Just a few short months ago Australia faced its greatest challenge as bushfires ravaged the nation like never before. The threat was visceral, we’d faced this before, fire, smoke, flames, blood, sweat… fear. The current threat is global, it’s microscopic, it’s transported by droplets, it’s an unknown enemy but it’s put the bushfire crisis on the backburner and ground the entire world into lockdown.
It’s hard to imagine the feeling of watching a thirty-foot wall of flames engulf your family home unless you’ve actually lived through it.
That’s exactly what South Coast legend Phil McDonald endured near his hometown of Tomakin. When a surfer of Phil’s stature recounts the story with a tremble in his voice, you begin to get a fuller appreciation of what has played out in the news and through social media this summer.
The “Black Summer” bushfire crisis, as it’s now being called, was an unprecedented natural disaster that captured world headlines. Over the Christmas- New Year period, temperatures soared in places already made dangerously dry by drought. A state-wide state of emergency was declared, and for the first time ever, tourists were mass-evacuated from coastal towns. The fires destroyed millions of hectares of bushland and almost one billion animals, as well as homes and other assets. Thankfully, the human toll was minimal thanks in no small part to the brave firefighters (most of them volunteers) on the frontline. The financial toll is beginning to filter through, and the surf industry is way down, conservatively 11% YOY across the country.
The emotional toll ? It’s still ongoing…
While the bushfires were widespread along the East Coast and parts of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, the South Coast of NSW has been synonymous with the terrible impact of the fires, and also the road to recovery.
Kent Saunders reckons takings for Southern Man were down by 80 per cent for January, the month when he normally takes a third of his annual revenue. Yet he radiates optimism. “We’ll be strong,” he said. “There’s so much generosity in the town.” Kent and his wife, Juanita, have been running the business for forty years, and wouldn’t rule out another forty if nature doesn’t intervene.
While there were many surf shops affected, you’ve got to feel for the new owners of Offshore Surf in Moruya and Broulee. Not only did they confront the stark economic realities the fires brought with them, but they also did it all within the first few months of taking over the business.
“It’s insane,” new owner Brett Muskett told us. “You couldn’t make it up.” Brett bought the business in August, together with fellow long-time employee Ned Cootes, and was looking forward to experiencing the full benefits of the annual tourist boom.
Sussex Inlet and South Coast icon Ocean & Earth were right on the frontline and lucky that their employees were safe and none lost their homes. Fortunately, O&E’s factory escaped the fires for a second time.
“After almost losing our factory in January 2001, those fires happened quickly and was a bit ‘wham-bam’ shock, over and done deal. It took a couple of weeks to recover from,” said Brian Cregan, CEO of Ocean & Earth.
Cregan held vigil overnight in the factory, flames licking at the doorstep, hose in hand.
“The fires this time had been lingering for around a month, causing disruption, destruction and heart ache along the south coast. Twice over the Christmas-New Year period we’ve been threatened and fortunately saved by a southerly change, just in time.”
“We were prepared as best as possible, doing everything promoted by the RFS as precautions and our own O&E staff brigade on standby. The stress, dealing with this prolonged fire threat, is significant and I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose your home or property after weeks of being on emotional edge. You have to feel for those 450-odd families that lost homes on the south coast (and hundreds of homes elsewhere) but and after talking to a couple, they’re happy to have escaped alive,” recalled Cregan.
As the road to recovery begins, it’s worth considering how we as an industry respond, be it through Go Fund Me campaigns or by donating profits from online sales and merchandise all the way through to charity events. The bushfire crisis also highlighted the ingenuity of two South Coast locals, Turia Pitt and Grace McBride, who created the Instagram account @spendwiththem featuring businesses (like Southern Man) that have been affected by the bushfires and encouraging people to ‘spend with them’. The account has now amassed 201K followers since it was launched, and represents a simple way to provide direct support to business in fire-ravaged areas.
There are too many events, charities and funds to list here, but whatever you choose, keep doing it. These businesses need your support, well after the flames have been extinguished.