“I’ve certainly never seen anything like it before but to be honest, nothing during that period was like anything I’ve ever seen or experienced before.”
“It was very different.”
For Narooma Golf Club’s General Manager Dominic Connaughton, understating the situation is his way of rationalising the scenes he and many others witnessed during the horrific south coast fires.
Understatement is a common thread among those who lived through the New Year’s blazes that swept along the 300 kilometre stretch of coast between Nowra and Eden.
Fires had been in the vicinity for several weeks before that fateful period between New Year’s Eve and January 7 and most had become used to the smoke without feeling any immediate danger.
That all changed as the world prepared to usher in 2020 and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come.
“It’s been hard,” says Connaughton, “but it sort of feels like we’re not even in 2020 yet. It just feels like we’re dragging on with 2019.”
Connaughton arrived at work on December 31, just like any other day. It wasn’t long before he had a hint things might not be as ‘normal’ as they seemed though it would be the afternoon before the full scale of the drama was revealed.
There is a concept in tabloid newspapers called ‘Man Bites Dog’. It’s a theory that neatly explains those stories that exploit an incongruity, something we find confronting to the way we normally see the world.
What happened that day was as surreal as man bites dog.
“I got to work about 9 am, the usual time,” he says.
“As soon as I arrived, our Operations Manager came up and said there were already a few people here that had started trickling in from the camping grounds.
“It wasn’t an emergency at that stage by any stretch of the imagination, and they had just been told it would be a good idea to go somewhere a bit safer.
“We knew Cobargo was having fires about 20 minutes south, but there was no immediate impact of that on us here.”
That soon changed.
It didn’t take long before cars and caravans and horse floats were scattered across the 18th fairway of one of the state’s most stunning seaside courses. ‘Man Bites Dog’ is about the only way one can describe it.
“By 4 o’clock that afternoon I reckon we had 500 people in here,” says Connaughton.
“It was then we realised it was a bad situation with Cobargo and the leisure centre became the official evacuation centre.
“The power went out about 10 o’clock that day, but we had gas so we were making coffee and tea, scrounging up whatever we could in the way of food, especially noodles.
“We went to Woolies and bought a whole heap of food because there were a lot of kids and elderly people here and we couldn’t just do nothing.
“Big shoutout to the manager at Woolies, by the way, Ben Sealy. He just gave us a whole heap of stuff for free when he realised what we were doing, which was a great gesture.”
What unfolded over the following days has been well documented with homes and lives lost in various towns along the coast.
Once the emergency had passed the process of counting the cost could begin, and Connaughton says the final tally will be devastating for many.
“The reality is starting to set in,” he said. “We’re in overdraft here at the club. We’ve lost over $200,000 easily in trade.
“We’re insured for business interruption obviously, but that takes time to come through, and who knows what you’re actually going to get at the end of the process.
“In the meantime, we’ve got 32 staff employed here, and now we don’t have trade, so we don’t have work for our casuals and permanent part-timers.
“It’s hard for them because the work isn’t here and it’s hard for us to tell them that. Awful, in fact.
“But there is simply no choice.”
According to Connaughton, the population of Narooma increases from 8,000 to 20,000 over the holiday period, and the damage done by the loss of that business is obvious even to a casual observer.
“Our busiest time of year is Boxing Day onwards,” he says. “The town goes from 8,000 to 20,000 plus, and it’s probably 65 per cent of your turnover comes from Boxing Day through to Easter.
“If all the local businesses, including us, miss out on that trade its disastrous.”
In the long term, the answer is simple. “We need to the tourists to come back,” he says.
But in the short term, things aren’t quite so straightforward.
“The council has vowed to put some money into advertising to get people to come back, but I think the next three to four months will be hard,” he says.
“I don’t think they will come back. Not in the short term, anyway.”
The golf club will be all right, says Connaughton, but something has undoubtedly changed in the mood right up and down the coast.
You simply can’t go through trauma the scale of that which was visited upon this area and walk away unscathed.
“What usually happens in Narooma is a lot of the locals leave around this time of year because there is such a big influx of tourists,” he says. “So now they’re not here either.
“That’s made the place feel extra empty.
“But the Thursday comp and Saturday comp are starting to get back to some normality and its funny to see that people are here having a game and a drink and the car park fills up for a bit but then the other days are empty again.
“It’s all just a bit surreal.”
Connaughton knows the fires will eventually be part of the past but the memory of those cars and boats and caravans scattered across that 18th fairway, with the clifftop green and ocean in the backdrop, is one that will never leave him.
But it won’t stop the town – and the club – from getting back to business as usual.
“We’ll be ok,” he says in that understated way only those who live outside Australia’s capital cities seem able.
“We’ll get back on our feet.”