GALLERY: How we got through the scorcher

As a day of catastrophic fire danger began in the Illawarra, the early morning walkers of North Wollongong were still buzzing from their late night text messages and warning phone calls from the RFS. 

They stopped on the side of the paths to share the details: what time they got theirs; what they were doing when it arrived, how many messages they received altogether.

A lady in lycra tights says she had to get out of bed to answer her call about 11.30pm. The voice at the other end was pre-recorded.

‘‘Catastrophic fire danger tomorrow for Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges,’’ it said. ‘‘Not being in a bushfire prone area is the safest option.’’

The walkers woke to an overcast sky. 

It was hot – 30degrees by 7.30am – but the cloud left some doubt it would hit the forecast 43degrees. The breeze was warm and there was little of it.

It was windier by 11am, and four degrees hotter. The gusts went in all different directions at Pinecourt Park at Austinmer, one of the designated ‘‘Neighbourhood Safer Places’’ or places of last resort during a bushfire emergency.

The park was empty now but some fishers and visitors lined the nearby coast.

A man visiting from Sydney set up his laptop on some crates and used the open car boot as his chair, seemingly unperturbed by the elevated fire risk.

Many Illawarra families spent the day at the beach, the cinema or any place cool, but Sandra Carbery and John McCormack weren’t straying far from their home, an all-timber stilt construction nestled at the foot of the escarpment at Austinmer. They had mowed and cleared the yard of leaf litter, prepared the hoses and laid out gear including a hessian throw – for snuffing out embers. 

Ms Carbery spent Monday night burning photographs onto a thumb drive. She had packed a bag of necessities for the cat, Tally, and the dog, Sophie, and readied the animals’ cages – ‘‘anything else I’m not worried about’’. But she couldn’t sleep after the RFS’s warning phone call came. 

‘‘I thought, ‘oh no, they’re serious,’’’ she says.

‘‘I was thinking about it all night. I was worried about the animals.’’ 

The couple’s balcony offers a view out to sea, and of much of the dry, fuel-laden bush that has contributed to the catastrophic-grade fire risk here.

No-one bothered to clear a nearby carport roof of its pile of brown, bone dry leaves.

Similar piles of brown lined the roads leading to the escarpment. A good gust of wind sent puffs of the finer stuff into the air. It is all potential fuel.

The heat interfered with proceedings at Wollongong Court House, which were halted at 11.30am. 

By midday it was more than 40degrees at the Austinmer RFS base. The clouds were gone and the sun grew unrelenting.

Senior deputy captain Anthony Turner and about 10 other volunteers lunched on barbecued chicken, but everyone kept an ear on the amplified radio.

The messages so far were administrative-style code yellows. A code red or an emergency call – reserved for cases when lives are in danger – were what they were really listening for. 

Hotels in Wollongong reported a spike in inquiries from an unlikely group of customers – local people, sometimes neighbours of the hotel – wanting to know the cost of spending the night somewhere air conditioned.

At Stanwell Park Beach the sand burned. 

Sarah Byden, of Bowral, had left her thongs in the car and couldn’t make the 100metres distance back from the water. 

She raced for a few steps, then threw down her towel and stood on it a while, then repeated it, bemusing passers-by.  

No-one had any such energy at Symbio Wildlife Park at Helensburgh. 

Betty the wombat refused to leave her burrow. The keepers threw a few ice blocks down the hole in sympathy. 

The koalas were playing dead, draped over the tree branches, all splayed legs and lazy, thrown back arms. The red pandas were panting. The tigers were grateful for their ‘‘bloodsicles’’ – blood-infused iceblocks – while the emus seemed to appreciate a good, misty hosing.

It was past 2pm and there had been four paying visitors to the park all day. 

The Stanwell Park kiosk was busier. Operator Leo Constantinou stayed in the shade. He was at the kiosk when the worst of the 2001 Christmas bushfires hit Helensburgh and Stanwell Tops. 

Then, scores of residents came running down to the kiosk, convinced they would lose their homes in the blaze. 

As the flames moved over the escarpment, Mr Constantinou shared the contents of the kiosk, free of charge, and tried to comfort the inconsolable. 

‘‘I will never forget the way the flames just turned around the corner there,’’ he says, pointing to a curve in the escarpment.

‘‘It was a scary day.’’ ‘‘I hope it’s not going to happen again.’’

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