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They described an apricot-coloured sky, a ferocious wind and plumes of smoke that blocked the horizon as they fled.
For Bega Valley’s fire-scarred residents, the Coolagolite blaze that destroyed at least three houses and burnt through more than 5000 hectares on Tuesday night was a terrible reminder of what they have faced before, and what lies ahead.
Steve Mazabow prepares to leave his property, Murrah Dream Retreat.Credit: Vanessa Forbes
The bushfire began on land that also burnt during Black Summer four years ago, igniting only about 10 kilometres from Cobargo, the village in which the main street was decimated and three lives were lost on the last day of 2019.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said the latest blaze to threaten the region was “terrifyingly deadly”, and had travelled 15 kilometres in just a few hours on Tuesday night.
At the fire’s peak, more than 200 firefighters and emergency service personnel worked to save properties south-west of Bermagui, as the blaze ripped through rural hamlets and right to the edge of seaside villages.
“It was very ominous and very scary, to be honest,” Barragga Bay resident Sheena Bouvhen said of the scenes that confronted her when she left her home of 34 years on Tuesday afternoon and headed for safety in Bermagui.
The Coolagolite fire burning near homes late on Wednesday morning.Credit: NSW RFS
“[In Bermagui] the power was down, and that’s when people get anxious. Then the fire came up, and you could see smoke coming, and that’s the thing that really makes you go ‘Oh my lord.’ It’s just horrific.”
A 44-year-old man is recovering in hospital from leg and shoulder injuries he suffered when his car crashed while he was trying to avoid a falling tree on Wednesday morning at Murrah, a rural area that bore the brunt of the fire.
The RFS said at least three houses had been destroyed across the region but inspection of the fire zone was not yet complete.
Murrah resident Vanessa Forbes, who moved from Bondi two years ago, said firefighters were still working on Wednesday to protect her 30-acre bush block, from which she runs retreats.
A helicopter tackles the blaze at Murrah on Wednesday.
She and her husband left their home on Tuesday afternoon with minutes to spare. They received an alert on their phones about 15 minutes after driving away, informing them it was too late to leave.
“It felt like the apocalypse,” she said. “I just saw the most incredible, huge smoke cloud, and a plane driving into it. And helicopter after helicopter dragging water and flying into it.
“As we drove out, there were fire people stationed along the road, waiting, just in case. They’re now on our road as we speak, dropping water bombs because the fire is still going.”
Local councillor Helen O’Neil was waiting to find out how her home at nearby Cuttagee had fared on Wednesday after she evacuated on Tuesday afternoon.
“Our power went. The phone went. The internet went. Then we watched the smoke coming straight at us and [we] got out,” she said.
“It just roared through; that wind was so strong. And there are spot fires all over the place, so we can’t go back in and see what it’s like.
“Because there was only one really big fire, they were able to bring all the resources in, while last time [in 2019-2020] we were down to just one truck and a hose, because [fire] was just everywhere.
“It’s amazing to see the town pull together again … I think every house in town had someone staying there.”
NSW Premier Chris Minns and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Bega on Wednesday before heading to Bermagui, and acknowledged how upsetting the latest fire had been for residents of the South Coast.
Minns said hazard reduction targets could not be met before the start of the fire season because of the weather conditions, and NSW residents had to “be prepared for a horror summer”.
“We are one week into October and we’re experiencing midsummer conditions – multiple days above 30 degrees, high winds. Bushfires love this environment and it’s devastating for regional communities in particular,” he said.
Albanese said the latest fire was an “incredibly traumatic experience” for those in the Bega Valley.
Anthony Albanese and Chris Minns meet with members of the RFS at the Bermagui staging area.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
“We’re standing here [and] we can smell, we can see, the impact that these fires are having and that would be having a triggering response for people who went through such a traumatic time during the summer of 2019-2020,” he said.
The fire was downgraded from emergency level to “watch and act” when a southerly change reached the Far South Coast about 1.30am on Wednesday, before dropping to “advice” level just after lunch.
Across the state, 59 fires were still burning at 5pm on Wednesday and 26 were yet to be contained, but none were posing a significant threat.
Bega Valley Mayor Russel Fitzpatrick said the mental health of his community was a prime concern in the aftermath of the latest fire, given the trauma residents had experienced four years ago.
“There is anxiety, which is understandable. It started with the catastrophic [fire] alert two weeks ago, and then this fire straight after it,” he said.
“It’s going to trigger mental health issues [for people].
“They may have been sitting there for a while and this will be just enough to trigger them.”
Crisis support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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