DAVID and Maggie Walsh had a split-second decision to make – sit in a hot car for 15 hours with two boys under two, or huddle on the beach as fires circled around them.
The couple, from the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, was among the thousands of holidaymakers who were forced to evacuate Ulladulla, on the south coast of New South Wales, as intense flames licked the surrounding area.
Mr Walsh, originally from Melbourne, was in Ulladulla for a 10-day family reunion with his mum and siblings, including his sister, Brisbane Catholic mother Carrie McCormack, and their 21 children.
The family had planned on a beachfront holiday between December 22 and January 2, but were greeted with blackened trees and smoky skies.
Mr Walsh said he was aware of the dangerous weather conditions before flying to Australia but was not expecting to see trees burning as they eventually escaped the looming flames.
The rising smoke was bad news for his youngest child, six-week-old Gabriel.
“Maggie is a nurse and I’m about to finish my studies,” Mr Walsh said.
“(Gabriel’s) airways are the size of a straw, and we both knew that the smoke and the irritation would be difficult for him.”
Mrs McCormack said the typically pristine beaches and fresh air were completely dominated by the circling fires.
“When we were at the beach, ash was washing up and burnt leaves were washing up on the surf line, all across the sand,” she said.
“And the smell of smoke …”
The smoke was so thick, Mrs McCormack said, that on one rainy day “it looked like acid rain”.
“What became evident is we were having a really fun family reunion but had this emergency around us,” she said.
“It was a pressure cooker.
“It was really surreal.”
Following a text message from the NSW Rural Fire Service urging people to leave Ulladulla, Mrs McCormack said they planned to leave on January 1.
Her mum and five siblings had already left the hotel, sending regular updates on the family’s WhatsApp group.
“But the roads were closed and the fires were closing in,” Mrs McCormack said.
When the roads cleared up a fraction on January 2, the family had two options – face an enormous exodus out of Ulladulla, which could potentially mean sitting in a hot car for 15 hours, or sit on the beach eating fish and chips.
The answer came from above.
“We kept asking Jesus, ‘What do we need to do now?’” Mr Walsh, who works for Duluth diocese, said.
“One of his first answers was go to Mollymook and have a swim and eat fish and chips.”
Mrs McCormack said Mollymook was a “ghost town” but it was the safest option for the young children in tow.
“We couldn’t do anything else but it was weird to be laying on the beach,” she said.
At 3.30pm Mrs McCormack received a text message from the manager of the holiday venue they had previously vacated, offering them a room for $50 instead of the normal $300 rate.
“We all squashed into the cabin, had pizza for dinner, and waited,” she said.
“I decided we were not hitting the road until we know the traffic is moving.”
Their big break came at 3.45am on January 3, when the hotel manager texted that the roads had opened up and an evacuation was possible.
“David jumped the fence and ran out to the main street to see if the roads were moving,” Mrs McCormack said.
Mr Walsh said it was only by God’s grace that at 4.30am, two families left a hotel “and no one complained”.
“It all happened gracefully, and that was totally God,” he said.
“Jesus was totally answering our prayers and showing us the next step.
“We also recognised that this was an opportunity to come closer to Him, and include Jesus in our experience of the fires.
“We don’t want to deny Jesus because of the fires, but include Jesus in the fires.
“I think people get rid of God as soon as something bad happens.”
Mrs McCormack said the roads were lined with packs of water, left out by the locals in case anyone was thirsty.
She said she had never seen the Australian landscape so barren and black, describing what she saw as “an external volcano”.
“What would’ve been massive grey, old trees were burning from the top to the bottom still,” she said.
“Then there were low-lying fallen trees and logs still flaming up.
“Because it was dark we just saw the red glow everywhere.
“Even though it had burned already, and probably wouldn’t burn again, I felt for the homes that were in that area.
“It just was black, it was dark.
“On the horizon we could still see large amounts of smoke.
“So we were really close.”
Traffic was moving at 5km/hr, and every passing kilometre revealed the extent of the bushfire damage.
“We drove up the central highway, through Casino and Rathdowney, and saw evidence of the previous bushfires,” Mrs McCormack said.
“What would have been rainforest, lush mountains, was very orange.
“We saw fire-affected Australia all the way from Ulladulla all the way to Beaudesert.”
When they hit Beaudesert, the family offered a Rosary of thanks to God for guiding them out of danger.
Their first sight of green grass was at the McCormack’s home suburb of Greenbank.
“There was green grass, and we thought, ‘We’ve made it home’,” Mrs McCormack said.
It was a family reunion nobody will ever forget.
“We haven’t been together as a family for eight years – it’s going to take more than bushfire to stop us getting together,” Mrs McCormack said.
“We just kept saying God loves family, he’s not going to put us in harm’s way.”