“At the gas station, we found a long line of vehicles stretching most of the length of the very small town. The sight of this, plus thickening orange haze, reminded me of a disaster movie.”
When my family and I were still in danger, I emailed these words to a friend* back home in America:
We‘re safe, but trapped by fires on three sides. The ocean will be our escape if necessary. People in other coastal towns have been evacuated by sea…If the roads open up and the authorities say it is safe, we will leave immediately. But we know that won’t be today. So we are holed up in our hotel room with a blanket at the base of the door to keep the smoke out.
My wife and my children (ages 4 and 2) are citizens of Australia and the United States. We moved here a year ago, and up until fire season, it’s been perfect.
Our home in the Australian capital of Canberra is among the safest in the nation, as close as it is to Parliament House and the equivalents of the CIA and the Department of State.
But on December 30, we jumped in the family car for a road trip and a long-awaited beach vacation. The website for Bega Valley advertised that it was unaffected by the fires, but thinking of those who were. That was still true until the last hour of our drive, when we noticed an enormous column of smoke rising over the mountains to our left.
By the time, we’d built sand castles and returned to Room 9 of the Pambula Colonial Motor Inn, the highway we had traveled was closed due to the Werri Berri fire. The other westbound highway was closed due to another new fire, called the Wyndham fire, only 20 kilometers away. And the multiple fires burning to our north and to our south, which had been raging for several weeks, meant that we couldn’t leave.
Most of the fires, nearly 100 at the moment, are burning in New South Wales, which is Australia’s California in more ways than one. Although the Australian Capital Territory is nestled into New South Wales, I had been following President Donald Trump’s impeachment a lot more closely than the fires. We’ve had a few fires nearby, but our only real problem has been the smoke, which had forced us to choose between oppressive heat and smoke getting in our house through open windows.
On Christmas Eve, we were in Berrima, New South Wales, visiting family when I met an Australian firefighter for the first time. Like much of the firefighting force in Australia, he was a volunteer. Two firefighters, dads with children around the same age as mine, had been killed a few days before.
I thanked the man for his service and bravery and expressed my dismay that the government doesn’t do more to support them. He said the Berrima community had donated $30,000 to complete construction on the firehouse after the government had paid for only the outer walls and that the equipment they are using is not up to par. He said that the locals show their support by bringing food, water, and other useful things to the firehouse.
“Our favorite is the baby wipes,” he said.
“Yeah, because we get covered in soot and water is at a premium, so we don’t want to use that to clean off. The wipes are cool to the touch and it’s just so nice on your face. We carry mini-packs in our pockets.”
He told me the temperatures they were facing near the blazes in Celsius, and I couldn’t quite compute, but I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s 10 degrees hotter than Midnight Oil said ‘The western desert lives and breathes.’” Fifty-five degrees Celsius is 131 degrees Fahrenheit.
The sun had turned red, and it was difficult to distinguish between smoke and clouds. “Clouds,” I decided, as I snapped a photo of the sun hanging above Pambula’s old courthouse. I might well have been wrong.
If it was in the United States, Pambula, New South Wales, might be referred to as a one-stoplight town, except that it didn’t have a stoplight. At its center was a roundabout with four little roads for spokes. Each road had shops and restaurants for a distance of 100 to 300 meters.
The smell of smoke was everywhere, even in our hotel room. So before putting the kids to bed, I covered the space beneath the door with a heavy blanket. And I crammed in six plastic shopping bags into the built-in space at the top of the window in the bathroom.
I went to bed at about 2 a.m., but one of the kids had awakened me at 3 a.m. and I was unable to get back to sleep. I used my phone to check the status of the Wyndham fire, the Werri Berri and Kobargo fires blocking our escape routes, and the Mallacoota fire, which had the potential of hitting us from the south. I also pulled up some general guidelines for fires and emergencies, and I resolved to do two things first thing in the morning: (1) fill the car with gas, and (2) buy nonperishable food and water.
When the sun rose at 5:15 a.m., I was still awake. I thought about going out to get gas, but I didn’t, hoping to get back to sleep. I did so around 7 a.m. and at 9:30, I woke to the sight of my 2-year-old son bouncing on my chest. “Wake up, Daddy!”
