LAKE CONJOLA, Australia – After no news for three days, Anthony Brennan feared his older brother had perished in a wildfire that turned this bucolic coastal village into a scene of random destruction.
When the phone network came back online Thursday, photos arrived on Brennan’s phone that brought intense relief — and profound sadness.
The family was OK. Scott Brennan and his wife, Kris, were unharmed physically by a fire that jumped an inlet and raced through the town on New Year’s Eve. Their four-bedroom house was also safe.
A few streets away, Anthony Brennan’s holiday home was a smoldering ruin. A few years ago the freelance film editor had ringed the three-bedroom property with an ironbark veranda. On warm evenings he would sit outside listening to crickets as the sun set over Lake Conjola, a popular fishing spot.
“All the good memories of my later life were down at Lake Conjola” with his family, Brennan said in a telephone interview on Friday. “I thought I had lost them.”
The devastation wreaked on the communities around the lake, 130 miles south of Sydney, and the frantic efforts by Australians to save homes from rampant wildfires illustrate how increasingly extreme conditions are forcing regular citizens to make life-or-death decisions in the face of deadly natural disasters.
“There are more people, and they are living in places that are more exposed to bush fire than previously,” said Andrew Sullivan, a wildfire expert and a principal research scientist at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government agency. “When firefighters are stretched it is hard to stop the sources of ignition — and they have been doing so much firefighting for past three to four months.”
Conditions worsen today
This week, some 200 fires have burned across Australia’s most-populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, killing at least eight people and leaving 23 missing. Conditions are expected to be so bad on Saturday — 100 degrees F., rainless thunderstorms, and winds of 23 mph — that thousands of tourists and residents have already fled the coastal villages and hinterland hamlets that Australians flock to every summer.
Among those who opted to stay is Gary McDonald, caretaker of a housing estate under construction near the banks of Conjola Lake. On Monday, McDonald helped to save all 14 houses that were recently built or close to completion. An older building used as an office was lost.
Near the peak of the fire, the smoke was so thick McDonald struggled to see his hands. He retreated to his car, parked on the lake’s bank, where his wife — who has a physical disability — was sheltering.
“We thought we would be OK on the other side of the water,” he said, describing how his shirt had been “drenched from tears” caused by the smoke.
The estate’s immediate prospects look grim. Only one of the brown holiday houses has been sold — to the McDonalds — and some 10,000 pounds of mulch that was intended to beautify the landscape with agave succulents was in smoldering piles on Friday. A water main pipe sprayed a thin mist into the air. Blackened trees threatened to fall at any moment.
McDonald, 60, was using a garden hose to try to extinguish fires underneath the plant matter. He refused his wife’s demands that they leave.
“I will defend this until I drop,” he said. “There is no way I am giving up.”
Nearby, Scott Brennan had disagreed with his wife about whether to stay. A 58-year-old professional with the state fire and rescue service, Scott initially got his way. Around 11 a.m. the couple were dousing their home with buckets of water when the fire turned on the town. Scott agreed it was finally time to leave.
The couple drove toward the main coastal highway. Panicked tourists had created a traffic jam they couldn’t get past, according to Scott’s brother, Anthony, and they turned around and headed for the water.
“Houses were exploding around them,” Anthony said. “They got to the wharf where a neighbor had a boat. They sat there watching Conjola burn.”
Once the main threat had passed, Scott collected a couple of cases of beer from his house to celebrate the year’s end. He returned to the water’s edge and shared them with several neighbors, Anthony said, and together they saw in 2020 amid the destruction of the town.
On Friday, Anthony received a message from his brother. Scott was preparing for the next wave of fires that authorities have warned could arrive Saturday — and force residents of Lake Conjola to experience the horror a second time.
“I’ve given the dog to our friends in town,” the message said. “If this fire returns like they have predicted, he can’t go through that trauma again. I’m crying as I pass over the dog to terrific friends, knowing it is the best thing for him.”