Our black summer

It was a horror bushfire season. The staff at the UOWs Batemans Bay and Bega campuses rose to the challenge.

It was a New Year's Eve like no other. As the clock counted down to midnight, Nicky Bath and her teenage son toasted 2020 with a bag of Twisties as they sat in the dark, in Nicky's office at the University of Wollongong's Batemans Bay Campus.

To say it had been a long day is somewhat of an understatement. Nicky and her son were exhausted, physically and emotionally. The adrenaline of the day was wearing off.

It had begun early that morning, at 4.30am, when Nicky received a phone call from her neighbours. Bushfires, which had been circling Batemans Bay for weeks, were threatening their home.

"I live in Catalina, on three acres totally surrounded by bush. We back on to the National Park and Mogo State Forest. We only live five minutes from campus," Nicky says, eight months later. "At 4.30am we got a phone call from the neighbours, saying the fires were close and we needed to be prepared.

"We were well prepped but didn't believe we were in any danger. We prepared the house as best we could and my 15-year-old son, Samuel, and I hopped in the car. My 18-year-old son, Tim, said he was coming with me and my husband was going to stay a bit longer in case of ember attack.

"We decided to go to the campus. I felt it was the safest place for my kids and my two little dogs. I thought a few other staff and students would do the same."

Nicky Bath, Jaimey Facchin, from UOW Batemans Bay, and Sam Avitaia, from UOW Bega campuses, in burnt out bushland near Batemans Bay. Photo: Paul Jones

Nicky and her sons arrived at the campus, but Tim decided to go back to their house to check on her husband. At this point, their neighbourhood was surrounded by fire.

"We left home at 7.30am and an hour later, the fires were hitting our house. It was all unfolding very fast."

That day would be one of the worst on record for the small community of Batemans Bay, and indeed for the entire South Coast of NSW.

For hundreds of kilometres, from Mallacoota, just over the Victorian border, up to Nowra in the north, bushfires engulfed towns, cut off highways, and forced thousands to the water's edge.

Beaches became places of refuge. Hundreds of properties were destroyed. It was a day that would become seared in the memories of the many who call the South Coast home, and the countless tourists who were in the area.

Nicky was not alone in seeking shelter at UOW's Batemans Bay campus. Located next to the official evacuation centre, at Hanging Rock, the campus became a makeshift shelter for people across the region. A number of Nicky's colleagues, including campus manager Jaimey Facchin, were stuck in their own towns along the coast, trapped by fire or unable to access the campus due to closed roads.

Nicky was, essentially, on her own in helping the hundreds of people who were coming to the campus door. Tim had returned to the house, but she had the support of Samuel and a handful of amazing UOW students.

"It was black outside, it was like the middle of the night. The grounds of the campus were filling with people. The air was full of smoke, with an eerie red glow. From then on, I had no idea what the time was. The day just unfolded," Nicky says.

"People were just sitting out the front on fold-up chairs, under the awning of the building. We were inviting people to come and sit in the foyer, and were getting glasses of water and cups of tea. I kept inviting people in, I couldn't leave them outside.

"We had students and community members arriving. Many had their children. It was too full at the evacuation centre across the road. The building was locked for the holidays so Samuel had to stand at the door with a swipe card letting people in and helping them to find some space."

There was no power, no internet, and little phone coverage. Nicky could not contact her son and husband, and had no idea if her own home was still standing. All day, she was in and out of contact with Jaimey, who was stuck at her home in Moruya, attempting to respond to the crisis.

They were coordinating logistics and dealing with the problems that arose; turning off alarms as smoke filled the building, figuring out how to provide for the people that kept streaming through the door, finding masks from the nursing labs to provide some protection from the acrid smoke.

By night's end, more than 300 staff, students, and community members were inside the campus. Nicky gave offices to some of the elderly couples and young families, so they could attempt to get some sleep. The rest had to make do and sleep where they could.

"It was black outside, it was like the middle of the night. The grounds of the campus were filling with people." - Nicky Bath

There were animals too. Countless dogs, cats, birds, fish and a turtle. There was a newborn baby, only a few weeks old, and a woman who was heavily pregnant.

"We had people in the corridors. About 100 people slept the night because they couldn't get home. I had nothing to give out, very little food available. I raided the tea, coffee, and biscuits from when we have campus events. We fed them every last biscuit we had in the building.

"Around midnight, my son and I realised the time. We had each made a bed out of a line of chairs. We celebrated New Year's by sharing a packet of Twisties. It wasn't quite what I had had in mind."

Nicky and Samuel had helped hundreds of Batemans Bay residents through the crisis, armed with little more than a place to stay and biscuits. Thankfully their own home was still standing, after the incredible efforts of her husband and 18-year-old son. But it was not over yet, for both the campus and the community.

A few days later in early January, as the temperature soared, the South Coast was once again under threat. Bushfires roared up the coast, creating a scene of chaos and terror. Awe-inspiring plumes of smoke filled the sky.

This time, the Batemans Bay campus was more prepared, with groceries that had been arranged by the University and additional support from the NSW Disaster Welfare team.

For two nights, residents camped throughout the building. This time, Nicky gave those who were returning an "upgrade", she says with a laugh, placing them in offices so they could have their own "hotel rooms".

Many of the residents who camped out were from an aged care facility down the road. Nicky was exhausted and overwhelmed, but she wanted to be there to ensure those who were seeking shelter had the support they needed.