My wife, Ariane, was focused on parenting goals that would fill a typical holiday morning: getting the kids to eat breakfast and getting them outside to play before they went bonkers. But during the night, the fires surrounding us had heaped so much smoke into the air that the sun was not visible in the sky. In fact, nothing was visible beyond 50 meters. So, Ariane’s intended destination was an indoor pool.
She offered a final piece of advice: Keep the radio news on at all times.
I went out to the car and found that it was coated with ash. A woman was unpacking her car three stalls over. “What do you think about these fires?” I asked. She said, “Well, have you filled your car up with petrol?” “No,” I said, suddenly remembering my 4 a.m. research. “Well, do that straight away because if we can’t get out, that means the supply trucks can’t get in. The stations will run out soon and then you won’t be able to leave even if you can leave.” She was right. Our tank was low. Although I was feeling anxious, I talked to her a little more and learned that she was worried about friends staying on the campgrounds nearby, including firefighters who were on break from Melbourne. One of them had raced back to Melbourne during the night, fearing that he’d be trapped here and unable to relieve his buddies who would be due for their breaks soon. I thanked her and said goodbye. She offered a final piece of advice: Keep the radio news on at all times.
Our daughter still believed we were going to the indoor pool when I strapped her in her car seat, but Ariane and I had already agreed that we’d be going directly to the gas station. There, we found a long line of vehicles stretching most of the length of the very small town. The sight of this, plus thickening orange haze, reminded me of a disaster movie and gave us the first real feeling we were in danger. Ariane broke the news to Audrey. No pool.
Julian cried when his mother got out of the car, but it was necessary. While we waited for gas, Ariane walked to Pambula’s lone grocery store and piled a shopping cart with food, water, and diapers. I soon got a text saying that the checkout line snaked through half of the store and that she’d meet us in the motel room in an hour. Later, she told me that the run on food, like the run on gas, had been polite and orderly — but also, seeing the two lines back to back had caused her to inwardly panic.
Thirty minutes later, we were only a few cars away from the pump when I saw a man walk up to a truck that was ahead of us. He spoke through the open window and the woman behind the wheel dropped an F-bomb and accelerated out of line. I rolled down my window when she paused to check for oncoming cars. “Did they just run out of gas?” I asked. “They just ran out of diesel,” she said.
Minutes later, I’d filled up our tank with unleaded. I asked the manager how close he was to running out. He said, “Soon.”
Back in the motel, Ariane spent the rest of the afternoon on various devices trying to learn more information about the fires and the road closures. She also beat herself up a bit for having planned the vacation. I said what anyone would have said.
The children had been promised a beach vacation; now we were sheltering in place. So Ariane asked me to go out and buy some toys to keep them occupied. “Enough so we can roll them out slowly,” she said, because we might be stuck in a room for days.
Pambula is so small that I was able to walk to a drug store, a bakery/cafe, and an art store in minutes. The art store had toys. At the bakery, there was a long line and a sign on the window that said, “Due to current conditions we are closing early. Hope you understand.” The vegetarian pie that Ariane had asked for was sold out, so I bought seven meat pies and a chocolate doughnut.
This would be not be the last time that I grossly over-purchased (that evening, I purchased $83 worth of Thai food). But we were preparing for an extended period of sequester, and it was something of a stress relief for me to be able to go out and bring things back to my family.
By now the orange, hazy streets were so thick with smoke that it hurt to breathe. As I walked back to the motel, I had a morbid thought. When reading about fire deaths, I had always searched for the words “smoke inhalation” and upon finding them, felt some comfort in thinking that the victims had not been burned to death. Now I realized, smoke inhalation wouldn’t be that great either.
