Nick Carroll: The Storm Front
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
Mallacoota local Dale Winward couldn’t believe what he saw. He never wants to see it again
When David Ford headed south to Mallacoota for a pre-Christmas break, before the south coast exploded, he stayed with an old mate, Dale Winward (read Part 1 in this ongoing series, David Ford's story of losing 300 boards to the fires).
Dale had been David’s neighbour in Lake Conjola for a number of years. Otherwise, he tells CW, he’s Mallacoota “born and bred”. Dale has 32 years of abalone diving and a lot of surfing behind him. He also runs a 110 year old timber ferry, and a second charter boat for tourists, exploring the lake system that winds inland from the town.
A couple of days before New Year’s, Dale was hired by a group of young hikers who wanted him to drop them off his boat at a beach in the national park well south of town. The hikers knew what they were doing, they had a plan and let Dale know it.
“I dropped them off, and noticed all this smoke, just hanging over the bush and through the trees,” he says. “Then when I got back to town, the emergency signal went off on the phone about a fire flaring down there.”
He called one of the hikers’ parents. “They’re pretty experienced,” the parent told Dale.
“I think I’d better go get them anyway,” Dale said to the parent. He went back down the coast, to a beach the hikers had said they’d be near at the time, punched his boat through the shorey, and picked them up one by one.
That afternoon the fire began to blow up south of town. “A lot of people were oblivious,” says Dale. “But south of town there was this huge plume. It was going straight up, 20,000 feet, some real energy under it. I think people were complacent at first, but then on December 31 everyone began to realise and a lot of them bailed. Either left town or went up into the lake complex on boats.”
That’s where Dale went — up into the lake to a place called Goodwin Sands, with about 50 other boats. Then he watched the fire approach.
“It was like a storm front — Biblical. There was lightning above and ahead of the fire. It was making this incredible noise. I don’t ever want to see a thing like that again. Then it all went black, pitch black. I didn’t think any house was going to be left standing.
“I remember the 1983 fires, we were grommets just out surfing, people were yelling at us to get out of the water but we just laughed at them. This was nothing like that.”
People did strange things over the next few hours. A couple of guys Dale knows dug a hole near the point, wet a blanket, and hid in the hole, using the blanket as cover. Another mate, Mallacoota legend Liquid Les, was down there on the beach with his 87-year-old mother. They survived somehow. Many of the town’s classic old beach cottages didn’t. Dale knows the town will re-build, but “it’ll change the whole landscape, I think.”
He is haunted by what happened to local wildlife. Birds were sucked up into the fire plume and fell out of the sky. The back beaches are littered with the corpses of black cockatoos and owls.
Now, he says, “It’s still super smoky and toxic here. Everyone’s wearing masks. It’s basically turned into a military base — the army and navy’s running the show. It’s a major operation. You’re allowed 15 litres of petrol each from the local servo, and the army’s had to post soldiers down there because the lady who runs the servo’s been getting death threats.”
Dale hastens to add that there’s been more good than bad behaviour from people. The volunteer firies were amazing. The local IGA: “They stayed open 24/7, slept in the aisles, and kept everyone fed. The pub’s going. That was another kind of refuge.”
His wife is a nurse at the medical centre, which has been run off its feet. The navy came in and set up an operating theatre from scratch, right in the middle of the centre. The place is overflowing regardless: kids with asthma, other respiratory issues. Mallacoota has a lot of retirees, most of whom were evacuated to safe zones before that storm front came out of the south, but some of whom remained and are in need of help.
Other aspects of the crisis are kind of amusing, at least to a surfer’s mind. Several years ago Mallacoota was the site of a big surfer-led battle against a harbour wall project which threatened to destroy the town’s right-hand point break. The wall was built, but it then led to a constant battle against sand drift which had to be dredged from the new harbour entrance, at a cost of $500,000 a year.
Now the dredging has had to stop, and the point is recovering its sand — a thought that prompts Dale to say something CW has heard from a number of surfers affected by these fires. “If you want to help, come down and support us. Spend your money down here, stay and have a surf.”
But first, the fire has to go away. Mallacoota is completely cut off by land; the only way is or out is by sea or air.
David Ford’s tinnie is still parked on Dale’s property. Amazingly, the fire went up both sides of his house, but never touched it.
“She’s not over yet,” he says. “It’s just stopped for a minute.”
Read Part 1 in this ongoing series: They're All History Now, The Story of 300 Lost Surfboards
Read Part 3 in this ongoing series: The Holidays That Never Were, Surf Shop Owner Kurt Nyholm's Perspective
Read Part 4 in this ongoing series: A southerly saved Phil Macca’s town. But what now?
Stay tuned to CW for more stories from surfers who’ve felt the heat of these flames. In the meantime, we'd like to encourage everyone to donate, if they can, to the following organisations:
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