Nick Carroll: "The Only Thing I Could Compare It to Is War"

10 Jan 2020 15 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

A southerly saved Phil Macca’s town. But what now?

It wasn’t really the New Year’s Eve Phil Macdonald and his twin brother Ant had planned.

The pair aren’t always in the same place these days. But now, along with their family and various friends, they’d just done a runner from the Tomakin Sports and Social Club, heading into what Phil describes as a “mad scramble” for the semi-safety of the shoreline, as a fire front descended on the town.

“I remember sitting together on the beach in the dark, hoping the southerly would come, and saying, well this is unexpected,” Phil says to CW.

Phil is 40 years of age. Still sharp and fit-looking after a successful elite pro career, he’s now based in the Macca family’s ancestral South Coast environment, helping to run Ocean and Earth, the area’s renowned core surf accessories company.

Growing up in Tomakin, he recalls the idea of a bushfire as a kind of background buzz, a possibility, the way it is in a lot of regional communities. “We’ve had fires come to the back of the house,” he says. “I think growing up, you did kind of accept a fire might come one day. But my dad’s 76 and he says he’s never seen anything like this.”

The fires had been lurking around his part of the world for a month or so, after a lightning strike in the hills just inland, in the Bundawang National Park. Then the hot westerlies came and blew fire all the way out to the coast at Durras, just north of Batemans Bay. Roads were rapidly closed. A workmate of Phil’s, Jay Taplin, was locked in at Bawley Point for four days defending his home.

Wind switches kept moving the the fire around: north-east, then hot westerly again, then a quick southerly, then back nor-east. Eventually the fire behind Batemans Bay merged with one burning out of control west of Sussex Inlet.

On New Year’s Eve morning, Phil came to work after an uneasy night’s sleep. “The sky was gold-coloured and there was smoke everywhere,” he says. “We had a look at the emergency fire map and it showed a finger of fire pointing straight at us. Just this one finger.”

He raced home. “We took passports, photos, all the things that mattered and were easy to take, and put everything else inside the house. Then blocked the gutters and filled them and damped down the whole house for about an hour, as long as we could. My mum and dad’s house backs on to a nature reserve, we did the same things there.

“It just got darker and darker, and hotter and hotter.”

They went to the club and watched the glow approaching from the west. The fire was 20 metres above the tree line, having travelled 20 kilometres in a day. Just to the south, Broulee was already under ember attack. Just to the west, Mogo was ablaze.

“I was watching for the southerly,” Phil says. “We thought that might steer the fire away.” Not long after they’d got to the beach, the southerly hit. Smoke poured over the town and away with the wind.

Even then it was “pandemonium”. Four aircraft were water-bombing everywhere. Phil went around putting out spot fires. Everything went down: electricity, phone towers, which meant no information, and worse, no contact. “You don’t know if your mates have made it…the only thing I could really compare it to is war.”

The fire didn’t quite get his parents’ house, though there were burnt spots all around and the bush behind the house was burned. If that wind had switched 20 minutes later, that story may have turned out differently.

“IF EVERY SURFER WE KNOW BOOKED A TRIP DOWN THE COAST, THAT’D BE THE BEST THING YOU COULD DO FOR US.”

That’s what struck Phil then and over the next few days: the stories. “You hear all these stories. People went for days without sleep, putting out spot fires. You get in the car and go for a drive into Rosedale the next suburb north, I think there’s two houses left in North Rosedale. A mate lost his house while trying to save his mum’s. People out there trying to save koalas, the wildlife death is heartbreaking.

“It all went through us quite quickly, but then you’ve got to figure out what to do next. One of our friends, a mum with three kids, she just got them in the car and was driving around with no idea where to go. There’s people who didn’t pay their house insurance for a couple of months, then their house is gone. People’s farms are gone, and farming’s all they know. That’s just in my part of the world.”

Sussex Inlet is locked down. You need ID to get in and out. O&E’s legendary founder, Brian Cregan, spent several nights in the factory, waiting to defend it, and sleeping in, of all things, a board cover.

O&E has 35 employees, almost all who’ve been directly affected. It makes the recovery effort part of their mission. They’ve started a GoFundMe effort (see below) and plan to use their wide reach to encourage surfers to visit the area once it’s clean and clear again. Phil repeats the mantra CW has heard, over and over from local people: Buy South Coast produce, visit, spend your money with our businesses. “If every surfer we know booked a trip down the coast, that’d be the best thing you could do for us.”

Again like almost everyone we’ve spoken to, Phil is sure the region will recover over time. Still, the sense is that maybe the mental scars will be the last to heal. A few days after New Year’s, Phil went up to Sydney with his wife, and experienced a dissonance that sounds a lot like what war veterans describe.

“Everyone was walking around like nothing’s happened, looking at their phones, not really thinking. Whereas we were walking around in shock, thinking, here are people just going along with their lives, and down there people’s homes are gone, their lives are in pieces.

“I think people who’ve just seen it on the news, they’ll forget about it down the track. The people who lived through it, they never will.”

As mentoned above, Ocean and Earth have started a South Coast Bushfire Appeal with aims of raising $100,000 from the surf community to to disperse among the different local registered charities groups on the ground getting these communities back on their feet. Donate to it here.

Read Part 1 in this ongoing series: They're All History Now, The Story of 300 Lost Surfboards

Read Part 2 in this ongoing series: The Storm Front, Mallacoota Local Dale Winward's Perspective

Read Part 3 in this ongoing seriesThe Holidays That Never Were, South Coast Surf Shop Owner Kury Nyholm's Story

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