‘It felt like Armageddon’: Responding to Australia’s bushfire crisis

Cobargo, Main Street

NSW registered nurse Diane Lang was working a routine night-shift on the surgical ward at South East Regional Hospital in Bega on New Year’s Eve as bushfires razed towns along the coast.

“Because I was on night-shift and I was isolated I didn’t really know what was happening except that I could see the sky was black, the flames from the hospital in the distance, and just a glow.”

Hospital staff were listening to scanners and the radio to monitor the situation, readying themselves for potential admissions and injuries.

The widespread fires struck towns including Cobargo, Quaama and Eden.

Roads in and out of the area were closed as new fires emerged in nearby Bemboka.

An NSWNMA Branch Councillor and delegate, Diane lives around 40 kilometres away in the tourist town of Merimbula, where the local bowls club and RSL were turned into evacuation centres for those affected in surrounding areas.

At the hospital, with the situation unfolding, Diane stayed on to help in whatever way she could.

She finished her normal 10-hour shift before heading off for a two-hour snooze and returning to help out on the ward until the afternoon, mainly with discharge and making sure people were safe and had a plan.

“There were quite a few small burns and a couple of major burns where people had to be eventually transferred to Concorde Hospital,” Diane recalls.

“I stayed on that morning and just helped with discharge and getting people who could go home out because we needed to have enough beds available in case we had a lot of people admitted.”

Diane says staff working at the hospital experienced a huge emotional toll.

“The weather was so daunting it felt like Armageddon.

It was so dark and scary looking that we were all freaking out because fi res were everywhere. We didn’t know if people’s houses were safe, what staff were safe, because communication as down in one of the areas and there’s a lot of staff that live out in Cobargo and Quaama. We were really distressed.”

Diane drove home that evening, packed a suitcase with essentials in the event her own property was lost to the bushfires, then returned to the hospital to take on extra shifts.

For the next week in early January, she lived out of her campervan in the hospital carpark and went to work as many of the fi res blazed out of control.

During the crisis, NSW Health sent extra nurses to the stretched hospital to help out.

“A lot of the nurses had been working extra shifts. We were tired. When you live in that kind of atmosphere you get a bit fatigued and hot tempered because of your circumstances.

“We had people who were taking time off work because they were evacuating their houses. Some had to be evacuated four or five times. They often had to worry about family and children and some of them lost homes and properties and animals.”

Diane says hospital management were extremely supportive during the crisis and that the hospital and community deserve enormous credit for their collective eff orts.

But she argues the hospital has had longstanding understaffing issues and that resources were already stretched prior to the bushfires, with the tragic events strengthening the case for safer levels and ratios.

“We need more nurses on the floor,” she said after speaking at ACTU’s Emergency Services Summit in Canberra in February.

“My message was we need more services and we need to make sure that our mental health is addressed adequately by making sure we have enough staff.”

Diane had close friends who lost everything due to the bushfires and joined others in rallying around communities as best she could.

When speaking to the ANMJ in early February the fi res were still a daily threat, with homes continuing to be lost.

In the face of tragedy, she said it had been humbling to see the generosity of people emerge and communities stick together.

People like those mending fencing for farmers who lost kilometres of fencing, or those clearing rubbish and cooking meals.

“I just look at the devastation it’s caused in this area, the landscape and the homes.

But the beautiful thing is it has made the community stronger and it shows you that humanity is good with all the things that people do to come and volunteer and help us.”

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