire Relief Centre has been formed to support those who lost everything and those without supplies. It is managing the donations and supporting the recovery process.

It is incredible how people have come together and done what was needed. The community has a lot of skills, which they put to good use. It was people power at its finest.

What is your message to Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese?

You failed us! There is no excuse. Morrison found time last August to meet with 21 religious leaders to discuss his “religious freedoms” discrimination bill. But he had no time to meet the 23 firefighter professionals to hear their concerns.

In the Victorian Black Saturday fires of 2009, Labor leader Kevin Rudd deployed the troops within days to help out. Did Morrison deploy troops to Cobargo after his visit? No. Senator Jim Molan requested them after his visit to Cobargo almost two weeks later.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also has a lot to answer for. She did not even bother to show up.

We want answers: why did they allow this to happen in the first place? Why was there no support? How are they are going to make sure that every council, regardless of size, has appropriate equipment, services and plans in place to deal with any disaster in the future?

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