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Surviving the fires: “You can’t defend against this. It’s bigger than any of us”.

Genevieve Jacobs 10 January 2020
House sign in Pambula

House sign in Pambula. The note reads: “Evacuees can use water tap on right side of house, knock for food or shower, tent sites, or dog minding, or help in general.” Photo: Anita Glover/Facebook.

The skies overhead were deep blood red and the southerly was roaring at gale force. Tree limbs, debris and ash showered across a road full of terrified animals. And as Sarah Nolan and her partner Matt fled to safety on Saturday night, they were confronting one of the harshest realities of this fire crisis.

“Once we knew that they couldn’t guarantee stopping the fire at Eden, we looked at each other and said, well what hope have we got of saving this house?” Sarah said on Sunday from Merimbula.

“What we’re facing down here is beyond what anyone reasonably can face. You can’t defend against this. It’s bigger than any of us”.

Sarah’s family are Pambula locals. They’ve lived on the coast all their lives and when she and Matt built a home together ten kilometres inland at Lochiel, they did so carefully and meticulously, well aware that fire is always a risk in this part of the world.

“The three girls were safe in Merimbula on Saturday but Matt and I decided to defend the house”, she says.

“We’ve had years of fire preparedness and experience and equipment so we felt we could safely stay here. We’ve got a generator, the house was designed to withstand fires and we’ve always had a detailed fire plan.

“I had maps all over the dining table. I’d calculated wind directions, the angles of fire and wind so we could make well-informed decisions.

“But as the day progressed and we saw how by the firefront was behaving, it was not anywhere near normal. It was something beyond what anyone in this country has ever seen”.

Total darkness fell about 4:30 pm. Sarah says it was jet black, the darkest of midnight skies. The anxiety started to kick in, hard.

“It was chaotic because we had a plan, we knew the plan, and then we knew it had to change”, she says. “It threw us into a spin emotionally. We’d calculated we were in a safe place but at the last minute we felt we couldn’t be separated from our children”.

Driving through the fire-riddled night with their pets, they collected Sarah’s mum in Pambula on the way. Merimbula was a haze of lights and dark red skies, but strangely calm when they arrived. People were walking dogs through empty streets as evacuees arrived from farms ahead of the fire front.

Next morning, the smoke was so thick that it obscured cars parked outside on the street. Smoke filled houses and lungs, seeping through every space, completely inescapable.

Matt and Sarah think their house is OK, but they know the fire can still come for them. “We are prepared to lose the house. We are right in the firing line. We know that’s a reality”, she says.

“It’s very emotional. You stay brave for the kids and the other children around. We put on a brave face and pretend it will be OK. The reality inside is that it’s not.

“This will affect an entire community and Shire. It’s bigger than any one area having a fire. It’s huge in your heart – your own grief and everyone else’s”.

The other thing tugging at her heartstrings are her two beloved horses, currently with a friend. “I know my kids are safe. I know we might lose the house, but I can’t do anything more about that.

“I’ve spent years training horses and I have a beautiful one. They are safe where they are now but if the fire comes back hard, you are restricted in your ability to do anything.

“I just spoke to someone who couldn’t fit all their horses on the float. So he put the oldest, weakest one down because that was better than leaving him to the fire”.

In Merimbula, the spirit feels strong. People have opened their apartments and houses to evacuees although streets normally filled with holidaymakers are bizarrely empty.

“This is an amazing community. We are uplifting each other”, Sarah says.


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