Phil MacDonald recalls the harrowing details and How You Can Help the South Coast
Phil MacDonald from Ocean & Earth talks to Tracks about their bushfire appeal and what the communities on the south coast are facing following the devastation.
“It’s just a ghost town down there and this is the busiest time of the year, and it’s just a ghost town…
"If everyone booked a holiday on the south coast this year or next year, and not just in summer but in winter when times are going to be tough that’s going to go a long way for people down in the south coast and that’s going to have a flow on affect for families and people relying on tourist income." Phil Macdonald
It should be the busiest time of the year on the south coast. Instead it’s a ghost town. Fires that ravaged the south coast on New Year’s Eve have wiped out communities, destroyed businesses, hundreds of homes and taken two lives. It’s estimated half a billion animals have perished and almost 12 million acres have gone up in flames. This is Australia’s blackest summer and bushfires are still rolling around the country.
Phil MacDonald has lived in the area his entire life. The former #5 ranked CT surfer from Tomakin now works with his long-time sponsor Ocean & Earth who have set up a gofundme campaign to help the local community get back on their feet. His parent’s home came perilously close to being engulfed on New Year’s Eve. A southerly change stopped the fire at his parent’s backyard. Many of his friends weren’t so lucky.
When we chat, his voice is gravelly and for good reason. He’s witnessed the devastation of his community first hand and continues to hear tales of survival, loss and hope from exhausted locals as he now tries to rally the surf community behind a bushfire donation appeal to help stimulate the local economy. He hopes surfers can help the south coast with their long-term recovery and talked to Tracks today from Sussex Inlet.
Tracks: How are the roads down there now, are they open?
Phil Macca: The highway is open but the access into Sussex, Bendalong and Lake Conjola; they are only letting in local residents. I’m not sure if that will change today but they are still telling everyone to stay away from the area.
That image of North Durras looking from South Durras is so confronting. Are the fires under control or are they still burning in some areas?
Yeah they’re still burning. If you look at the RFS map there are fires still burning. There are pockets that haven’t been burnt. South Durras to Batemans Bay hasn’t been burnt but saying that there’s still a lot of ambers and spot fires that can happen if the wind picks up and throws an amber somewhere that hasn’t been burnt by the fire. If the land hasn’t been crowned - if the trees have leaves on it still or leaves on the ground - then the fire can come back through.
Are these the worst fires you can remember or have experienced personally in the area?
We all grew up with fires in the area. I think the fire in the 2001 fires went right over the factory (O&E factory) and the factory was lucky to survive so there have been fires but there hasn’t been fires that stretch the whole south coast.
What was your personal account from when the fires came through the area this time?
On New Year’s Eve, we were at my parents’ place that weekend and I had dinner Monday night in Bateman’s Bay with some friends and was tracking the fire. At that point, the fire was way out the back in the Clyde Mountains still and I thought maybe by tomorrow it would come a little bit closer. But we woke up at 5am the next morning and there was a straight line, like a finger that was coming straight for us. By 6 am it had gone past Mogo, which is basically 5 ks from our house so we had to quickly pack the house up and motor down and get ready for the fire. Then we had to get all the cars and boats down to a safer area and we evacuated to the Tomakin club. By 11 o’clock the fire was at the back of my parent’s place, it was pitch dark you couldn’t see it was just aglow. Then they evacuated the Tomakin club and told everyone to get on the beach. And we’re talking a residential place right on the river right on the beach so you can imagine the mayhem with babies, tourists and that kind of stuff.
But lucky for us but not lucky for other people though the southerly came and the fire kind of stopped at my parent’s backyard basically. Ten minutes later their house would have been lost and my sister’s house would have been lost. Broulee got an amber fall from 3 ks away and I think they lost a house and the school lost a few buildings but again if it wasn’t for the southerly I think Broulee and Tomakin would have been flattened. But saying that the southerly then pushed the fire back up towards Batemens Bay, so places like Rosedale and Malua Bay they got annihilated and people had to evacuate to the beach and jump in the water to get away from the fire.
I couldn’t imagine. It must have been absolutely frightening for people down there
I think if you’ve ever been in a bushfire it’s not like a little fire, you’re talking flames 30 feet above tall trees and whole sky going black and an orange glow it’s pretty confronting. No one knows what to do no one knows where to go. When the southerly did hit that’s when they could get the helicopters out and survey the damage. They see someone’s house on fire and they’re water bombing that. The stories start coming out, your mate just lost his house, another house to burning and everyone runs up there to save it. These stories go on for days and days. The phones are down so you don’t know what’s happening. Some people were at work and the fire came so quickly they couldn’t get back to their kids and they were stuck because the roads were closed. Then the electricity goes down, petrol stations are closed, the food places are closed, no trucks are coming in…it’s a devastating scene.
