Image courtesy Surf Life Saving RFS
Bushfire Crisis - The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise on the Far South Coast
Thanks to Surf Life Saving NSW for this story.
- Surf clubs at Bermagui, Broulee and Batemans Bay sheltered more than 7,000 people as bushfires raged out of control on the Far South Coast on New Years Eve
- The role of surf lifesavers and surf clubs has changed and now extends well beyond the beach
- SLSNSW's largest ever emergency response as a gazetted emergency service organisation.
At 3am on the morning of 31 December 2019, surf lifesaver Cheryl McCarthy received a phone call that began the longest and most complex emergency callout of her volunteer career.
It also signalled the start of Surf Life Saving NSW’s bushfire response on the NSW Far South Coast. A response that would see teams of volunteer surf lifesavers take responsibility for the lives of over 7,000 people as multiple surf clubs setup as emergency evacuation centres.
As the Director of Lifesaving for the Far South Coast Branch, Cheryl McCarthy is used to emergency callouts becoming more frequent and the incidents she responds to more unusual. She expects the unexpected and complex emergencies, like the recent NSW bushfires, are becoming the ‘new normal’ for her and thousands of volunteer emergency service personnel like her.
But nothing could have prepared Cheryl and the team for the speed and ferocity of the bushfire emergency that engulfed the Far South Coast region on New Year’s Eve 2019 and the scale of the response effort she would be asked to lead that week.
Since becoming a gazetted emergency service organisation in 2018, Surf Life Saving NSW volunteer lifesavers have been tasked to critical incidents in support of other emergency service organisations such as Police, RFS and SES. And so it was that on December 31, Surf Life Saving NSW volunteers on the Far South Coast found themselves on the frontline when the call came to respond to the unprecedented bushfire emergency unfolding all around them.
The 3am phone call Cheryl McCarthy answered was from the Rural Fire Service requesting Surf Life Saving’s support. In no time a team of volunteers had opened the Bermagui surf club as an evacuation centre and contacted Andy Edmunds to open the Broulee surf club to the north. Up the road in Batemans Bay, Anthony Bellette received a similar message from the RFS and mustered his callout team of 11 lifesavers to open the Batemans Bay surf club as an evacuation centre as residents in the area began evacuating to the beach.
People, their cars and their animals began pouring in and within a few hours, the three surf clubs at Bermagui, Broulee and Batemans Bay would together be sheltering more than 7,000 people as bushfires raged out of control in the area. And it was the volunteer Surf Life Saving teams, led by Cheryl McCarthy, Anthony Bellette and Andy Edmunds that would be responsible for their welfare, providing those in their care with food, water, shelter and vital medical treatment.
To put the scale of the evacuation in perspective, the township of Bermagui normally has a population of 1,500. But as bushfires approached the area at an unprecedented speed and residents and tourists in a 30km radius of the town were told to evacuate to the beach, the town’s population quickly grew to 5,000. These evacuees descended on the Bermagui surf club as the designated evacuation centre.
“It kind of snowballed. For a town of 1,500, suddenly having 5,000 people arrive at the surf club was mind-blowing,” said Cheryl McCarthy.
“We had over 2,000 vehicles at the club which was insane. Nothing could have prepared us for the sheer number of people,” she said.
Cheryl said that compounding the fact that 5,000 people were arriving at the club, embers from the nearby bushfires began falling from the sky and choking smoke filled the air.
“The smoke was so thick - it was actually dark outside,” Cheryl said.
“When it was still dark at 9.30am, we realised the sun wasn’t going to come up that day,” she said.
“It was a very intense time – very stressful.
“We got news that a couple of the people that died in the fires were dads and uncles of some of our club’s Nippers.
“Everyone was understandably very upset about that and about people who had lost their homes.
“We had a doctor and nurse at the club who were treating people for stress and shock.
“We had two people with suspected heart attacks that we had to get to hospital,” she said.
The local medical centre relocated doctors, nurses and equipment to the Bermagui surf club who slept there for 48 hours. They treated nearly 200 people with breathing difficulties, minor burns and head injuries – mainly caused by people tripping over in the dark.