This is the town we fled, Pambula, NSW. #AustralianFires were burning all around us, the closest 20 km away. At this point, about 1 PM on Dec. 30, all escape routes were closed due to fires. Our window would open up at dawn the next day. Story coming up ?@theintercept? pic.twitter.com/IxuV9f7A9E— Eric Byler (@ericbyler) January 2, 2020
My concern deepened when I returned to the hotel room, and Ariane said our room was getting smoky. I had assumed that the air-conditioning unit above the bed was recirculating the air already inside the room, but maybe I was wrong. I called the front desk. Steve, who I’d later learn was the owner/operator, sounded stressed out. “I have a few questions if you have a moment,” I said. “I’ll come to you, won’t be a minute,” he said.
Julian was napping, so when Steve knocked, I invited him in and asked him to speak quietly. Steve explained that the cold air was coming from the unit outside.
“So it could potentially bring smoke in?” I asked.
“Well yes, it could potentially do that, yes,” he said.
Ariane spoke next. “In case the fire gets closer, what will you … uh … yeah.”
“Well if the fire gets closer, I’ll come around and knock on everybody’s door and say we gotta get out. I’ve got the monitoring on and we seem to be OK at the moment.”
“Where would we go then?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d be goin’ down to the beach; it’s better than goin’ anywhere else.”
We prepared our belongings in case we needed to leave in a hurry, putting essentials like diapers in backpacks so our hands would be free. After unveiling the first round of new toys for a skeptical little girl and a drowsy little boy, Ariane asked me to go out again. The Pambula Rural Fire Brigade had announced that the sporting center was available as “a place you can go.” It would become the official evacuation center if that was required. Ariane wanted me to check it out and see if we’d be safer there. I said, “When you think about the things we’d be sharing there, the water, the bathrooms …”
“I don’t care if it’s more comfortable,” she said. “The firefighters can protect one big place, but they can’t protect a thousand little ones. That’s why all the fatalities are people who stayed in their homes.”
The Pambula Sporting Complex was 2.6 kilometers west, on the same road we’d taken to Pambula Beach 24 hours prior. A drive to Pambula Beach would be 3.6 kilometers.
I offered to show Ariane the video I’d shot at the sporting complex, but she said my negative assessment was good enough for her. We’d stay in the motel for the night.
After doing my best to eat $83 worth of Thai food, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a need to sleep. I woke up some time later with the 2-year-old climbing on me again. I opened my eyes and saw that he had a dollar coin in his mouth (about the size of a U.S. quarter). “No!” I said firmly, and he immediately took it out. Chocolate coins had been one of the treats Ariane had purchased at the grocery store to help us get through the day. Julian’s favorite. When he started to choke, I couldn’t see his face. The sound he made did not immediately alarm me. Maybe it was because I was so groggy.
Ariane pounced. “What’s in his mouth?” she asked.
She bent him over her knee, and after a few strikes to his back, the coin popped out of Julian’s airway.
Then came the thunder and lightning, accompanied by a light rain. “This could be good,” I said as I looked out the window, knowing that it might very well not be. I’d learned from my 4 a.m. research binge that fires can create their own weather systems, and that this was not a good omen but a bad one because lightning strikes could spark new fires. The next flash of lightning looked like it was centered over the trees across the street. It was followed immediately by a roof-shaking bolt of thunder. Thank goodness it wasn’t a lightning bolt.
The rain did not last long. By 9 p.m., we had learned the following: A father and son had died trying to protect their home as the Cobargo fire, which was about 70 kilometers north of us, destroyed the town of Wandella. In Mallacoota, about 80 kilometers south, flames had forced hundreds of people to run to the beach, where evacuations were being carried out by sea. Tomorrow would be the coolest day of the week, which would get steadily hotter. And the Wyndham fire, about 20 kilometers to our west, was now contained and therefore, Mount Darragh Road was either reopened or soon to be.
“If we get stuck on a fucking beach like they are an hour south of us, it would be really traumatic for the kids,” Ariane said. “Being outside, breathing that horrible air.”
“You think about the panic you feel when your family is in an unsafe situation, and how much of the world’s population lives with that on a daily basis.”
It was now 10:30 p.m., 90 minutes after she and I had agreed to flee via Mount Darragh Road as soon as it was light. But it was Ariane’s way to re-litigate decisions internally, and she often shared with me the most interesting arguments that resulted.
