Australia’s bushfire crisis: a personal evacuation story by Allen Mapstone

By intouch * posted 23-01-2020 09:50


Australia has been devastated by the January bushfires that continue to make global news, months after the crisis began. IPWEA’s Director of Strategic Asset Management, Allen Mapstone gives a personal account for InTouch of his family’s frightening evacuation from the NSW south coast:

I have lived most of my life in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Even so, I have been touched by bushfires in the past because from where I lived, I could see fires on the horizon go through the Royal National Park during the worst summer bushfire seasons. I watched Grays Point burn in 1983, taking the lives of three volunteer firefighters. In 1994 a friend lost their house in Jannali. 

Bushfire evacuation

Despite these experiences, I never fully appreciated the significance of what had happened, despite viewing significant nearby fires.

I now live on the south coast of NSW in the small village of Bendalong, the site of one of many massive south coast January bushfires that made world news. Many of our IPWEA colleagues were involved in emergency operations and are still working hard on the recovery efforts there and elsewhere. Thank you for what you do!

Bendalong came under real threat on New Year’s Eve when a strong southerly wind pushed catastrophic fires through Conjola and into the Bendalong and Sussex inlet regions. Conditions were expected to be extremely bad on Saturday, January 4.

Being the holiday period, we had family staying with us, including our two grandchildren under the age of two. All I wanted to do was be able to get them out of the danger area, if the time came to leave.

Our village is about 14km off the Princes Highway, a route that was surrounded by bushland on all sides. Between New Year’s Eve and January 2, I was busy looking for an exit strategy for four adults and two young children, among limited options. We also had no electricity, phone or internet access.

There was no exit available until Thursday 2 January, when a police escort arrived to start moving small numbers people out of the area by road. We took that opportunity to evacuate and were in Cronulla that afternoon.

What we saw on the drive out was sobering. Fallen trees, power lines and power poles down and lying across the road. The intensity of the fire that had just missed us was frightening. 

My family was very lucky, and our thoughts are with those who can’t say that. I don’t want to sound flippant because it was more than luck. The hard work of volunteer fire fighters, NSW Fire and Rescue, local residents, air support, as well as the life-saving wind direction change – saved our village. Work to restore the area and make it safe again continues today, with the efforts of many people including council staff, local residents, volunteers and emergency workers.

Why am I writing this, given that many people have suffered far more than my family did?

Personally, I want to thank all those operational people who did amazing things to save lives under pressure and in incredible danger.

I want to bring to those who haven’t been close to the action my experience of how a life-threatening bushfire emergency became very real, very quickly.

We all know there will be a lot of discussion in the coming months and years about why this happened, what can we do better in the future, and what did we learn from this situation?

To apply my professional role in asset management to the situation, I’m finding I now can’t stop thinking about ensuring emergency access and services are maintained. In critical locations where there is only one way in or out, this must be a priority!

View the gallery of Allen’s photos, taken in the days leading to and during his family's evacuation, below:

Further reading: IPWEA’s Australian bushfire crisis statement