Local businesses donated food, tents and oxygen cylinders to treat people with respiratory problems. A local chef swung into action and prepared what Cheryl suggests might have been ‘the best evacuation meal ever eaten’.
Meanwhile, 80km north at Broulee, volunteer surf lifesaver Andy Edmunds had been busy managing a similar situation. He’d been on standby since 3am when he received the call from Cheryl McCarthy and had opened the surf club for evacuees.
However, unlike Bermagui, Broulee came under direct and significant ember attack with around 1,000 people sheltering at the surf club.
“It was my biggest day as a Duty Officer. I was flying by the seat of my pants,” said Andy Edmunds.
“When the fire hit Broulee and some of the buildings started going up, we called Triple Zero but no RFS crews were available, although there were some helicopters waterbombing the town,” Andy said.
Thinking quickly, Andy sent the club’s all-terrain buggies into the streets. Volunteer surf lifesavers door-knocked and used loud hailers to evacuate residents who either could not walk to the club or had missed the evacuation message entirely.
At one stage the Broulee surf club itself was threatened by the fires and all 1,000 people had to be moved onto the beach. At the same time, people started arriving at the club with serious injuries.
“We were treating some fairly major burns injuries and a family of six people presented who were all suffering from severe smoke inhalation. We gave them all oxygen and called an ambulance but it took two hours to arrive,” Andy said.
Fortuitously, Surf Life Saving NSW had positioned volunteer liaison officers in the NSW Rural Fire Service Headquarters in Sydney at the beginning of the bushfire crisis.
“We had no power and no mobile phone coverage. But we still had our surf club VHF radios and I was in contact with our Surf Life Saving liaison officer at the Rural Fire Service headquarters in Sydney. They were able to relay to us what was going on with the fires,” said Andy Edmunds.
Fortunately for Broulee residents the weather changed just before a large fire front reached the town and a change in wind direction pushed the fires away from the town.
“The only thing that saved Broulee was the southerly wind that came up the coast at the last minute. It was so strong that it could have stripped paint off your car.
“We weren’t set up to accommodate people overnight so the evacuees either went home or were transported to the Moruya Showground,” Andy said.
Fortunately, for Cheryl, Andy and Anthony, the George Bass surfboat marathon event had been called off, due to the bushfires. Hundreds of volunteer lifesavers were stranded along the South Coast because the roads were closed. Many of them made themselves available to assist with the emergency response and were themselves seeking shelter at the surf clubs. Cheryl, Andy and Anthony all credit the successful outcome and effectiveness of their bushfire response to the assistance they received from the visiting surfboat crews.
“It was a real team effort. We had the George Bass surfboat crews helping us triage patients, providing medical help. They also helped marshal traffic and assisted with registering people as safe in the evacuation centre. It was an amazing job by everyone,” said Cheryl McCarthy.
Although the southerly change reduced the immediate threat of the bushfires, the work of the volunteers wasn’t yet over. Broulee, Batemans Bay and Bermagui surf clubs all stayed open the next day and throughout the following week as Community Recovery Centres.
With roads closed, electricity cut-off and all phone services out for more than seven days along the Far South Coast, the surf clubs became important centres for people displaced by the fires to have a meal, shower, collect groceries and use the free Wi-Fi that had been set up.
“Our club became a community hub – a safe and trusted space for people to come and have a shower and a feed and to just talk about what had happened to them,” said Club Captain Anthony Bellette. Members of the public contacted Surf Life Saving in the weeks following to praise Anthony and his team for their response during and after the bushfires.
Demonstrating their growing importance as community hubs, Batemans Bay, Broulee and Bermagui surf clubs were established as distribution centres for donated items of food, water, clothing and other essentials as surf clubs and the wider community across NSW rallied to provide support and transport donated goods to the Far South Coast.
Reflecting on the events over New Year’s, volunteer surf lifesaver Cheryl McCarthy says that the emergency was “the first, and hopefully the last”, bushfire she’s ever had to deal with. It’s clear, however, that the role of surf clubs and volunteers may have changed forever. Cheryl, Andy Edmunds and Anthony Bellette’s response to the bushfires on the Far South Coast demonstrate how the role of surf lifesavers has evolved and how the impact volunteers can have on their communities now extends well beyond just the beach.