Playing along, I replied, “I think if we get going early before the temperature rises, there’s a lot less of a chance of a new fire popping up in our path.” At least Ariane had offered a new thought. I had already said the same thing with different words.
As our children slept, we finished our preparations. Ariane said, “You think about the panic you feel when your family is in an unsafe situation, and how much of the world’s population lives with that on a daily basis.” This reminded me that one of the reasons we decided to relocate from the United States to Australia was our inability to deal with gun violence. My first day covering the Sandy Hook massacre had been the parents’ press conference a week or so after losing their children. I’d also covered their relentless yet unyielding efforts in the aftermath. I’d been on the ground for Charleston. At least in Australia, I thought, our children would be safer.
But for December 31, 2019 at least, this was not the case — out of the line of fire, and into the fire. During the 12 hours we spent adjusting to that fact, we also needed to do all the things parents have to do anyway, like taking choking hazards away from a 2-year-old and comforting a 4-year-old after they burst into tears because “We didn’t do anything fun today!!!” What falls by the wayside? Again and again, my wife and I had to decide on the fly. We each clung to normalcy in different ways as we transitioned into survival mode.
“In the morning, I’ll handle the food in the fridge because I know what we need to take and what we can leave behind. You just get the toiletries,” Ariane said about 33 minutes before Australia would ring in the new year.
“OK,” I said. “And I’m going to try to find Skye,” referring to the fearless canine helicopter pilot from Nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol.” Julian had misplaced his beloved action figure during the afternoon, much to his consternation.
“Baby Skye? I thought you had her.”
“We brought both Baby Skye and Skye. Skye is missing,” I said.
“It’s not important enough to spend the time,” Ariane insisted. “I can buy a new Skye for $4.
“Not four,” I said. “Thirty-two minutes till 2020.”
“Great,” said Ariane.
I had backed our car into its parking stall when I returned with dinner, before we knew which way the winds were blowing and that we’d see no flames for the foreseeable future. I finished packing it at 11:58 p.m. We were ready to grab the kids and run.
When I reentered the room, Ariane hopped up to me and, in a hushed whisper, explained her plan for water. I’ll summarize it here: Although we already had two 1.5 liter bottles of water in the car, one of them needed to be brought back in, and we were to drink all of it tonight. The empty bottle and the two empty bottles from yesterday were to be filled with tap water and brought on the trip just in case.
With that made clear, Ariane turned and started toward the room’s only sink. “And don’t step on the food,” she added. I looked down at my feet and there, to my surprise, was a plastic takeout container with rice and satay chicken noodles.
“I won’t step on your food. It’s midnight,” I said. Ariane spun around and gave me a hug and kiss. “I’m sorry that I pushed us into this vacation,” she said.
“Well, I’m the one who booked it. I was so intent on going somewhere.”
“Our life this past year has been like a vacation; our vacation has been like the apocalypse,” I joked.
We laughed. “Happy New Year.”
We left the hotel shortly after 7 a.m. Julian was awake and had eaten a few bits of cereal. Audrey had been carried directly from her bed to her car seat and was gradually waking up. I was behind the wheel, and Ariane was shooting video at my request.
Pambula was draped in smoke, but it had cleared up some. It looked like heavy fog. There were a few cars on the road.
We started up the mountain, back the way we’d come 36 hours before. Within five minutes, Ariane detected that I’d taken the wrong road. In a rush and out of habit, I’d fully trusted my iPhone, which was navigating us back up to Snowy Mountains Highway. This was the primary route from Canberra to the south coast, the one we’d taken on the way down, the one near the 68,000-hectare Bega Valley fire that had not yet been contained. The latest reports were that Snowy Mountains Highway had been reopened despite the fire, and that there were police cruisers along the way to provide assistance. But Ariane and I had agreed to stick with the plan: Mount Darragh Road, near where the much smaller, 65-hectare Wyndham fire was burning but contained.
“Should I turn around?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ariane said with three iPhones in her hands.
I decided to pull off. A larger SUV was on my tail, but I managed to turn left and idled next to a wooden fence behind which two horses were calmly grazing.
