BUNNALOO’S Luke and Kate Barlow and sons Lachie, 12, and Harry, 11, were forced to join a convoy escaping the NSW coastal resort of Bermagui ahead of the ‘catastrophic’ predictions for the weekend.
The town had been without power, mobile phone coverage and utilities since Tuesday.
Luke said by the time they decided to leave, Bermagui’s sky was flame red and when the fleeing residents and holidaymakers reached Cooma “the smoke was so thick we couldn’t even see the end of the bonnet of our car”.
“We had our lights and hazards on but we really couldn’t see a thing and that was really frightening – we were really concerned we would have a crash,” he said.
“We wound the window down for 10 seconds but the air was so terrible we couldn’t breathe.”
It was as far from the family holiday they had planned as you could get.
Joined by Kate’s brother and his family from the UK, they were all looking forwards to their annual getaway and 10 days of fishing, relaxing and for triathletes Luke and Kate, a bit of swimming, riding and running.
Fire was the last thing on their minds.
“When we left the fires were further north and nothing was active in the area and to be honest it wasn’t in our thoughts too much,” Luke said.
He said when they headed over Mount Kosciusko he was amazed by the sight of all the browned foliage, and down into the Bega valley with its dried out dams and parched land.
On December 30 they arrived at Bermagui, had a swim and a fish, and while there was a bit of smoke around no one seemed concerned – and the town was full of tourists.
That all changed the next day – and changed quickly.
“We woke up at 6.30am and we could hear a few people moving around, which was unusual and it was dark and still dark at 8.30am,” Luke said.
“We couldn’t see the sun – there was just a huge fire glow to the west and blackened leaves had started to blow into the town.”
Not used to the thought of bushfires, their UK family found the situation frightening and decided to head down to the emergency centre while Luke and Kate decided to wait and defend the property in which they were staying.
“The emergency centre was heartbreaking.
There were people walking around wrapped in blankets with blank looks on their faces, they had lost everything – we thought we were much better back defending the house and not draining community resources,” Luke added.
He said his Rural Fire Service NSW training kicked in and the family made sure they had torches, candles and non-perishable food items.
“We all had a job to do and we worked together. We knew there would be no communication and power and phone would be lost but we had access to a water supply.”
Luke said he could see the boys were getting anxious about the situation but said they handled themselves very well.
“They could sense what was going on but we just kept talking and preparing them for what could happen and we just kept reassuring them – things were actually worse when we got home and they could see all the media coverage on TV.”
Luke said it was impossible to tell how close the fires actually were.
“We couldn’t see flames but just a huge orange/red glow to the west. We had a few ember attacks but we didn’t actually see any flames.”
The family was prepared to stay in Bermagui for the duration of their holiday but last Saturday’s catastrophic forecast made the decision to leave for them.
“There is only one way in and out and the locals were packing up in light of the forecast so we decided to get a good sleep and head off early in the morning.”
He said one of the local petrol stations had located a generator to operate the petrol pumps and emergency services were offering people 40 litres of free fuel to leave the area.
He said the drive home was uneventful until Cooma.
“We also passed hay trucks and food trucks and people taking supplies in and they couldn’t see a thing either. We just accepted it was going to be a long drive home and if it took us an hour to drive 30km then so be it.”
Luke said the family was grateful to arrive home safely and his heart went out to the many Australians who have had been affected by these terrible fires.
“The boys’ English cousins are nine and 12 and they sounded very happy to be flying back to England with some lifetime memories of their trip Down Under.
“My boys learnt a great lesson about being prepared and staying calm and it was easy for us to pack up and leave as holidaymakers, things are a lot different there for the locals.”
Luke said he was hoping to return to Bermagui before his next summer holiday to show some support for the locals.
“They have lost their summer tourist trade and they will struggle this year."