South Coast bushfires: Poignant photos capture catastrophic aftermath of the 'forever fire'

It's been more than 60 days since the Currowan Fire began to consume the South Coast. Unlike most disasters, which are singular in nature - a flood, an earthquake, a cyclone that strike one location - this one just keeps rolling on.

It's destroyed towns and villages, laid waste to forests and farmland, disrupted lives and distorted our very sense of time.

On the South Coast, we're calling it the Forever Fire.

It's like a psychotic home invader we can't get rid of, quiet one day but triggered into a violent, unpredictable rage the next.

And it's changed the way we live. The morning routine involves checking the Fires Near Me app and the weather forecast. Lives now revolve around the long-range weather outlook and plans are guided by what the fire is doing and where it is sending its smoke.

Anxiety levels spike every time heatwave conditions return. Even though the fire has passed through many areas, even though it can one day be declared under control, this monster has shown it is quite capable of reigniting when it seems there is nothing left to burn.

We saw that only last week, when the fire took more homes in the Southern Highlands and on the Far South Coast.

Tapitallee on New Year's Eve. Picture: supplied

Tapitallee on New Year's Eve. Picture: supplied

The old certainties of summer - the trips to the beach, the evenings on the verandah, the barbecues with friends - have gone up in smoke. Nothing seems permanent any more - the sense of peril arrives on every warm breeze from the northwest.

When it first ignited in two places in the hinterland between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay on November 26, the editor of the Bay Post Kerrie O'Connor, who lives at East Lynne warned it had the potential to run down to the coast. Turns out she was entirely prescient.

Within days it had roared up towards Ulladulla and down to threaten Batemans Bay. On November 30, it crossed the Clyde and began its destructive march towards Bawley Point and Lake Tabourie.

Urgent community meetings were called. Residents were told to activate their Bushfire Survival Plans. Many had not given them a thought beforehand, despite the repeated urgings of the Rural Fire Service.

ILLAWARRA MERCURY. Currawan Fires aftermath. pic taken along Braidwood Road . 30 December 2019. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

ILLAWARRA MERCURY. Currawan Fires aftermath. pic taken along Braidwood Road . 30 December 2019. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

Hundreds gathered in Ulladulla on the afternoon of December 13 to hear dire warnings from Currowan Fire incident controller Superintendent Mark Williams, who presented a worst case scenario:

"This fire has the potential to get as far as Nerriga Road to the north and Moruya to the south," he told the crowd. He also warned not to expect a firetruck at every property - there were simply not enough of them.

Ten days after this meeting, Nerriga itself had been overrun by flames, its residents hunkering down in the pub as RFS tankers surrounded the building and hosed it down.

By January 4, Supt Williams' worst case scenario had been surpassed many times over.

The Currowan fire had spread so far, it now had to be divided into four: the Currowan 2 fire, the Morton fire in the Southern Highlands, the Charleys Forest Fire to the west and the Clyde Mountain Fire to the south.

To get from one end of the fireground to the other involves a three-and-a-half hour drive. One would need an entire day to drive its perimeter - that's how big it has grown. And it's still on the move.

Once dense bush, Kangaroo Valley is now barren. Picture: Robert Peet

Once dense bush, Kangaroo Valley is now barren. Picture: Robert Peet

On Friday, January 31 the original Currowan blaze had started merging with the Badja Forest Rd, Countengany Fire to the south.

As journalists covering the story, we have also become part of it. Many of us have had to evacuate, some several times over.

There have been many days when we have left for work in the morning, not knowing whether we would have a home to return to at the end of the day.

We've endured the same terror as our readers. We've cried along with them, not at our predicament but at the tribulations of others, who have seen their homes and livelihoods burn, their little patches of paradise reduced to ash.

We've cried for our beautiful forests and for the wildlife we have lost.

Unless you have been there, watching the sky turn from cobalt blue to orange, to red and then to pitch black at 3pm, it is impossible to fathom the fear.

