Tears And Hope: What It's Like To Cover The Bushfire Devastation As A Reporter
When I received the call to go into the South Coast fire zone, I was quietly terrified.
I'm a Queenslander through and through. I know what it's like to be in the eye of a cyclone; I've seen the mass devastation of drought; I've travelled down flooded highways and suburban streets in a tinnie.
As Queenslanders, we know natural disasters well. But as a Townsville flood victim last year told me, "I'd rather have a flood than fire. They move too fast and are unpredictable".
And that was what scared us all in the Bega Valley -- the great unknown. Thick smoke was blanketing the region and ash was falling from the sky like snow. Breathing became painful. The soot stung your eyes. And if you were among the thousands who didn't have mobile reception, you could have sworn the fires were on your doorstep -- not, at times, many kilometres away.
Then came the day when the flames were on the doorstep of Cobargo, a beautiful heritage town whose residents take great pride in its history.
Alerts were sent out via text message in the early hours of the morning. Residents needed to get out, but one woman we spoke with was asleep and didn't see the warning until it was too late to pack. She and her husband escaped with their lives, and the clothes on their back.
Their home of 24 years was burnt to the ground.
Some people didn't escape that fire. Father and son Robert and Patrick Salway died trying to protect the family dairy farm. An elderly woman fought back tears as she whispered to us, "that's devastating. For everyone." In these towns, everyone knows everyone. The loss is indescribable.
There can be heightened anger towards journalists in times like these. We all handle shock and grief differently.
But in this crisis, the people in the Bega Valley welcomed us into their community. They wanted their stories told and their voices heard, for the rest of the country -- and the world -- to listen, to understand the magnitude of devastation.
A lot of these people didn't make it to the 5pm news. The camera wasn't rolling when we sat with them, cried with them, laughed with them and listened to their tales about the region, its people and its history.
We spent six days going in and out of the Bega Evacuation Centre at the showground. We brought them supplies and treats for their beloved pet dogs. They made sure we'd eaten, hugged us, and wanted assurances we were looking after ourselves and our mental health.
Our worried families certainly appreciated that community looking out for us. In those six days we developed a genuine bond based on trust and respect.
When two police officers told us to leave the centre on the day conditions were at their worst, I cried.
"But where are we meant to go?" I asked, with tears running down my face. I was embarrassed but I couldn't help it. We're people too. We were scared, just like everyone else, and we wanted to be with the community who had welcomed us with open arms.
We were later told it was a "misunderstanding". The same response was given when ground management later threatened a 14-year-old evacuee with the police if he didn't stop posting video updates on his social media.
I want people to know we are not the enemy. We genuinely care about the people whose stories we are telling. I'm now at home, but still messaging with Tyson in Bermagui, Rachael in Bemboka, and Tony and Zoey in Cobargo.
We have kept in contact since our paths crossed, sharing updates on the encroaching fires and making sure donations get to their communities. I want to know they're okay, that they have the supplies they need.
From this experience, I also want people to know how bloody amazing the young people are in these towns. Zoey Salucci-McDermott was so brave when she refused to shake the Prime Minister's hand and became a voice for her community. She's 20 years old and pregnant. She had just lost her house and everything she owned, yet all she wanted was more money for firefighters.
The teenagers at one McDonald's restaurant -- just about the only eatery open, which became a meeting hub for many -- wore respirators and face masks to push through and keep serving their community. Tensions were high and they were run off their feet, yet they showed up to work every day and did their absolute best.
Tyson White, from Bermagui, became a citizen journalist at the Bega showground, sharing updates on social media when he wasn't helping move the truckloads of donations pouring in.
Climate change and our environment aside -- our future is in amazing hands with these young people.
I'm not writing this for attention or validation. I genuinely want the wider community to know we are there because we care about you and getting your stories out. One ABC journalist even worked through the day to deliver the news, and then donned his orange suit and volunteered with the SES.
I've used the word 'community' a lot during this piece, but that's what it comes down to. Even though I have cried so much this week, seeing people and comforting them in their absolute darkest of days, I leave so full of hope.
Because these communities embody everything that is good about Australia.