Listen: Author Chrissy Guinery chats to Katrina Roe. Photo: Chrissy's daughter Kelita and children look over the remains of their home in Catalina.
On New Year’s Day of 2020, when the sun rose across New South Wales, its rays were obscured by a blanket of smoke—and nowhere darker than on the state’s far south coast.
In those devastating months now called the “Black Summer”, over two thirds of that region went up in flames. Eurobodalla Shire lost more homes than any other local government area in Australia. When the last of the area’s fires was finally extinguished on February 16, four lives had been lost, 501 homes destroyed, and 79 percent of the shire had been burnt.
Author Chrissy Guinery and her family, living in the Batemans Bay area, were hit hard – and she’s recorded her experiences, and those of many other locals, in her new book, When the Smoke Clears: Surviving the Australian Bushfires.
It’s now six months on from those dark days, and Chrissy says one of the lasting memories is the never-ending feeling of getting ready to leave. It was such a constant exercise that it became almost mundane.
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“By Christmas I think we’d been under a sky of smoke for about, at least six weeks, constantly getting ready to evacuate,” Chrissy told Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe.
“At first, we were freaking out – understandably. By the third time, I thought, ‘I’ll just pack a bag’, you know. It was that emotionally exhausting, that you kind of had to take it lighter in the end, or you just would have been worn out.”
On New Year’s Eve though, when conditions became catastrophic, there was nothing mundane about it.
“It was pretty full-on,” Chrissy recalls. “There were black leaves falling everywhere. And you would walk on the grass and it was crispy. It was almost like if you struck a match, you could just see everything explode. And of course everything did explode.
“The fires were just rampant, and they went so fast and so far, that we just weren’t prepared [or] equipped to cope with what happened. We had one fire burning south and one burning west. They had joined together by then – so they were just this wall that was not to be reckoned with. And of course, it swept down through the town. It was just like, ‘whoosh’.”
Cut Off From Family, Fearing the Worst
While Chrissy was throwing treasured possessions in her van, on another part of the coast, one of her grown-up daughters, Kelita, was trapped for three hours in a caravan with her family, as fires burned around them.
When they finally got back to their house in Catalina, in the hope of rescuing some belongings, it was already going up in flames. Meanwhile, another of Chrissy’s daughters had packed her family into the car, too, with smoke and flame bearing down on them—and lost all communication.
For Chrissy, losing contact was the worst part.
“They were going to try and get to us, but couldn’t – but we didn’t know that,” she said. “So they were missing, to us, for 24 hours. We didn’t know whether they were gone…That was just torture for all of us.
“I got the call to say ‘Your daughter’s house burned down’ – and we couldn’t get to her until the next day. That was devastating, to not be able to comfort your own child.”
“There were spot fires breaking out everywhere, there were embers falling, there was no communication. People on the outside, even on the other side of the world, were hearing more about it than we were. Our [mobile] towers were down. We had no power, no communication.
“Every now and again, a text would come through. And of course, I got the call to say ‘Your daughter [Kelita’s] house burned down’ – and we couldn’t get to her until the next day. That was devastating, to not be able to comfort your own child, you know?”
Their reunion, when it finally happened, was an emotional one.
“We just ran and hugged and cried,” Chrissy said. “[Kelita’s] hubby had videoed the last of their home burning. We just watched it a couple of times just stunned, staring at his phone, going, ‘Where are we? What is this? You know, how can this be real?’”
The Difficulty of Decision-Making In A Crisis
Chrissy remembers the feeling of indecision over whether to evacuate – something many Australians experienced during the fires – and their ill-informed survival plans, now laughable in hindsight.
“If it was just my hubby and I, I think we might’ve been able to make decisions easier,” she said. “We feel comfortable and confident. But we had my mum with us, and she was 83 years old.
