Town’s brilliant reaction to bushfire hell

 

As the acrid stench of smoke hangs in the air and specks of white ash fall from the sky like snow, a steady procession of cars is doing laps around an ordinary looking roundabout on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

It's been well over 24 hours since 5000 residents in Peregian Beach saw texts on their phones and sounds of megaphones ringing out, telling them to leave immediately due to a firestorm hurtling towards their homes and destroying everything in its path.

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Overnight, some of them played the waiting game at the roundabout on David Low Way which leads north into the town - as cops stood under flashing lights, refusing to let them through.

Some shops remain closed. Picture: Ben Graham
Some shops remain closed. Picture: Ben Graham

 

A long line of cars began to form in the pitch dark and restless looking motorists sat listening to the radio for updates, wondering when they would be allowed to sleep in their own beds, check their homes were safe or just pick up a couple of belongings.

Some told me they'd even sneaked along the beach to bypass the police blockade earlier that day. Some had been escorted by cops to pick up medicines they desperately needed and others just kept coming back again and again to see if the road had opened.

"Looks like I'll be spending another night in my car," laughed Ryan Higgins from his ute.

"The wind's still pretty bad and I think it's going to pick up again, so who knows when we'll be allowed back. But, at least it's better than last night (Monday). The winds were insane. I just found a nice spot by the beach, slept in my car and took the day off work."

Just a few metres away, a couple in their mid-twenties, Courtney Johnson and Kyle Rigby, told me they woke up from a nap on Monday afternoon to see what looked like a dark cloud hanging over their home.

"I thought it was rain, but it was actually this crazy cloud of smoke," said Mr Rigby.

Next thing they knew, they had texts on their phones telling them to leave right away and they drove out of town to pick up a feed, thinking it would all blow over pretty quickly.

But when they came back, the fire whipped up into a frenzy.

Peregian Beach patiently wait to be allowed back home. Picture: Ben Graham
Peregian Beach patiently wait to be allowed back home. Picture: Ben Graham

 

 

 

Residents leave with their pets. Picture: Peter Wallis
Residents leave with their pets. Picture: Peter Wallis

 

 

At the roundabout we're at tonight, Mr Rigby said you could see the flames chewing up and instantly destroying rows of gum trees from the ground up with every gust of wind.

"You wouldn't believe it unless you saw it. It was full-on," he said.

One long-time resident, Susan Wright, said the blaze had caught everyone off-guard. "It was so fast, so vicious and so erratic," she said.

"We were sat having dinner with the grand kids in the yard at about 5.30pm (on Monday) and the smoke just came out of nowhere. It was thick, thick, thick. You could barely see anything."

Like everyone else I spoke to, she praised the work of the fireys and police officers - saying the latter even escorted her through the smoke on Tuesday to pick up some vital medicine from her blocked-off home.

However, all she wants now is to lie in her own bed.

"I'm going to wait here for as long as it takes," she laughed, saying she'd already been there for three hours.

Police officers blocking the road said emergency services were carrying out some last safety checks before residents would be allowed back in at some point in the night - news that was greeted with smiles and subtle fist-pumps from the line of motorists sat waiting in their cars.

Despite the ordeal they'd been through, everyone I spoke to said they believed their homes were safe and they were optimistic they'd be let through at any moment.

A bit further down the road, in the town of Coolum Beach - there's a strange mood in the air as the sun, stained a blood red from the bushfire smoke, drops from the sky and the harsh, ominous wind refuse to die down.

But since the semi-apocalyptic scene is taking place in Queensland, this mood is one of good-humoured and one filled with Aussie battler spirit.

The bowlo, for example, is absolutely rammed, and locals can be heard over XXXX schooners joking about what belongings they'd grab if they were to go back in a hurry.

And despite a few restaurants, and even one of the big banks posting signs on their doors saying they're closed due to evacuation, families stop each other in the street for a catch-up, beach bums with glazed eyes wait barefoot for takeaway orders and teenagers dance wildly to questionable music on their iPhones outside Maccas.

You can tell it's going to take a lot more than a bushfire to break this town's spirit.

 

benjamin.graham@news.com.au


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