Tears, smoke and hope are all that a kangaroo sanctuary owner has after a fire ripped through her property near Batemans Bay.
Heartbroken Rae Harvey, from Wild2Free, spoke to Yahoo News Australia on Friday about her escape from what she describes as a tornado of flames.
The phone reception was still shaky and often became garbled as she detailed the frightening scenario to me.
The NSW south coast is a disaster zone and a state of emergency has been declared.
We usually text a few times a month as Ms Harvey often allows Yahoo News Australia to share videos of the Wild2Free kangaroos to help spread wildlife awareness.
Some of the more popular ones show baby kangaroos play fighting by the bank of the Clyde River and pesky cockatoos pulling at a joey’s tail.
We don’t know if any of those animals have survived.
Before today, the last time I’d heard from Rae had been on New Years Eve when I was supposed to interview her about her efforts to raise money to feed bushfire affected wildlife in NSW.
“Are you free?” I’d asked.
“Fire coming,” she wrote back.
Then nothing until the next day.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No but I’m alive.”
‘See you on the other side’
As we spoke today, Ms Harvey’s story came together in fragments as memories of the fire storm came back to her.
On Monday she’d heard reports that her Runnyford property was safe for the time being.
She woke at 4am the next day to the sound of swirling winds.
She posted to Facebook saying “it’s on, see you on the other side.”
“There was just wind and leaf debris flying everywhere,” Ms Harvey told Yahoo News Australia.
“My volunteer at the sanctuary, Karen, woke me up and said ‘you have to get up, you have to get up, it’s coming’.”
“I was delirious and then there’s a knock on the door and an RFS volunteer…
The phone cut out for a moment as Ms Harvey continued her story.
When reception returned, she told me she’d put on her neighbour Simon’s spare RFS jacket to help protect her from the wall of flames roaring towards them.
“He’s an RFS volunteer and he was just screaming ‘get ready’,” she recalled.
“I was just bewildered,” she explained. “The RFS predictions were that we’d just be under ember attack on New Years Eve.”
“So we’d prepared for attack, we hadn’t prepared for the fire to actually approach.”
She was expecting the fire to come from the west, so drenched this part of the property, providing her kangaroos with a pathway away from the flames.
Her expectation was that the animals would flee to her solid brick house, which she expected to withstand the flames. The surrounding area was cleared and free of leaf litter and debris.
The SES had told her she was well prepared to defend her property.
‘Why am I staying to protect the roos?’
Three kangaroos remained, sheltering in front of her house. Conflicting information began dribbling through from various sources about the direction of the fire.
News came through that her friend’s 850 acre sanctuary to the west, in Yowrie, had been destroyed.
Moments later, the RFS website indicated the fire was on the edge of her property - but it was coming from the south.
“The most overwhelming thing about a fire is that you have no phone, no electricity, no internet, no way of communicating, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know where the fire is at,” she said.
“You don’t know anything.”
Ms Harvey tried to contain the remaining three kangaroos inside her house, but they took off.
“Why am I staying here to protect the roos, when there are no roos here to protect?” she thought.
The only thing to decide was whether to stay indoors and wait out the fire or flee to the river with Karen and her cat, Coco.
“All I packed were my passport and my wallet, two rolls of toilet paper, three fire blankets, a shock blanket, a bottle of water, a packet of lollies, two muesli bars, and a first aid kit,” she said.
“No photographs, nothing personal at all.
“I had it in my head that if we just went down to the river we’d just be waiting until it passed and we’d come back up and go back in the house.”
Meanwhile, homes around her were being lost. Towns like Cobargo were being engulfed.
“You couldn’t see the fire, you could just see the roar and the billowing,” she said.
“It was all kind of up in the sky like a tornado. A tornado, that’s the only way I can describe it, a tornado.
“We were like we cannot defend whatever this thing is, nobody can.”
Escape from the riverbank
At 7:28am, Ms Harvey and Karen fled the house with Coco the cat.
They saw someone in the middle of the river on a kayak, but couldn’t get his attention.
With mobile phones working intermittently, she didn’t know where Simon or her other neighbours were.
With the fire escalating in Cobargo, she could only assume most of the RFS volunteers were there.
In the distance, as she watched her neighbour’s property burn, she knew they’d be next.
She and Karen discussed swimming to the middle of the river with Coco and trying to hang onto a buoy.
Then in the distance she saw a familiar figure on a boat coming towards them.
“It was really hard to see anything, it was really smokey,” she said.
“It was someone in an RFS uniform, it was Simon.”
The winds chopped up the water, making the waves difficult to navigate. The entire mountain range around the Clyde River looked to be on fire.