“Our road, there’s only one way in, so if we were to attempt to choose to evacuate in the middle of it, there was nowhere to go. So the third time [fires threatened], we thought ‘We’re gonna tough this out, we can go to the pool’. We had sprinklers on the roof, we had a generator, we were milking water from the dam, and we’re doing everything that we thought was going to work.[But as the fire progressed], I’m realizing the severity of the situation.
“Mum’s afraid of water anyway, and our plan was to jump in the swimming pool and hope a fire went over our head! Not even thinking about how it just sucks the oxygen out of the air and we all would have possibly passed out and drowned anyway.
“So it was just all those sort of decisions that you’re constantly confronted with every morning you wake up.”
In the end, Chrissy and her husband had the presence of mind to clear out, finding refuge at the Coach House Resort in Batemans Bay, which had been converted into an evacuation centre. The family spent five days there while the fires still threatened – talking about their experiences, letting off steam, the children even role-playing and reliving the drama.
Community Spirit – But More Help is Needed
In the aftermath, Chrissy said there was an overwhelming sense of community spirit, and an outpouring of generosity from thousands of Australians who stepped in to help.
One man, named Matt, even made it his personal mission to clothe Kelita’s entire family.
“There’s been a whole lot of people – God bless Australia! – truly generous, beautiful people,” Chrissy said. “We were helping one another, people were pooling together. I’d fill up the van and drive it around to all the people I knew who lost homes. Some were just in motel rooms, and some in living conditions [that were] crazy. People just crammed in wherever they could fit.
“It was just beautiful. There was just this universal language where you just hug and share a tear. That’s what was happening in the whole town.”
“And it was just beautiful. [There was] just this universal language where you just hug and share a tear. Of course COVID robbed that! But at the time, that’s what was happening in the whole town. It didn’t matter who you were or what situation you were in. It was like, no one could do enough for you. And it was just beautiful.”
Chrissy also saw great generosity from people of faith all over Australia, sending support through the local churches up and down the coast. Her daughter and son-in-law are pastors at Southland Church in Bateman’s Bay, and through the charity arm of their church, they’re been able to act as a central distribution point, sending resources to people in desperate need.
A Community Still Reeling, and COVID Adds Uncertainty
Of course, the healing isn’t complete, and many people will need ongoing support and care for a long time to come.
While writing her book, Chrissy has spent a lot of time in coffee shops, listening to people pour out their memories. For many of them, it has been cathartic, a kind of therapy.
”Each time these people get their story validated, its like they can take a step forward,” Chrissy said.
She wants their stories to be heard, to let the world know “what happened to those people” who the world watched on their TV screens that summer.
Recovery is slow. Many people in the region are still struggling to heal from their trauma and rebuild their disrupted lives—weighed down even more, now, by the uncertainty brought by COVID-19. This constant stopping-and-starting of trade, in an area dependent on tourism and hospitality, is taking its toll.
“It’s been like a rollercoaster,” Chrissy said. “One minute we’re all rebuilding, the next minute, everyone’s pulled back. Then we’re allowed to have our visitors. So our cafes open, and then COVID – they’re all pulled back. So we’ve kind of been in this vortex, and trauma, and then ‘Oh, okay, we can get back to normal – No, you can’t’.
“There’s all that shaking around for our small businesses, that really have had no real income since November last year… ‘The world goes on’ – but not here!”
A Book About Hope
When the Smoke Clears shines a light on the silver linings to be found in a dark time in our nation’s history – as well as practical tips from counselling practice, on the different stages of grief.
In its pages, Chrissy has also shared some of the optimism found in her Christian faith, and she’s hoping many will find the book an encouragement.
“It’s a book for everyone – for the people who went through it, for people who watched, and for the future, when others might need counsel and help and aid through their own trauma,” she said. “It’s a story of hope, of resilience, of that Aussie spirit, of not being able to hold us down. It’s a story of faith, where fear could have gripped us and taken over, but our faith rose. It’s a story of triumph in tragedy.
”I want [readers] to know that there is always hope, no matter how desperate a situation is… Because God is so good, and people are so kind, and life is worth living.”