'We were getting back to normal': Trail of tears as fire-scarred South Coast mops up after the flood

Peter Sugar describes a torrent of water, logs and fire debris sounding like a tsunami as it swept into Nerrigundah. Photo: Adam McLean
Peter Sugar describes a torrent of water, logs and fire debris sounding like a tsunami as it swept into Nerrigundah. Photo: Adam McLean

South Coast residents survived the massive fires only to be hit by a torrent of water.

Peter Sugar wears a face that has seen too much in his 71 years. We find him at the end of the South Coast's trail of tears in a tiny hamlet destroyed by fire on New Year's Eve, then hammered by flood on Monday morning.

He tells us how he was woken at 3am by the sound of water rushing down the creek next to his home. By 5am the water was over the top of the tiny wooden bridge that connects Nerringundah, in a valley behind Bodalla, to the rest of the world.

"Around about 9.45am it was like a tsunami. It hit and it brought all that down," he said, pointing to a small mountain of logs and debris being cleared from the bridge by an excavator.

"The water pressure that built up behind it was phenomenal."

Peter is philosophical describing the firestorm which decimated the village six weeks to the day before the flood came.

"We had fires over the hill which joined up, creating a vortex. The wind was 150-160km/h with flames.

"I didn't have time to think about it. I liken it to a soldier going into battle. Dying didn't enter the equation, but preserving what we had did."

The fire bears down on Nerrigundah. Photo: Deb Threlfall

The fire bears down on Nerrigundah. Photo: Deb Threlfall

Two weeks after the fire, Bay Post journalist Andrea Cantle drove the perilous dirt road into the former gold rush town. She was told of the terror as residents huddled in the fire shed pushing against one of the roller doors as it threatened to blow in and let the flames enter.

When we arrive after the flood, only Peter is up to talking to us. Everyone else scattered through this narrow valley is simply too traumatised. There's a huge storm brewing over the range and they fear they'll be isolated once more.

These people are not the "quiet Australians" of Scott Morrison's marketing calculations; they are the invisible ones. They are scattered in coastal valleys all down the South Coast, little-known settlements, hamlets and villages that have suffered mutely as media attention has focused on bigger towns such as Lake Conjola.

We've been joking with our patrons: 'What's going to be next? An earthquake or a tsunami? Or are we going to start our own virus out here?'

On the way here, we stop in at Nelligen, where floodwaters threatened the town on Monday. Waitress Lynette Hunter talks about the fatigue. Her little town on the Kings Highway had been in a state of emergency since November 26, when the fire broke out.

"It's just exhausting. What's next? We just went through a lot of scary times with the fires and we thought that had all settled down and we were getting back to normal - then we had another scare with the flood coming down."

She has kind words for the RFS and SES volunteers who have worked nonstop protecting the town from fire then flood.

Jaclyn Guerin, Pete Graham and Tod Sutherland clean up the Big4 Nelligen Holiday Park after the flood. Photo: Adam McLean

Jaclyn Guerin, Pete Graham and Tod Sutherland clean up the Big4 Nelligen Holiday Park after the flood. Photo: Adam McLean

"They just haven't had a break all summer," she says.

Nelligen's lifeline is the Kings Highway. It was closed for six weeks during the fire emergency, cutting off the all-important tourist trade.

Jaclyn Guerin, marketing manager for the BIG4 Nelligen Holiday Park, says things were getting back to normal when the flood arrived on Monday.

"We've had to evacuate the park three times, four if you include Monday, so it's certainly been an intensive few months."

Jaclyn has seen the waters rise during king tides but nothing like Monday's inundation, which left mud throughout the park.

"It was shattering to come out and see the park full of water. There's been a lot of tears shed over the last couple of months but you've got to keep moving. To say it's been traumatic is a bit of an understatement."

