First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest
50th New Millennium Award for Nonfiction
Yannick Thoraval of Victoria, Australia for “Learning to Die and Live: 24 Hours in Evacuation”
Thoraval will receive $1,000, an award plaque, and publication both online and in print.
Learning to Die and Live: 24 Hours in Evacuation
The phone buzzes. I wake. Sort of. And read the text.
NEW SOUTH WALES RURAL FIRE SERVICE EMERGENCY BUSH FIRE WARNING – Bermagui – Leave now to the East towards the beach and shelter in place.
It’s 5:48am. New Years Eve, 2019. My wife and I get out of bed, slowly, like part of us believes this isn’t happening, like moving quickly will admit that it is. There’s a fire coming. But we don’t know when. Or where. Or what to do.
We fill a bag with stuff, not entirely at random: a blanket, spare underwear, toothbrushes. We don’t know how long we’ll be gone. I pick up a shirt and put it down again because it has metal buttons. Trying to avoid the possibility of hot buttons now counts as planning, a measure of my need for control where I have none. My wife packs water bottles, woolen sweaters and my acid reflux pills, a measure of her ability to prioritize and care for others.
* * *
We arrived here two nights ago. Sped past Bega on the Prince’s Highway and, as we do every year, looked for the rolling green hills and the expanse of blue on the horizon. It was traditionally the moment when the beach holiday officially began.
This time was different. The Bega Valley didn’t look like Tolkien’s Shire anymore. The hills were shrouded in yellow, brittle grass, pale and dry as the fence posts meant to distinguish farmland from scrub.
We’d heard the numbers, seen the news footage: acres of dust, one of the worst droughts on record, water in some dams down to single digits of their capacity. It was the same story up and down this state. Higher temperatures, lower rainfall, livestock culls. But seeing it was different. Here they were, those abstractions, translated as land and our experience of it. Yesterday’s second home was now a foreign landscape, sepia-toned like photos on old travel brochures. Sunburned.
* * *
It’s time to wake the children. This makes the fire real, more than the text. We gently rub their feet until they wake. It’s the reverse of Christmas Day.
My son doesn’t understand why we can’t pack the Lord of the Rings Lego set he got for Christmas. He sobs as we walk through the darkness of the caravan park towards the sports oval, the town’s emergency assembly point.
The oval is already crowded. The lights of emergency vehicles flash against tents, parked cars and groups of people waiting to know more. A pickup truck hauling a jet ski parks near the beach. I can’t decide if it’s an absurd affectation or a brilliant plan of escape.
The sky is black. Not dark. Black. Flashlights bob around in the blackness as people are drawn to the oval from the town’s surrounding buildings. Up in the hills, car headlights creep down forest tracks as people from outer areas make their way to town. Despite the commotion, the air is still. The leaves refuse to move.
Couples and families debrief their options. There are none. The town of Bermagui is a regional evacuation point. Everywhere else is less safe. A visibly drunk man staggers towards the beach and slurs our subtext. “Fuck it,” he says. “I’ll just put water all over me.”
A breeze of conversation wafts up from the people we pass, huddled on the field. “The house is pretty much gone,” says a woman wearing a nightgown. “The bowls club’s okay, though. It’s weird what’s survived.”
Another woman turns to her partner. “We should have left while there was still time. I’m worried about her if we have to go into the water.” The woman motions to a baby in the car seat. “She can’t swim.” The man says nothing, just leans against his car and looks up at the sky, dense and featureless as a black hole.
My wife and children are quiet, taking all of this in too as we walk towards the surf life saving club, the town’s emergency evacuation command and control center. Floodlights illuminate the exterior of the building. The effect is inviting. We are drawn towards the light.
Inside, volunteers put out white plastic chairs, quickly, to keep up with demand. We sign in and join the newsreel footage. Fire crews, police and emergency rescue workers move purposefully into back rooms with two-way radios pressed to their ears. Civilians stand around, draped in blankets, wearing whatever it was they had on when they got their evacuation order: shorts and thongs for many. Others are in pajamas, nightgowns and boxer shorts. Kids, half asleep, are propped up on pillows or bedded down on towels, snug against the walls of the life saving club. With them are dogs and cats and bunnies and guinea pigs. Modern families meet Noah’s Ark.
There’s not much to do but wait and entertain one’s own thoughts. People sit around. Some talk. Most don’t. Some laugh, some sob, many more keep looking at their phones. A weathered man is slumped in a corner, asleep, his head almost resting on the bulk of his belly that rises and falls. We all deal with stress in our own ways. Breathe in. Breathe out.
People stay together in distinct groups. Couples. Families. Backs turned out. No one else is allowed in. Not now. Inner circles. The scene reminds me of an airport lounge full of people awaiting a delayed flight. Changing planes.
In the club kitchen, three teenage boys wearing surf rescue uniforms spread butter and vegemite on dozens of slices of white bread. “This isn’t how I imagined spending New Year’s Eve,” says one of them. “Yeah,” says his mate. “But at least I feel useful.”