"Jaimey and I are the only two who know how the building works inside and out, how to access everything. It wasn't as simple as asking someone to take over.

With the support of the campus's security guard and cleaner, as well as St John Ambulance workers who were located at the nearby Hanging Rock Evacuation Centre, Nicky once again put one foot in front of the other.

"It was exhausting but I was running on adrenaline. People felt safe and cared for and respected, and that was the most important thing to me."

The bush has started to rejuvenate at this section of bushland near Batemans Bay. Photo: Paul Jones

Community spirit comes to the fore

Meanwhile at UOW's Bega campus, 150km south, a similar situation was unfolding. Over New Year's Eve, bushfires had ripped through the tiny towns of Quaama and Cobargo, devastating those communities.

With the imminent flare-up of the fires predicted just a few days later, campus manager Sam Avitaia put out the call to staff and students to let them know that the UOW Bega campus would be a safe house.

"New Year's Eve was horrendous for the community. The fires rushed through without warning, a lot of people didn't have the opportunity to gather their things and go," Sam says.

"Two members of our community were killed, houses were burnt down, and the fires were still all around us.

"With the second wave of fires predicted a few days later, we did all we could to help out the community. We ended up with 50 people sleeping at the campus over a three-day period. We had a lot of children, babies, families and grandparents here. Some of them were friends of staff, but some were people who came who needed a place to stay."

Luckily, the campus did not lose power or internet during the period, and consequently it became a communications hub for the region. A place for council workers and emergency services to rest for a few hours, and a place for community members to come and be able to keep up to date with the news in the region.

"The place was filled with smoke, the alarms kept going off, but it was a safe space," Sam says.

"There was so little news and power was down all around the region, so many couldn't find out what was happening with the fires and with the emergency services. We were able to help them with things like charging phones and getting in contact with loved ones. People really came together."

Once the danger had passed, and people were able to return to their homes, Sam and the team at UOW Bega continued to reach out to their staff and students, and helped them to access both emotional and financial support.

"It was a difficult time, we had staff and students who had lost homes. They really appreciated having people from the university reach out and offer support.

"Our staff who lost their homes have been back to work now. Having that community here and having a bit of normality in their lives has been really helpful."

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the bushfires off the front page earlier this year, and has remained at the forefront of the nation's mind ever since.

However, for those communities still reeling from the bushfires, where many have lost homes and livelihoods, COVID has simply added to the pain that was already there.

"It seems like COVID has taken over but here people haven't forgotten. There are still people living in tents and caravans, mourning the loss of family members and animals and their homes," Sam says. "It's going to be this way for a long time to come."

It is a similar situation in Batemans Bay, where Jaimey says the community is still reeling, including staff and students at the campus.

"Every single person in the community has been impacted in some way. There are people who lost everything, those who've lost their incomes, those who stayed and fought the fire on their properties who are traumatised by what they experienced. Now, with COVID, there is a whole group of students who thought they were going to get jobs or travel or take the next step in their life, but are unable to do that," Jaimey says.

"There are all these different levels of trauma in the community. There is also a lot of anxiety over the coming summer. It wasn't just a few days for us. We were surrounded by fires for months."

The silver lining, however faint, is that the devastating events of last summer have brought the community, and the campuses, closer in way that few expected.

Both Jaimey, Nicky, and Sam have each received countless letters from members of the public, thanking them for their support and for sheltering them in a time of need.

"People were desperate but they were really lovely and really banded together," Nicky says.

"I think I had one cranky lady during that whole time. Everyone else was so kind and looked out for each other. They made connections that have remained to this day."

On a personal level, they are all incredibly proud of each other, and how they dealt with one of the toughest times of their lives.

Nicky, in particular, received a special shout out from Jaimey and Sam. They put forward her name for the Vice-Chancellor's Community Engagement Award, which she won, in recognition of her work on the ground in those early days of January.

Jaimey and Sam, too, received a Vice-Chancellor's Special Award for the tremendous response of both campuses to the bushfire crisis, both at the time and in the months since.

"Nicky is kind and caring, and generous and innovative," Jaimey says. "She did what she always does, and put every skill that she had into place to look after the community.

"Any of us would have done the same thing. We have that close connection with the community. Most of the staff on this campus have been students here, so this place is really special to us."

It is a long road to recovery for both the Batemans Bay and Bega regions. In Bega, in particular, the border closures have placed additional pressure on students, including those who study in Mallacoota, just over the Victorian border, which was also decimated by the New Year's Eve bushfires.

However, Sam says the close-knit community is looking for the sunshine among the clouds, and supporting each other as best as they can.

"We have realised what a special community we live in. Even if it's just a smile, a listening ear. We all know each other, we all see each other at the supermarket, and our kids go to school together. We are really proud of our little community. It is a beautiful place to live.

"Of course, we are nervous about the summer to come and that the fires will return. I would hate to see any other community go through what we have gone through."

Nicky, Jaimey and Sam all agree that study has provided their students with a lifeline during the hardest year of their lives. It has been a source of strength and positivity, a goal for them to work towards as they navigate their new reality.

"Our campuses have been through so much and our students have shown such grace and resilience. We are so proud of them all," Sam says. "We can't wait to celebrate their graduations. There won't be a dry eye in the house!"


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