Driving north into Moruya on Monday afternoon against streams of cars with their headlights on, I could almost feel the roads closing like gates behind me.
Loaded with holiday gear and heading south to Brown Mountain on the Snowy Mountains Highway, these escapees from the Batemans Bay fire areas would have found the highway closed to them. Bega and Merimbula would be filling up.
Once in Moruya the air stilled in the night, but morning brought slamming doors, a dark orange glow and hairdryer winds.
The online map showed us the incredible growth of several fires; in particular, the one heading straight for Cobargo, with arms reaching out on the map, ready to consume anything in its reach.
Moruya riverside parks have been filling up all morning. By 7.30 am it feels like 4:00 pm and more people are streaming in. All heads are tilted to the sky, to the north the huge, swirling ever-changing cloud face of what was once the Currowan fire and is now two or three more, joining, growing, threatening.
The plumes are billowing out towards the east, over us, over the sea. At its easterly edge, on ridges that look to be near Runnyford, or maybe Mogo, we can see flames spiralling up into the brown, grey and white clouds in frequent explosions.
A lone water bomber plane glides gleaming white before the wall of blackness.
We watch the orange flares bursting from smoky ridges.
“That looks to be south-west of Batemans Bay,” someone says.
“So that southerly change is not gonna be good,” someone else answers.
We tilt our heads to the south, a cumulous mushroom cloud puffing up like a bomb that’s gone off. All of us knowing that with a southerly change that smoke will be settling over us here, as hundreds of people, with only their kids and cars, wonder out loud where to go for the night.
“I think we’ll just pitch our swags here on the nature strip next to our cars,” says a couple who left Bingie this morning.
At 11.30 am the wind does shift, just like that it is coming from the south … and news comes, with images, that the main street of Cobargo is alight. That people may have died. Kids are held closer.
Here in Moruya the power is off, the supermarket is closed, toilets are blocking and there are no traffic lights to guide the stream of vehicles crossing the Moruya River.
The swimming pool opens its toilets and showers and offers shelter for the duration, but power is off so no swimming. People are showing patience and care. A teenage girl walks along the river, crying.
We receive text notifications that where we are is unsafe. Areas north of Moruya should seek shelter as the fires arrive. There is no ‘if’ any more.
People head off to the showgrounds, kids jump in the river. “I love you,” someone says.
The wind is cooler, has shifted but not abated. There is no distinction of fire plumes any longer, but a smoky fog starts to surround us, lowering vision, irritating throats and eyes.
And the ash and leaves and particles start to rain down on us.
My New Year’s Eve will be spent with hundreds here on the Moruya Riverbank, and there is a sense of community, of family. And that’s ok with me.