Encircled by flames: the sleepy New South Wales towns in the bushfire crisis

Michael McGowan

Carol Heriot was standing in the kitchen thinking about what to cook for dinner on Tuesday afternoon when a police officer knocked on her door.

“He said: ‘Love, it’s time to get out of here.’ I said: ‘What do you mean?’ and he pointed up the hill and he said: ‘You see that smoke? It’s coming this way.’”

Related: Factcheck: Is there really a green conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction?

Heriot, her partner Rodney Smith and their dog Bundy were among the 80-odd people, dogs, birds, cats and goldfish crowded into the auditorium of the Tuncurry bowling club on Tuesday night.

“We’re a bit of a menagerie at the moment and it looks a bit like Noah’s ark out the back,” the manager, Terry Green, told Guardian Australia earlier in the day.

A Tuncurry firefighter battles a bushfire south of Taree, in New South Wales, on 12 November. Photograph: Darren Pateman/AAP

Some played cards, others chatted over a barbecue while the ABC’s rolling coverage of the bushfires that have ripped through New South Wales in the past 24 hours played silently on a big screen in the background.

Others somehow managed to sleep as volunteers busily organised the steady flow of donated mattresses into orderly rows.

Located about 35km (22 miles) from Taree on the NSW mid-north coast, the twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry – sleepy, seaside places popular with retired people and summer tourists – have found themselves precariously hemmed in on many sides by the bushfire crisis.

Besides the three minor (for now) fires that surround the two towns, the out-of-control Hillville Road fire, which by Tuesday night had burned through more than 21,000 hectares (52,000 acres), sits just to the north.

In fact, a quick look at the rural fire service’s increasingly visited Fires Near Me app shows there are, indeed, fires near here. So many in fact that in the 650km (400 miles) between Tuncurry and Brisbane it’s hard to see land for all the alerts.

The town is almost cut off. The Pacific Highway – the main road in from the south – has been closed, as has Failford Road to the north. The one remaining entry point – the narrow, undulating Lakes Way – is thick with smoke that hangs eerily over the Myall Lakes along which it runs.

In the tiny village of Bungwahl, Joseph Schuelein was filling up jerry cans with water from the lake for his gutters. He had been told to leave, he said, but had no intention of going.

“The bloke from the local fire brigade did come down and say we should think about moving, but where are we going to go?” he said.

Bushfires map

“It’ll be bad if the fire comes through, for sure, [but] our place is pretty well protected, and we’ve got Dad’s boat on the lake if things got really bad.”

A little earlier, down on the Pacific Highway, a line of trucks too large to handle the Lakes Way snaked back for a few hundred metres. “I reckon I could get her around it, but those bastards up there won’t let me through,” one driver said.

By Tuesday night, there were more than 70 fires burning across NSW. Half of them were out of control, with emergency alerts issued for nine of them. Of those nine, five were on the state’s mid-north or mid coast.

At least a dozen homes have been damaged or destroyed, and the rural fire service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, was at pains to warn that a southerly wind that was making its way up the coast could worsen conditions on the mid-north coast overnight.

“All of those fires are going to demand a bit of attention tonight and are going to be increased and exacerbated by those southerly winds even if it is at 2am in the morning,” he said.

While Tuesday was marked as a “catastrophic” fire day for NSW, people in this part of the state have gotten used to the smoke haze that has hung over them for the last week or so.

Like Heriot, most of those crowded into the bowling club on Tuesday night came from the nearby suburb of Failford, just north of Forster.

Lucy and John Van Hoof were in their home at a caravan park on the edge of town when they were told to leave. For days, the smoke had been building, but by Tuesday afternoon the black and grey clouds seemed to loom unnervingly close.

“There was smoke everywhere. We could see it all coming up over the hill,” Lucy said.

“We’ve been here 23 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. When they told us to leave I thought: ‘I’d rather leave now than wait.’

“I don’t know what’s happened. I just hope it’s still there when we get back. We don’t even know whether we can leave tomorrow.”

Another caravan park resident, Doreen Bigness, was worried about two pillows she had lost in the evacuation centre. She asked a staff member to make an announcement about them over the club’s loudspeaker, then revealed that not everyone at the caravan park had left.

“I called my neighbour a couple of hours ago and he’s still there,” she said.

“I thought he was right behind me when I left. He’s older than me and he’s got problems with his breathing; he uses a machine, you know? I almost wish I didn’t know, that I didn’t call, but I was just being neighbourly. I just thought he must have booked into a motel.”

Evacuation centres like the bowling club dot the coast now. This one was set up, almost accidentally, by Lauren Whitty and some friends who run a community Facebook group.

When the fires ran through to the nearby northern towns of Taree and Port Macquarie, they started using the group to see if they could organise a few donations.

“We just put out a call for help and we’ve had people from Sydney, Newcastle and some of the locals wanting to donate things. For a while we were like: ‘Oh, we don’t know where to send everything,’” she said.

As the fire edged closer to them, though, they organised the evacuation centre with the bowling club and almost immediately people began trickling in.

As the auditorium continued to fill, another load of air mattresses arrived from a local store and people filed in and out with more supplies.

“I think we’ve got plenty, but they have told us to expect more people later. I don’t know, to be honest, I don’t know what most of these people have been through,” she said.