Irish in Australia: ‘Fires are spreading, the sky is bright red and the winds are hot’

‘It’s very scary today, there’s a haze like fog and the distinct smell of burn in the air’

Residents defend a property from a bushfire at Hillsville near Taree,  north of Sydney. Photograph: Peter Parks/ AFP

Residents defend a property from a bushfire at Hillsville near Taree, north of Sydney. Photograph: Peter Parks/ AFP

 

More than 100 fires are raging across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday with dozens of them running out of control.

At least 170 houses have been destroyed. Three people died in bushfires at the weekend, two of them apparently trying to flee fast-moving fire fronts in cars. The army is expected to be deployed. Hundreds of schools were closed, and entire towns evacuated as temperatures in the high 30s.

Residents of fire-prone areas were warned that fires would not be able to be stopped in those conditions, and that houses were not designed to withstand fires of that intensity. “Catastrophic is off the conventional scale,” the commissioner of the NSW rural fire services, Shane Fitzsimmons, said. “It’s where people die.” It’s the first time authorities have set the highest warning level for Sydney since the fire-danger rating system was introduced a decade ago.

Here, Irish people living near the bushfires in Australia share their experiences. 

Marion Reilly, Sydney: ‘I’m praying that no more lives will be lost’

Things are really bad here today. We now have fires on the north shore of Sydney, only 20km from the city. The sky is bright red, and the winds are hot and howling. There are 85 fires burning across New South Wales right now with over a million hectares burned. Spare a thought for all the devastation including animals and wildlife killed. I’m praying that no more lives will be lost.

I am from Co Galway, but I have lived in Sydney, on and off, for 40 years. I have never heard of such devastation by bushfires as we are witnessing at present. I have witnessed bushfires over the years, driven through them on occasions and seen the devastating effects they leave behind. We are all bracing ourselves. I live close to the city, but some of my family live in the mountains close to the bush, and I’m concerned for their safety as well as many of my Irish friends.

Áine O’Riordan, Sydney: ‘I will go to work and we will wait to find out if we still have a home by the day’s end’

I count myself lucky to live in beautiful North Turramurra in Sydney’s leafy North Shore. My husband and I moved here with our two children in 2012. We’ve spent the past seven years shaping our perfect family home. It is located 200m from the scenic Kuringgai Chase National Park, that serves to make our neighbourhood a perfect sanctuary from metropolitan Sydney. The entire suburb is surrounded by bush with only one road out.

The Rural Fire Service spent the day outside our village supermarket advising residents to leave. Homes are not built to withstand catastrophic fire conditions. We have now packed up our car with our valuables. We’re ready to leave with our dog. The kids will go to school, I will go to work, and will wait to find out if we still have a home by the day’s end. Tragically, many people won’t and more lives will be lost. Perhaps this will finally will be the trigger of sufficient public pressure to force our conservative government from inaction on climate change.

A resident tries to contain a fire at Koorainghat, near Taree, New South Wales. Photograph: Darren Pateman/EPA
A resident tries to contain a fire at Koorainghat, near Taree, New South Wales. Photograph: Darren Pateman/EPA

Nora Murphy, Sydney: ‘There’s a haze like fog in the air and the distinct smell of burn in the air’

It’s very scary today, and even though I’m living by the ocean in Cronulla, there is an eerie feeling around. There’s a haze-like fog and the distinct smell of burn in the air. The winds have brought the smoke Sydney side and it’s very unsettling. Before these fires, drought in regions in NSW have people at their lowest ebb, trying to get by on a daily basis with water rationing and restriction. It is heartbreaking to see the news, hear radio updates and see all the images of destruction of the fires.

Damian McAnarney, Port Macquarie: ‘This fire situation is the worst there has been in 40 years’

I have worked in the emergency services of this area in north east New South Wales (NSW) for almost 13 years, and I’m part of the emergency management team. This fire situation is the worst there has been in 40 years. Today is rated “catastrophic,” which is the worst possible. There are currently hot, dry and strengthening westerly winds building that are predicted to rapidly move these fires towards the east coast and my town of Port Macquarie.

Evacuation centres have been set up and thankfully most people from the rural area just west of here have already evacuated. Rural fire service have 1,500 fire fighters on duty and all the emergency services, police, ambulance, rescue services are all offering their resources and many off-duty staff have been called into work. There are more than 80 aircraft, water police and more ready to go. Services are here and coming to help from other states and parts of Australia.

Steve Tomas: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’

We are few hundred kilometres away, but the smoke is just unreal. The kids have been kept inside at school and they are advising people to not go outside. We haven’t had rain in so long and it’s getting really serious. I live beside the bush, and have had to pack a bag and gott ready to leave once so far this year. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

A bushfire burns outside a property near Taree, north of Sydney. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty
A bushfire burns outside a property near Taree, north of Sydney. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

Pat Reilly, Brisbane: ‘The sky is orange during the day, but at sunrise and sunset it’s red’

I live just north of Brisbane and the main hazard here is smoke. It’s surreal. The sky is orange during the day, but at sunrise and sunset it’s red, as is the sun. It’s like a scene from Star Wars! We were warned not to leave the house if unnecessary yesterday and I believe it’ll be the same tomorrow. The whole area is a tinderbox. We’ve only seen rain probably three times in about seven months. The temperatures are now in their 30s and will stay there for probably the next three months.

