Bushfire survivors share what it's like living through extreme weather

ABC Life  /  By Amanda Collier and Rick Eaves

Updated 7 Feb 2019

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Nelson Bay Tasmania 2016

'The smoke and ash was horrific'

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Sue Popowski says the bush and animals around Nelson Bay are still recovering after bushfires went through in 2016. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The north-west coast of Tasmania is remote and rugged, where the gale-force winds of Roaring Forties hit the dunes that edge an area of wilderness known as the Tarkine.

There are just 13 fishing shacks in Nelson Bay, nestled between the beach and the Arthur-Pieman conservation area.

Sue and Ashley Popowski own one of those shacks, which was built by Ashley's parents in the 1950s. They were holidaying there on January 27, 2016.

"[It] was really, really dry," Sue says.

"There was a fire out in the distance … and the wind was coming this way. We thought 'Oh, we're in trouble here'."

Sue and Ashley packed their cars with the things Sue knew couldn't be replaced — photos and paintings. They drove the cars to the beach, left them there and returned to the shack.

"We chose to stay," she says.

"We had wet towels, we had goggles and glasses to put over our faces. Ashley and I were quite lucky that we had fire protection."

While they felt prepared, they got little sleep that night. At 4am their neighbour appeared and said "It's here".

"We doused down the shed at the back, the pump shed which is all timber and also the decking … we'd put everything away … thinking 'Well, when it does come, we'll just shut all the doors and we'll go'."

As the sun began to rise, Sue and Ashley headed for the beach.

"We could see the flames coming over the back and we thought 'It's time'."

They met the other shack owners down at the beach where they sheltered from the falling ash and embers just waiting to see what would happen.

"All I can remember is that it was really, really dark but it had this massive white glow in the middle, and then oranges and reds. It was just a mass of colour.

"The smoke and the ashes were just horrific."

Sue says they heard a number of explosions and thought the shacks must have been going up in flames.

A few hours later, the smoke cleared and they felt safe enough to go back and see what had happened.

All of the shacks were still standing. The grass was gone, firewood stacks were alight and exteriors were damaged, but no-one lost their shack that day.

"It's a very close little community … we were going to each shack and mopping up, pulling wood heaps apart so that we could save some wood.

"It was a bit too close. We were safe but our heritage wasn't.

"We still have not got the amount of animals that we used to have before the fires. We see the odd wombat or the odd wallaby.

"But it was such a harsh burn that there's no grass. It's just weeds and rushes. Trees are obviously still struggling."

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