Grant had jumped in his Ford Falcon to escape while “everything was on fire,” but he was quickly blinded as he drove. “It was pitch black. The only light was from the flames,” he said. His car hit a tree, and he was forced to jump out as it caught alight.
He dived into a nearby dam, submerging himself in water for an hour and holding onto a wooden platform to shield himself from the wind. “I put my head under and stayed alive,” he said.
At the end of the day his Falcon – “a beautiful car” – lies burnt off the road, its tyres and windows melted and paint stripped, but all Grant can think about is the fact he’s safe and the house he built himself in the 90s still stands, protected by sprinklers on the roof.
But not everyone was as lucky, and residents along the stretch of highway were reeling from shock on Tuesday as they or their neighbours lost lifelong homes.
Batemans Bay was clouded in thick orange smoke just before midday, with visibility reduced to metres and spot fires beginning around houses, as holidaymakers tried to escape from the burning South Coast.
Residents of Tomakin, further down the coast, put out spot fires with buckets and waited anxiously on street corners to hear if their houses had withstood the flames or their loved ones were safe, as cut power lines and phone reception prevented communication in the area for much of the day.
The six local stores that once welcomed visitors to the town of Mogo were razed by fire. A resident of 41 years, Will, was watching from his front porch nearby as his neighbour Les’ two cars blew up in front of him about 6am Tuesday morning.
“Then the embers blew towards us. It was that dark we thought it was night time,” he said.
He and his sister Sheree defended their house, but their neighbours’ homes succumbed to the flames. Dozens of Mogo’s houses were still smouldering as burnt-out trees and powerlines fell onto the town’s roads in the afternoon.
Sheree has been fearful of flames since she was in a house fire 20 years ago. “[Today] was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” she said.
“It will give you nightmares. I’ve never prayed so hard in all my life.”
Mogo’s former fire chief Michael Zeigler spent the day spotting his house as his father’s next door went up in flames. He went into the burning structure to look for his dad, 92, who had been “too stubborn” to leave but couldn’t find him.
“At one point I collapsed and could only stick the hose on the fire,” he said.
He held his head when he found out that neighbours, Brian and Keith Nye, had persuaded his father to evacuate and he was safe at an evacuation centre.
Brian Nye said the man “wasn’t going to leave, he’s lived here for 70 years, so we saved his life”.
But the father and son, who are members of the local Aboriginal Land Council, were furious at the devastation wrought on their home town and that the army had not been brought in weeks ago.
“We’ve lived up here all our lives never seen anything like this,” Keith said.
“There was no reason for it to be a catastrophe like this. This could have been avoided. They knew this fire was in trouble a month ago.”
Local councillor Paul Sims said the same as he monitored the industrial area in south Batemans Bay, watching business owners attempt to fight black smoke plumes rising out of their stores and warehouses.
“This will hit the town hard. We’re built around tourism, but bookings are cancelled and it’s going to have a real big impact on the town. Why isn’t every available man in the army reserve here fighting?”
Natassia is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
James Brickwood is a photographer at The Sydney Morning Herald