Have you seen the landscape from the water since the fires?
I haven’t even thought about surfing since the fires. I haven’t gone for surf since New Year’s Eve. But I’ve been driving daily from Sussex Inlet to Batemans Bay because I’ve been staying at my parents’ place so I drive that coastline and the whole highway basically is completely burnt out. When you do that drive you just see the devastation it’s all burnt out. You go to these communities and sit there and hear these stories of people in devastation and despair but at the same time you’re hearing stories of what people are doing for each other. People that have lost everything but are still defending people’s properties, people opening doors for people and the support from outside the area has been amazing as well. If you drive down there you’ll kind of get more of a feel for the devastation. It’s just a ghost town down there and this is the busiest time of the year and it’s just a ghost town.
What are the biggest challenges facing local businesses right now? Obviously the local economy is taking a massive hit but are people also struggling to deal with the grief and anguish of what they’ve been through?
Some businesses have burnt down and some people have had their house and business burnt down all in the space of two minutes. Some people have lost their business, some people have lost their houses. It’s devastating for those people. For the south coast community this period is where they make their money for the entire year. From December especially after Christmas to the end of January that’s when a lot of these people need the money to get them through the whole year. A lot of these businesses have bought stock, they’ll be sitting on stock and you usually have to pay that back in January and they can’t do that because they aren’t getting any sales. All the hotels, the restaurants, all the local stores, they rely on tourist dollars. Most of them can’t even open up because it just doesn’t make any sense because no one is buying anything. That has a flow-on effect y’know. They employ people like my sister, they’ve got no electricity but they’re employees need money so they need to give their employees some work but there’s just no electricity. School is just about to start so people have to buy book supplies, you have to pay school fees…it has a massive flow-on effect. This is the four weeks that gets them through the whole year down here so it’s really devastating. If you don’t make any money now how do you keep your business running when it’s not making any money through winter?
Ocean & Earth have started a gofundme campaign with the goal of raising $100K for local charities including the Rural Fire Service. A lot of people, particularly surfers, visit the south coast because of how good the waves are and how beautiful it is. Tell me what was your motivation to put the campaign together and the message you want to get out to people?
Yeah, I suppose our business has been affected greatly as well. Being a company that’s been on the south coast for 40 years it’s our community and friends and family who have been affected. So this is a step to support those friends and family. It’s basically just a vehicle for the surf community to show their love to the people on the south coast. Our goal is to connect with all businesses and all people. Anyone who is a surfer, anyone who has been to the south coast, anyone who hasn’t been to the south coast but loves surfing y’know if they can donate to the fund then we will donate to the charities listed and any one we think that needs that support and that will become more evident in the next month or so to see who really needs the money.
Are you optimistic about the future for the south coast given the outpouring of good will so far?
Yeah I mean you have to be it. It’s devastating for our community but the support within the surf community so far has been amazing. All the surfers are doing massive pushes. To me it’s not about the gofundme it’s about the surf community wherever they can spare a dollar and raise a dollar to know that’s for a cause and that’s going to help someone. I’m proud to see people doing their own raffles and know that that money is going to go to someone and that’s really important.
How else can the surfing community help the south coast people get back on their feet?
Y’know cash is the main thing at this point in time for the charities. That’s going to help the people get back on their feet quick. But thinking long term we’ve got to think about how we can help the small businesses down there. That’s just getting people down there on the south coast. If everyone booked a holiday on the south coast this year or next year, and not just in summer but in winter when times are going to be tough that’s going to go a long way for people down in the south coast and that’s going to have a flow-on effect for families and people relying on tourist income. I think as a community that’s what we can all do moving forward and highlight some small businesses down there and encourage people to go to the south coast and that’s how we can really help the south coast long-term.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?
Yeah from Ocean & Earth’s point of view we’d just like to thank the whole surf community, all the surf companies that are raising money, all the surfers that are raising money, all the surfers that have donated to the cause and just don’t forget about the south coast. Book your next holiday down here, tell your friends to come down here and when you’re down here please spend some money. If you can’t get down here buy something from the south coast that’s going to help people as well and the communities that have been affected.