Henry Jones was prepared to risk his life to save his timber home and surfing memorabilia as wildfires threatened to engulf the idyllic town of Pambula in southeastern Australia last weekend. Not anymore.
With high winds and searing temperatures forecast to return Friday across fire-ravaged areas, Jones, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher, isn’t taking any chances.
“I realized the house isn’t worth it even though I spent 47 years doing everything I could to make this place paradise,” he said. “I’ll just hose it down, put water in the gutters and head into town in the mobile home.”
Dozens of communities — from small towns such as Pambula on the south coast of New South Wales state, to alpine villages in neighboring Victoria — are again in danger from wildfires that have razed more than 2,000 homes, killed at least 26 people and charred more than 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of forest and bush across the nation in the past few months.
Jones’ heartbreaking choice — fight or flee — is one faced by hundreds, if not thousands of Australians. While firefighters used cooler weather this week to strengthen containment lines across fronts stretching thousands of kilometers, there are fears the blazes will again spread if high winds scatter burning embers over communities such as Pambula, nestled between the fishing town of Eden and the tourist haven of Merimbula.
Residents were told to evacuate last Saturday when a blaze came within about 17 kilometers (11 miles). Jones had spent days clearing vegetation, and had hosed down the roof and walls of the house he renovated from an old dairy worker’s cottage dating back to the 1880s.
With his wife, Trish, sheltering in their motorhome near the boat ramp in Merimbula, he waited anxiously under a darkening, smoke-filled sky to defend his wooded 12-hectare property. A converted barn beside his home houses hang-gliders, wooden kayaks, surfboards and memorabilia from a renowned windsurfing tournament that’s entering its 40th year.
If the blaze got too severe, Jones planned to put on a wet suit, face mask and snorkel, and seek safety in a nearby lake.
“Then Trish rang and said: ‘Look, this is no good, there’s too many trees around you, there’s forest everywhere. You could get cooked. What’s more important, the house or your life?’ ” he recalled. “So out of my compassionate heart and my 50 years of marriage to my beautiful bride, I drove into Merimbula, and we sat in the van and watched it all happen from there.”
This weekend, he’ll join Trish from the outset. “There’s nothing normal about this fire,” said Jones. “It’s hotter than hell.”
The scale and ferocity of the fires has shocked Australians and the world. Blazes are so large they’ve generated their own thunderstorms, causing lightening strikes that sparked more wildfires in forests rendered tinder dry by an ongoing drought.
The crisis has stoked an emotive debate about the impact of climate change in the world’s driest-inhabited continent, with the federal government facing calls to take stronger steps to curb carbon emissions. Thousands of protesters were preparing to rally in Melbourne, Sydney and other major Australian cities on Friday demanding governments stop supporting fossil fuel industries.
Extreme weather on Friday may cause at least two major fires to merge, creating a mega inferno on the New South Wales-Victoria border. Emergency warnings were issued across Victoria’s East Gippsland region as conditions worsened, including for the town of Buchan where residents were briefed yesterday on the fire danger.
“There is a ring of fire around us,” East Gippsland Shire Council Mayor John White told residents, who gathered inside a clubhouse beside a sports field. “It doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing, some people will be spared, and some people will be affected.”
Piles of mattresses and food, and maps of the region along the walls show the clubhouse’s growing importance as a emergency center. Outside, donated bails of hay for blackened farms and pallets of water bottles were stacked beside the green turf of the sports ground.
‘Need a Break’
Kate Hodge, 42, planned to evacuate her children and mother ahead of the expected fires, and said many people were deciding whether to leave the district or to shelter in the town’s center and be ready to assist the community tackle any new blazes and deal with the aftermath.
“The smoke is really beginning to take its toll, particularly on the older residents,” Hodge said. “Many of them really don’t want to leave, but after 10 or so days of smoke, they really need a break.”
Jeff McCole, 70, no longer has a house to defend after losing his home when the most recent blazes struck Buchan on Dec. 30.
“The sky was bright orange beneath the clouds, and there were spot fires breaking out as we drove along the road to get here,” McCole said. Since then, he and wife Margaret have sought refuge in their caravan parked by the sports ground.
“We feel safe here, and people are well prepared for what’s ahead,” he said.