“It was like armageddon, I was just ‘what the hell’, where do you go?” she said as her voice began to shake.
Continuing her story, tears started to flow as she thought about people in the area who weren’t lucky enough to have a body of water to flee to.
“The fire was all around us, it was just coming from every direction,” she said.
Ms Harvey watched the bushland on her property burn, then the industrial area got hit by flames and exploded.
“Nobody was panicking or anything, you just can’t, but there was nowhere to go,” she said.
“The water saved my life, but I was just out there thinking about the kangaroos.
“Sorry, it’s really traumatic… I’ve forgotten where we were up to.”
No plan, nowhere to go
The trio and the cat found clear air at North Batemans Bay on a pier belonging to an oyster farm where they watched flames engulf the surrounding area.
Within two hours, the smoke began billowing towards them and it became impossible to see.
Ms Harvey recalls telling Simon that they needed to get back on the boat as fear built that the fire was going to spread to the pier.
“Where are we going to go, there’s nowhere to go?” he asked.
“How about we go to the evacuation centre, that’s going to be safe.”
Back on the boat and approaching the Hanging Rock evacuation centre, the sky turned red.
A large plane screeched over their heads, spraying fire retardant around them.
Some text messages from concerned friends beeped through 50 times. Most calls wouldn’t go through.
The area was chock full of people, cars and caravans.
Still wearing Simon’s RFS jacket, people were approaching Ms Harvey looking for direction or comfort.
She had to explain that she was just a civilian like them and no one there appeared to have a plan.
“The hardest part was nobody knew anything,” she said.
“Some of us were able to make phone calls, but there was no way to charge your phone.
“Nobody knew where the fire was and approaching from.
Fleeing to Woolworths
Ms Harvey headed back onto the water with Karen, Simon and Coco and navigated towards the centre of town.
Batemans Bay had lost power, but Simon knew the Woolworths inside the local shopping centre had a generator.
“When got in there, the shopping centre had some emergency lighting, an exit sign and toilets,” she said.
“Woolworths is completely lit up, running on a massive generator... but the doors are closed.”
It looked like a zombie apocalypse had hit the area. Everyone was beyond exhaustion after hours fleeing the fires but the large security doors prevented them entering the supermarket.
There was a woman worried about the smoke affecting her baby and didn’t want to leave the centre.
Ms Harvey felt defeated. She was concerned they’d be thrown out.
The evacuation centre hadn’t felt safe.
Then a man in an orange approached. He was tall and official looking, wearing an orange hi-vis.
“He approached us saying, welcome, welcome - he was Sudanese,” Ms Harvey said.
“We were like who is this guy who is cheery and helpful?”
The Sudanese man started loading fruit, water and hot cross buns onto a table, handing them out to anyone who wanted them.
He had been working at Coles supermarket around the corner that morning and when everyone was closing up, he called his manager pleading with him to leave food and water out for those fleeing the fires.
The manager agreed and the Sudanese man then proceeded to deliver all of the supplies to the shopping centre.
“People just started helping each other and asking each other where they had evacuated from,” she said.
“I was soaking wet and cold from the boat and suddenly I had a lady go to her car and bring me some pants to put on and somebody else gave me a hoodie.
“There were dogs in the shopping centre and so we were all getting water.
“Everyone was just looking at each other and saying ‘what do they need’, we became a lovely little community in there.”
‘So worried about my animals’
As she continues her story, Ms Harvey takes a moment to eat some toast prepared for her by Karen.
They, along with Coco, are safe and staying at a friend Zora’s house.
She’s starving. Tired. Tears come back.
“I’m so worried about my roos I just can’t cope,” she said.
“I’m just so worried about my animals.”
That is what she told the SES volunteers when she bumped into them in the street.
Days ago, she’d registered with them as staying in the event of fire - she wanted to make sure they knew she was safe so they didn’t go searching for her.
“Originally I said there’s no way I’m going to leave the house,” she’d said.
“The roos are going to be scared and I need to be there.”
On the phone to me, she starts to recall what her plan had been.
Relocating the kangaroos wasn’t an option as the stress of the move would likely prove fatal.
The animals had been living in the bushland on the western side of her property where the fire was expected to come from.
She’d moved all the kangaroo feed to the eastern side and trained them to eat there where there it was concreted and felt safe.
‘There’s no wildlife left now, we’re killing the last of them’
Simon decided it was time to return to his property.
He rescued their neighbours James and his wife Margaret on his boat and found their house and his own place destroyed.
Ms Harvey suggested he go to her place where the keys were in the ignition and the petrol tank was full.