The volunteers are organized and supportive. They hand out sandwiches, cut up oranges, mangoes and distribute bottles of water. They are kind and gentle, a welcome dose of calm in the eye of this storm.
We don’t know it, but the fire is now tearing through the town of Cobargo, 25 kilometers away. Behind us, somewhere in those hills, father and son Robert Salway, 63, and Patrick Salway, 29, are dying in the blaze.
In the Bermagui Life Saving Club we have no information about the fire. It’s just out there, like a creature, on the move, that can’t be tracked. My son and daughter play video games. I can’t protect them, so I distract them. But it’s not enough. Not for me. I should have done something, somehow, somewhere along the way, before we got to sitting on a blanket, surrounded by flames. We all needed a holiday. But we shouldn’t have come.
A polite queue forms outside the toilets. I go there a lot. The line for the women’s toilets is long. But the women talk and comfort each other while they wait. The men’s queue is shorter. But the men do not speak. We don’t even look at each other. The difference between the two lines feels profound, like it’s the explanation for and answer to everything. I’ve joined my toilet queue at least three times in the last hour. I tell myself it’s because I drank a lot of water. I search myself and conclude that I’m going to the toilet so often because I’m scared.
I should be. Outside, on the beach, away from conversation, things feel more severe. Against the matt black sky, floodlights illuminate a band of ash that flutters in the air, lands gently on my head, my shoulders, my eyelids, soft, grey snow that never melts. I’m sweating. The wind blows hot.
“What time does the sun usually rise?” I ask a woman wearing a surf rescue jacket.
“5:30am,” she says and looks away. I check my watch. 9:47am. How quickly life unravels. I never expected to grieve the sun. But then, even our sun must learn to die.
Beyond the roof of the life saving club, I see something I will struggle to forget: a smoldering red orb that oozes through the darkness, as if melting the sky. It’s not the sun. The sun is somewhere else, somewhere behind me, cold and invisible, the thing that never rose. This is the fire. And it’s heading straight for us. It’s still kilometers away, but I feel the weight of its heat. Fear bleeds into terror. The sky glows red.
I know the final stage of our evacuation plan. Everyone does. And we dread it as much as the fire. The order to march into the sea. I scan Horseshoe Bay, where I taught my kids to boogie board and how to dive under a crashing wave, where they crawled, then walked, then ran on the squeaky, yellow sand while the ocean breeze ruffled the edges of our beach umbrella. The water is now dark and marbled with foam. I plan how far out we’ll go. How we’ll lock arms to stay together, huddled under the woolen blanket my wife brought because wool won’t burn as easy as other fabrics. But I imagine us out there, in the dark water, where the waves are breaking, with a thousand other people thrashing around in the rip and I can’t foresee what happens next. I don’t want to.
I go back inside the life saving club. It’s packed. There’s an announcement asking people to give up their chairs to those who need them: parents with babies, old people on walking frames. How will they fare in sea? And will I ignore them when the time comes?
There are stricken people here now, pale and hollow eyed, whose coming precedes the fire. They are jittery and streaked with ash. One man’s knees are bleeding as if he’s scrabbled and fallen in his haste to get away. A volunteer ushers a woman to a chair. She holds a little girl, no older than five. They too have seen the molten orb. But closer. And the look in their eyes tells me they see it still.
Two boys pass us. They’re wearing life jackets and have a mobile phone number neatly written on their arm in thick, black ink. People are better prepared than me.
I dig in our bag and find a ballpoint pen.
My son has been playing Minecraft on the iPad for hours. He’s barely distracted as I stretch out his arm and start writing my wife’s phone number on his skin.
“Just in case someone needs to call mum,” I say.
“Okay,” he says and goes back to building some more perfect world.
I take my time, forming the numbers on his arm, making sure they’re legible, that my zeros don’t look like sixes, that my twos can’t be mistaken for threes. When I finish, I reach for my daughter’s arm.
She pulls it away. “I know mum’s number.”
“I know, but–”
“No, I don’t want it.” She crosses her arms and turns away. “I know mum’s number.”
I leave her arm blank. It’s what she needs. I need it too. Defiant hope.
I go back outside where I don’t have to pretend I’m brave. Out there, the wind now blows cold. It is changing direction.
A man in surf rescue uniform gets up on a chair. He taps his microphone. A silent crowd gathers around him. The immediate danger has lifted, he tells us. All roads out of town remain closed, but we may, if we wish, return to our homes. He warns us to remain vigilant for ember attacks and to be ready to leave if the situation deteriorates. He instructs us to come back tomorrow at 10am for a briefing. The fire is leaving, heading somewhere else, towards someone else. For now. The crowd disperses.
Charred gum leaves tumble from the orange sky and collect on the beach where the waves roll in, black with soot. We are the lucky ones.
Can I learn to accept how much depends upon the direction of the wind?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yannick Thoraval is a writer, teacher and communications consultant. He holds a masters degree in history, a PhD in creative writing, and teaches professional writing and editing at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Yannick has written two novels and published nonfiction work in national publications. www.yannickthoraval.com
Learning to Die and Live: 24 Hours in Evacuation
© 2020 Yannick Thoraval