John Hanscombe

We've cried with gratitude for the firefighters who have battling flames for what seems like an eternity.

We've cried because we've been frightened.

Unless you have been there, watching the sky turn from cobalt blue to orange, to red and then to pitch black at 3pm, it is impossible to fathom the fear.

Unless you have received the text message telling you it is too late to leave, you cannot get a true sense of the danger.

Three weeks on, an underground fire continues to burn at Kangaroo Valley. Picture: Robert Peet

Three weeks on, an underground fire continues to burn at Kangaroo Valley. Picture: Robert Peet

And unless you drive through the burnt zone, you cannot appreciate the ferocity of the fire and the destruction it has wrought.

For many city people, the impact of the fire emergency has been serious but indirect - dystopian skies filled with smoke, cancelled holidays, inconvenience. Their reaction, when they see for the first time what you have been experiencing for weeks, is revealing on a couple of levels.

First, their shock at the sheer destructive power of the flames. We stopped in the burnt zone along Nerriga Road with Illawarra Mercuryphotographer Sylvia Liber on December 30 in a landscape which appeared to have been nuked. Trees were blackened, everything but their trunks consumed. There was deadly silence - no insects, no birdsong. And there was heat. Not from the sky above but from the ground below. As we took photos, we remarked on the almost spectral beauty of the destruction. It was otherworldly.

Second, for us who live with the fire, the dreadful realisation we have started to adapt to the so-called "new normal", becoming accustomed to our destroyed world, which is anything but normal.

We put fresh eyes on the fire again this week when photographer Robert Peet accompanied us to Budgong at the back of Kangaroo Valley, where the Currowan Fire leapt up into the Southern Highlands on January 4.

A recent lick of rain had turned the valley emerald green but a few kilometres over Mt Scanzi, everything was black. The all-too familiar aftermath left Robert momentarily speechless.

"I've seen plenty of fires but nothing on this scale," he said finally, visibly shaken.

We followed what has become a routine work pattern in the burnt zone, pulling up when we saw people and talking to them about their experiences.

Balmoral Village residents express their gratitude. Picture: Robert Peet

Balmoral Village residents express their gratitude. Picture: Robert Peet

Out where the apocalypse has been, people are happy to share their experiences. It's a cathartic way of processing the unimaginable.

We've found this all over the fire ground, from Runnyford west of Batemans Bay to Lake Conjola, from Budgong out to Nerriga.

The fire emergency may have destroyed homes, infrastructure and forests but it has strengthened community. Neighbours who were strangers now talk to each other at every opportunity. Old differences have been set aside as people turn to each other for support.

Now the adrenaline of the emergency is abating, people who have been through hell will need to talk and people who haven't should listen.

If there is one lesson from this emergency, it is that nowhere is safe.

People wait to be evacuated from the beach at Batemans Bay. Picture: Kirsty Blake

People wait to be evacuated from the beach at Batemans Bay. Picture: Kirsty Blake

Seasoned firefighters will tell you not to turn your back on these fires, that they still have the potential to run across the high ground, into the escarpment and all the way into Sutherland.

Those residents who either lost homes or successfully fought off the flames will tell you the speed at which the fire moves in adverse conditions is unlike anything they have ever imagined. The faces of people who had close calls with death at the height of the emergency still look haunted.

That's why everyone in the burnt zone is still on edge. Even places which burned weeks ago have reignited. Danger lurks everywhere, with trees falling or dropping limbs and underground fires still burning.

After weeks living in and traversing this strange new world, returning to any sense of normality will take a very long time.

The whole experience will never be forgotten.

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It has been Australia's lost summer. Drought, hail, floods and, worst of all, bushfires have ravaged communities all over the nation. But the selfless actions of friends, family, neighbours, strangers, local groups and volunteer organisations have inspired us and strengthened the bonds of community. Please join us in saying thanks to the heroes of the home front by sharing your stories of gratitude. To salute a person or a group, please use the form below.

This story The fire that just won't stop first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.