He could take shelter in her double brick house, which was built to withstand the flames, and she’d return the next day to assess the damage.
As midnight approached on New Years Eve, Ms Harvey’s friend Zora offered her a place to stay.
The bushland between Zora’s house and the shopping centre was burnt out and quiet like nothing had survived.
The devastation hits her again as we speak.
“All the media has been about assets and homes and property, and I’m thinking, oh my God, all those animals have lost everything,” she said.
“They’ve lost their homes, their families, their food.
“So many are dead and no one cares - they’ve got nothing.”
She’s been crying herself to sleep every night since the summer of fire approached her area. Feelings of helplessness have taken over as she imagined animals fleeing from the fires to safety, but no one coming to help them.
“The fires have gone all the way to the water and they’ve had nowhere left to run,” she said.
“I couldn’t talk to people about it - I just felt their fear, and pain.
“There’s no wildlife left now, we’re killing the last of them.”
Ms Harvey said she moved to the area after travelling all over NSW, looking for the highest concentration of wildlife.
After researching for 18 months, she moved to the area believing it was the only part of NSW where kangaroos are not commercially hunted for the pet food industry.
While government agencies report that they’re in plague proportions, Ms Harvey, like many other carers, has found their numbers have been dwindling since commercial culling began.
She breaks down in tears. Her anger at the industry that is killing her beloved wildlife is clear.
Her anger boils as she thinks about people who have denied climate change, those that are logging the forests in her area, the fires that have taken the lives of more than half a billion animals this summer.
She weeps like someone who has lost everything important to her. The words become garbled. Her sadness is not something that can be comforted.
Without people feeding the bushfire and drought affected wildlife, they will all die.
“We’ve taken everything from them,” she said.
‘I don’t cry for my house’
Ms Harvey doesn’t remember when she heard that she’d lost her house - just that it was New Years Day.
On the phone to Simon’s wife, she pleaded to know how her animals were.
Simon had seen nothing.
“It’s all gone,” she was told.
Exhausted, weary and delirious, Simon could barely string a sentence together. He stumbled around Ms Harvey’s property until he found her guest cottage, most of which had survived the flames, and fell asleep.
On January 2, Simon discovered there were cornflakes and long life almond milk in the pantry and had the best bowl of cereal he’d ever had in his life.
The best news was still to come. Simon had seen one kangaroo and one wallaby.
“I don’t cry for my house, I don’t cry for my car, I don’t cry for any of it,” she said.
“It’s just stuff. Stuff can be insured, stuff can be replaced, who cares?
“It’s stuff we don’t need, it’s stuff we just want to brag to our friends about or whatever, who cares.
“Life is what matters, nature is what matters, because without that we don’t have anything at all.”
Next, Simon found that her shipping container, which was filled with hay and kangaroo food, had also escaped the flames.
He spent the day trudging between his property and hers, carrying a 20 litre container full of water to help surviving animals.
Ms Harvey’s elation that three kangaroos had survived then turned to concern when Simon’s phone stopped working.
The surrounding area was still threatened by fire and trees were still smouldering.
“Every time I tried to send I text message or call it just wasn’t going through,” she said.
“I was going oh my God, what’s going on out there?”
Audrey Hepburn and kangaroos
As she continued to try and contact Simon, a call came through that two kangaroos had arrived at a neighbour’s property that had survived the flames.
The animals seemed shaken up, but their behaviour made her neighbour suspect they’d grown up on Ms Harvey’s sanctuary.
As day turned into night, Simon finally made contact - he’d had a busy day.
He’s taken his boat into Batemans Bay and bought supplies from Woolworths, which was now open.
After firing up her cottage’s generator, he’d found an old generator and managed to get it going.
“It’s operating the TV and the fridge and I’ve been watching an Audrey Hepburn movie,” he told her.
“Then I came outside and I was just trying to get into a spot where I could get reception and I felt this thing banging up against my leg.
“I looked down and it was a kangaroo, and then I saw more kangaroos.
“There’s about 20 here and there’s big ones and there’s small ones and they’re all friendly and approaching me and wanting food and water.
“Then there was this big one and he rubbed his face against me because he was so happy to see me.
“They’re all here and they want my help, it was surreal.”
This Saturday, temperatures are expected to rise into the forties again and conditions are expected to be catastrophic.
Ms Harvey is continuing to raise money for the fire affected wildlife and plans to return to her property on Sunday.
She is sharing her story in the hope that people will support the wildlife in her area and that the government will reconsider its ongoing kangaroo cull and logging of native habitat.
People wishing to donate money to help Wild2Free protect wildlife can do so here.
The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered wildlife carer in NSW.
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