An RFS crew member pumps the brown water out of the pool. Photo: Adam McLean

An RFS crew member pumps the brown water out of the pool. Photo: Adam McLean

When we arrive, a couple of RFS crews are helping pump the brown water out of the pool and staff are busily shovelling mud off the roadways. Fortunately, most of the cabins and "glamping" tents are on stilts but the grounds, pool and games room are a mess.

Despite all this, Jaclyn and the other staff are cheerful. They have no option but to get on with the clean-up. Being morose won't help get that mammoth task done.

Across the road, Melissa Alvey, co-owner of the Steampacket Hotel, is getting ready for the day's first customers. She says people are still traumatised by the fire, which toyed with the town from November 26 until New Year's Eve, when it arrived in full fury.

"It's been like riding a roller coaster. We'd seen the fire so close, then it kind of moved away. It was inevitable it was going to get here."

Melissa Alvey, co-owner of Nelligen's Steampacket Hotel, wonders what will be thrown at the town next.

Melissa Alvey, co-owner of Nelligen's Steampacket Hotel, wonders what will be thrown at the town next.

The weeks of uncertainty were the hardest, not knowing when the blaze would be upon the town. A thank you day planned for January 31 had to be abandoned when the fires flared up again.

"You'd have a visit from the SES saying it was going to be here in the next two hours and so you need to decide what you're going to do. You go and pack up all your stuff and it didn't get here.

"Then you'd get the text message telling you to shelter in place."

The torrential rain and floods, which are expected to extinguish the fire, have the town wondering what's coming next. Every silver lining now comes with a cloud.

"It seems like it's one thing after another while you're trying to get back on your feet. We've been joking with our patrons: 'What's going to be next? An earthquake or a tsunami? Or are we going to start our own virus out here?"

On the bright side is the outpouring of support for Paul Parker, the firefighter who became famous when he pulled up in his truck at the height of the emergency and told the media, "Tell the prime minister to go and get f---ed from Nelligen."

"He only said what most of us were feeling. We've had people donating money, putting tabs on for Paul. We've had people driving through saying, "He made my day. Here's fifty bucks for his tab.'"

At the back of Bodalla, in a paddock burnt black just weeks ago, we come across a trio of young men taking jet skis out on a small lake formed by floodwaters. The grass is now an emerald green.

Across the road an electricty crew is working to restore power to a farmhouse, which has been relying on a temperamental generator since New Year's Eve.

The three mates, who have been part of the firefighting effort, are making the most of a bad situation. A bit of fun to cap off a summer none of them will forget. One of them, Tyron Brice, suggests we talk to his dad, Anthony, an oyster farmer at Turlinjah.

We visit the next morning as they're assessing the damage to their leases. The small bay on the Tuross River is covered in thick black ash and debris. It looks thick enough to walk on.

"I've never seen it this bad," says Tyron. "It's devastating."

Tyron and Anthony Brice venture through the muck on the Tuross River to assess their oyster leases. Photos: Adam McLean

Tyron and Anthony Brice venture through the muck on the Tuross River to assess their oyster leases. Photos: Adam McLean

"The fresh water is the worst problem," Anthony says. "Too much fresh water, they don't like it."

It will be days before they can assess the damage. The water is so murky the racks on the leases can't be seen.

In the shed next door, Graeme Campbell, who's been farming oysters here for 27 years, is also shocked.

"I've never seen anything like this. We've had floods but we haven't had floods combined with a catastrophic fire. We don't know what the impact is going to be."

Across the water, a line of white posts sticking up through the muck marks one of his leases.

"All that will settle on the leases. It will be a catastrophe."

On the back of the fire, the flood is testing everyone's endurance.

"I think everyone is traumatised, living under the threat of losing your house and business. Having that gun held over you and now a flood."

Again, there's stoicism in the face of disaster. Graeme says oyster growers are like any other farmers, at the mercy of Mother Nature, who can be cruel.

- John Hanscombe is editor of the South Coast Register

This story Trail of tears as fire-scarred South Coast mops up after the flood first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.