On New Year's Eve clubs in the Bega Valley are usually filled with revellers as visitors and locals farewell an old year and welcome a new one. But on December 31, 2019 it was a much more sombre crowd that turned to their local clubs for support.
As bushfires approached from all directions, turning skies red and black and blanketing the area with smoke so thick that fire-fighting aircraft were unable to be deployed, the devastation that unfolded across the region had to be experienced to be believed.
Emergency evacuation centres provided essential support to thousands of terrified residents and visitors including five Bega Valley clubs - Club Sapphire Merimbula, Merimbula RSL Club, Tura Beach Country Club, Bermagui Country Club and Eden Fishermens Recreation Club.
Mid-afternoon on New Year's Eve, instead of revellers starting to arrive at Club Sapphire, it was 300 fire-panicked people that were pouring through the doors. Eden Fishermens Recreation Club was full to capacity.
In Bermagui the Country Club opened as a safe haven at 5am on December 31 and within 20 minutes, the first wave of 200 people arrived. During the next 24 hours they looked after more than 2500 people, catering for 800 breakfasts, 10000 lunches and 2000 dinners.
When the Commissioner declared a State of Emergency on January 2 the Bermagui club became a Rural Fire Service command centre, caring for 145 fire-fighters and their families who had come to the region to support the fire-fighting effort needed to help battle the unprecedented and widespread fire ground.
The clubs provided safe havens for people of all ages and their pets ranging from dogs to goldfish. Carparks filled with cars, boats, camper vans, horse floats and caravans.
Club Sapphire alone looked after more than 3000 people during an eight-day period where it shut down normal operations to be a full-time evacuation centre. Medical staff were available 24 hours a day.
"There was a lot of people arriving in the club traumatised, stressed and struggling to breathe. There were burn victims, people who'd lost everything, people who'd escaped by the skin of their teeth. At one point we had 1000 people sleeping at the club. Every room in the club had beds, we had people sleeping on chairs, but it was a safe and comfortable haven compared to what they had at home," Club Sapphire chief executive Damien Foley said.
Merimbula RSL Club was on standby for 12 days and was needed for three of those to look after an overflow of around 800 people from other evacuation centres. The two Merimbula clubs' courtesy buses provided essential transport to Club Sapphire for people needing medical attention.
In Eden, the club was an evacuation centre on three occasions, for a total of eight days. Eden human resource manager Christine Ward said they looked after 1000 locals and visitors and served 800 meals, under extremely challenging conditions exacerbated by a lack of emergency service resources. One of the most terrifying experiences was late evening January 4 when the Border Fire prompted an evacuation warning for the entire town and buses transported 150 people from the Eden club and another 150 from the town to Merimbula RSL which had opened, along with Tura Beach Country Club, because Club Sapphire was at capacity.
Merimbula RSL Club secretary manager Michael Mutsch said when he got the call on January 4 to open for emergency evacuation at around 5pm he immediately contacted three directors and RSL assistant manager Emma Irvin contacted staff. Within an hour they were ready for evacuees and two and a half hours later other emergency service personnel arrived to help. At 10.30pm they were asked to start making room for another 300 people that would soon arrive from Eden, which was being evacuated.
"People were scared," Michael said. "The smoke was very thick outside and people were struggling to breathe. Inside the club was also smoky, but we did our very best to make people feel as comfortable as possible."
Michael recalls one of the first men who arrived at the club with his family being in a highly-anxious state and needing extra support. "We knew from this moment that we weren't only providing a physical space where people could get away from the fires, we were providing important mental health support under extreme conditions."
In the five days as an evacuation centre, the Tura Beach club cared for around 350 people each day, and also housed pets. The club provided breakfast, lunch and dinner for 300 people at each sitting and staff supported evacuees around the clock. General manager Don Field said he was extremely proud of the way his staff assisted with counselling and attending to evacuees' needs.
At Bermagui, general manager Robert Beuzeville says often it was the simple things that brought calmness to everyone, such as bathing a three-week old baby in the main bar sink.
Food played an essential role at each centre. Local supermarkets rallied around to ensure kitchen staff were able to feed everyone and all clubs have received notes of thankyou for the quality of meals provided. Local businesses also rallied around the clubs including Pambula restaurant Wheelers, who had extra oysters on hand to cater for tourists over the summer season. With all the tourists being ordered to leave, Wheelers donated these to the clubs to feed the evacuees - a luxury that was much appreciated.
At Club Sapphire they served up to 1200 individuals at every mealtime - over the six and half days people were at the centre they estimate they prepared around 15,000 meals.
Chief executive Damien Foley says they have received hundreds of thank you cards and notes.
"What we saw through that period was how good this industry is, what role this industry plays in the community. These towns wouldn't have known what to do if it wasn't for the club industry being here to provide these facilities. It's a strong, robust, caring industry and we saw it at its best," he says.