Day two of the Tathra bushfire emergency has broken under smokey skies but thankfully without the hideous heat and north-westerly winds that put lives at risk yesterday and destroyed at least 70 homes in the idyllic seaside village of Tathra, east of Bega on the New South Wales Far South Coast.
Given the haste and intensity of the emergency, it’s extraordinary that no one has been killed and that everyone has been accounted for. It appears minor injuries to two firefighters is the worst of it.
Tathra is still in lockdown, with most of the town’s 1,700 people evacuated. This resilient community fled in two directions, north to the Bermagui Community Centre and west the Bega Showground. Most were housed overnight with friends, family, strangers, and in local motels, those with dogs, cats, and even chooks opted for a rough nights sleep in their cars.
While people wait to return to their homes the most extraordinary community effort has stepped up – just as quickly as the flames of yesterday afternoon.
The key question for this community is: ‘when can I go home?’
People who fled with only a quick look over their shoulder have been studying TV helicopter footage trying to get a sense of what is left of their town and their own home; most of Tathra seems unsure what is left for them.
The flames that started on Reedy Swamp Road on Bega’s fridge, 17km from Tathra, moved with such speed and in all directions that it feels as if no part has been left untouched.
Matthew Reeves from the Rural Fire Service says active firefighting is still taking place in and around Tathra.
“The weather conditions overnight have been a benefit,” he says.
“Our crews are working in a highly dangerous environment; telegraph pole after telegraph pole burning at the base, fallen power lines and fallen trees, that continued to fall around us while we work on the fire ground.
“This is part of the reason why we can not let you back into Tathra just yet.
“Utility companies are in Tathra working to restore infrastructure, they are working with fire brigade escorts,” he says.
“Our goal is to make it safe for you to re-entre, if we rush into it we put you at risk, we want to get as much control over the environment as we can.
“We understand your anguish and frustration, we are asking you to work with us so that we can send you back to a safe Tathra,” Mr Reeves says.
Assessments are being made each hour, looking for that time when it is safe to return. Those who have registered via the Red Cross will receive notification, that news will also be conveyed through the Bermagui and Bega evacuation centres and local media.
Firefighters are still actively defending properties as pockets of unburnt bush and vegetation flare up in the steep, hilly surrounds. While the weather conditions are much milder, a high fire danger remains in place with the fire still able to create its own momentum.
Water bombing aircraft are again in operation today, supporting ground crews that have displayed such determination and ticker; a combined effort that has saved around 150 properties.
Building impact teams from the Rural Fire Service are on the ground assessing the damage now, while those who stayed to defend their homes are being supported by emergency agencies.
In the meantime, the Tathra community waits, supported by each other and the embrace of people and organisations near and far.
This is a community that seems to face adversity and bad news more than most, what comes from that is a resilience and spirit that will see them through yet again.
Donations are to be taken to St Vincent de Paul outlets in Bega or Merimbula. What is needed most is clothes, toiletries, and non-perishable food items. Perishable food and baking can be taken to the kitchen at Bega Showground and Bermagui Community Centre.
Financial donations are being taken through the Mayoral Appeal Fund. At the moment credit card donations can be made by phoning 02 6499 2345. Bank transfer donations will come online shortly.
Right now all those little things add up to something big for these people, whose faces grow long and tired but are still open to a laugh and smile.
Fire updates are available at the RFS website or by calling the RFS info line, 1800 679 737. The Public Information and Inquiry Centre remains open to assist members of the public on 1800 227 228.