“Yes, let’s go back,” Ariane said.
We did and soon passed by our motel again.
The contrast was jarring. Whereas there had been a few cars headed to Snowy Mountains Highway, we were the only car headed toward Wyndham. This alone might not have given us pause, but we could see that the smoke was getting worse, not better, as we drove. Mount Darragh Road was small, remote, and winding. Most of the falloffs beside the road did not have guardrails. And worst of all, we lost cellular reception.
With “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” playing as our soundtrack, Ariane reviewed for me the reasons why she’d recommended this route. They still made sense to me. Smaller fire, contained, roads had been reopened sooner with no conflicting reports. But it was the loss of phone reception that brought Ariane to the verge of suggesting that we turn around again. “If something happens, we won’t be able to call for help,” she said.
We pressed on. The smoke got thicker. The signs posted varying speed limits, depending on the sharpness of the curve ahead. Ariane read out the numbers, adding “under NORMAL conditions,” each time, imploring me to slow down.
“The smoke doesn’t impact the road conditions, it impacts visibility, which is already limited by the curve of the road,” I said.
Before long, a smaller car was following behind us. This made us both feel better. We weren’t the only ones. And now, if something did happen, at least someone else would know.
I was shocked when we reached the tiny town of Wyndham so quickly. In my mind, I’d imagined the closest fire a lot further away. We were passing by the fire, but we couldn’t see much of anything, let alone any flames. Unlike the larger, more ferocious blazes in the region, the Wyndham fire was abating, and it had not destroyed its namesake.
We drove for another hour or so without phone reception, but Ariane had taken screengrabs of the route, so we only took one wrong turn. When we did so, the car behind us did the same. And when we both turned around, we were following them.
At the next town, our faceless travel companions took a different spoke of the roundabout. But it was about then that we regained cellular coverage, and with each bend of the road, we felt better and better. We were out of the mountains. No more cliffs by the roadside. We were joined by more and more cars, and about two hours into our journey, we started calling family members to tell them we were safe.
Incredibly, the smoke never cleared. After driving for more than four hours, we arrived in Canberra to (we later learned) the worst air conditions ever recorded. We had escaped the fires of the south coast but not the smoke they created. After a few hours of normalcy — during which Audrey and I went shopping and bought Julian a new Skye — Ariane and I have begun edging ourselves back toward survival mode. We’ve learned that it’s better not to resist it.
Ariane and I have begun edging ourselves back toward survival mode. We’ve learned that it’s better not to resist it.
As I write this, it’s 3 a.m. on January 2 in Australia. There are over 100 fires burning in New South Wales and Victoria, the two most populous states. Five more people are missing and presumed dead in the Cobargo fire. While we were still in Pambula, a firefighter died in the line of duty in Jingellic, New South Wales. The Mallacoota fire in Victoria has combined with the Weir Road fire in New South Wales. They are now referring to it as the Border fire. There are no contained edges. Military ships and helicopters have been deployed to rescue thousands — many of them beach vacationers — still trapped.
Kristy McBain, the mayor of Bega Valley Shire, whose leadership and information helped us escape, said this in a webcast emergency meeting hours ago in Eden: “If you are preparing to leave, you need to leave early. If you are going to stay and defend your home, you need to make sure that you are fully prepared.”
She instructed those who flee to come here to Canberra.
Meanwhile, I have taped up every door and many of the windows of our house, but it still smells like smoke in every room. We don’t know how much worse it’s going to get. But the next two months are usually hotter than the last two (Australia’s January and February are like the U.S.’s July and August). Earlier tonight, Ariane and I discussed driving with the kids to Sydney, flying to Darwin (Australia’s northernmost city), and purchasing an air-filtering machine (they are sold out on every website in Australia and presumably in every store).
Ariane showed me a draft of a Facebook post in which she expressed appreciation for the firefighters and sorrow for those who have lost their lives today. She ended with something like this: “Australia’s present is the world’s future. Global warming continues, and it’s terrifying.”
*The friend is an editor at The Intercept I’d worked with when I was back in the States producing and reporting for The Young Turks.