Oisín Sweeney, NSW: ‘Our two kids were asking if our house would burn down’

All the schools are closed today, which worried our two kids. They were asking last night whether our house would burn down and our area be burnt out. There’s a smoke haze in the air that has been blown down by the northerlies. A couple of small fires have broken out, fingers crossed they don’t develop further.

I’m an ecologist and have worked in the environment sector. I have seen wild fires in south Australia and have also participated in prescribed burning, which is the process of burning an area in a controlled fashion to lower the risk of large, hotter fires. A wildfire is a very intimidating sight. I’ve seen areas of bushland flare up in seconds due to embers. I know some of the areas that have been burnt on the north coast and it’s incredibly sad. Beautiful rainforests have been ravaged.

People often talk about how the Australian bush “needs” fire. Rainforests don’t and should never burn. The very fact that rainforests are burning is scary, because they’re moist, cool forests on south-facing (shady) slops and in gullies. Lots of koala habitat has also been burnt and it’s not nice to think about koalas (and the thousands of other species) being roasted alive - never mind the huge human impacts.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie after being rescue from a bushfire earlier this month. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP
A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie after being rescue from a bushfire earlier this month. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP

Dave Heffernan, Sydney: ‘My wife has been packing bags ... everyone is very nervous for what the day will bring’

I am from Co Cork but live in Bundeena on the southern fringe of the city. Bundeena is surrounded on three sides by the Royal National Park. We’ve had numerous malicious fires in the recent past. It is almost 4am here now and I’m not that long home from work. My wife, Tracy (from Co Meath) has been packing bags all evening.

Our little township has one road in and out, which usually gets closed early on in the event of fire. Everyone is very nervous for what the day will bring and people have been getting out of town. The local primary school and the park is closed tomorrow. It is the first time that "catastrophic" fire danger rating has been applied to Sydney and surrounds, so everyone is very worried. We can but wait with trepidation what daylight will bring.

Margaret Moore, NSW: 'Local streets are devoid of cars and people are already gone'

I have been living and working in Australia as a registered midwife and nurse. I live on the beautiful scenic Central Coast in Ourimbah, a small township one hour north of Sydney with my husband and two children. We live on three hectares of lush green land close to native bush, now a possible fire danger zone.

Fires are burning out of control north side of the Central Coast. Alerts are coming over the radio now advising people in some areas to “GET OUT” other areas are being told “TOO LATE” bunker down in your house in a distant area from the fire, and if you can put out fires as they appear in your house. We’ve been told to fill the bath, pots, tanks with water. I noticed neighbours in the local area putting suit cases in their cars and evacuating. Local streets are devoid of cars and people already gone. The fire service has advised people they are so stretched that they can no longer go from house to house to warn people, that houses on fire will be left to burn and now they will be helping people to escape in areas that fires cannot be contained. We are becoming surrounded by fires in the state.

The Central Coast has been elevated to “catastrophic” fire danger rating today, for the first time in history. The definite waft of smoke in the air provides the stark reminder of the fire danger within reach. High temperatures, no humidity and strong winds are hampering all efforts. Embers from the fire are scattering within a 20km radius with the wind and have the potential to start new fires. Schools are closed. Conditions are deteriorating this afternoon due to strong wind gusts. With the water shortage it causes another issue about how much will be used and for what fires.

As I walk around to inspect our property I can feel the grass crunch under my feet it is so bone dry. We have been talking to friends who have relatives that evacuated to the beaches near the fires in Taree north NSW and they watched in horror as the fire burned to the very edge of the beach. We live within 15 minutes fom local beaches. I’m sure many people around here will have the same idea to head to the beach. Communities in this area are small and we are communicating. We keep one another updated and provide reassurances as required. It is the normal way of life in Australia, they are generally kind people and will lend a hand. We expecting a change after 6pm tonight, winds will change direction, and who knows what will happen.

A smoke haze from the bushfires shrouds the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Paul Braven/ EPA
A smoke haze from the bushfires shrouds the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Paul Braven/ EPA

Maggie Cunningham Webb, NSW: ‘We’ re still on alert today and we’ve been given a place to gather if conditions got worse’

I emigrated from Cork to Brisbane when I was 43 in 1988 with four children as they were looking for teachers in Brisbane at that time. I retired at 64, which was 10 years ago, to be near the sea, to a small seaside town in northern New South Wales, called Pottsville. We’re still on alert today and we’ve been given a place to gather if conditions got worse. We have not been advised to evacuate as yet, but, I will, if and when advised to do so. Many homes, businesses and farms have been burnt out already. People are worried. Firefighters and volunteers will continue to be on duty all night. Extra firefighters have been flown into Brisbane, Sydney, Tasmania and New Zealand today.

Anthony Kennedy: ‘The area in flames is in the mid-north coast alone is roughly the size of Co Cork and half of Kerry’

To quantify the size of area gone up in flames on just the mid-north coast alone, which is half way between Sydney and Brisbane where I live .The area would be roughly the size of Co Cork and half of Kerry.

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