We call it the Black Summer but that label, while neat, doesn't tell the whole story. It was also our Summer of Love. Amid the fear, despair and destruction, the abiding memory of the South Coast firestorm was the kindness of strangers and the coming together of communities.
On November 22, the Batemans Bay Post carried on its front page a dire warning that fire in the hinterland could easily run all the way to the coast, so bad were the conditions. And that's exactly what it did.
In late November, while fires were raging on the North and and Mid-North Coasts and the Blue Mountains, the peril seemed remote. We'd watched with broken hearts the flames consume vast tracts of land up north and out west. We'd cried at the vision of our cherished koalas screaming in pain. Yet still the emergency was at a safe distance.
Then lightning struck on November 26, in inaccessible, heavily forested country northwest of Batemans Bay. Hot, dry winds fanned one ignition point into what became known as the Currowan fire, which would change the South Coast forever.
On Wednesday, November 27, the South Coast Register, Milton- Ulladulla Times, Bay Post/Moruya Examiner and Narooma News held their first combined news conference, setting the template for covering an emergency we feared would transcend our traditional coverage boundaries. As it turned out, the Currowan fire rapidly grew into an international story.
By early December the fire had jumped the Princes Highway and was bearing down on Bawley Point, which was cut off to all but fire crews, police, ambulance, water carriers and accredited media.
Residents manned the kitchen in the fire shed to ensure firefighters were fed. They also distributed food to townsfolk who had stayed. They came together because they had to.
And we all learned to read the weather, to understand how hot nor'westerly winds would push the fire to the coast and the inevitable southerly change would drive it north along an expanded front.
We found ourselves glued to the Fires Near Me app, anxiously checking on individual fires as they threatened to merge into one monstrous megablaze.
With each passing day, the new soundtrack which had entered our lives became louder as helicopters and firefighting aircraft filled our skies. Our roads filled with RFS convoys heading into battle or returning. We were at war.
Communities came together in hastily convened town meetings. Worst-case scenarios were presented and residents warned that staying to fight the fire required immense psychological as well as physical preparation. The fire was growing so large and so fierce that it would be impossible to extinguish. Only rain could do that and there was none on the horizon.
Neighbours made plans to leave or to stay and stare down the flames together.
At each successive community meeting, the predictions grew more dire. At first the fire had the potential to run all the way to Burrill Lake. Then it was predicted it could make it all the way to Tomerong. And after that, it had the potential to jump the Shoalhaven River.
On New Year's Eve, it hit Conjola Park, destroying 80 homes. By January 4, it reached the Southern Highlands.
A windshift was fortunate for Tapitallee but disastrous for Budgong and Kangaroo Valley.
When we ventured into the burnt zone to talk to survivors, many of whom had lost their homes, we felt a sudden and deep connection. People thanked us for listening to their stories. Without exception, they said other people were worse off than themselves.
Throughout the emergency, we came upon people working tirelessly to help others. There was the team of volunteers in the Milton RFS fire shed cheerfully running a production line to get rations to the firefighters on the front line.
Also at Milton, the showground pavilion had been turned into a makeshift logistics centre, handling and distributing the trailer and truckloads of donated food, water, clothing and tools sent from all over Australia.
In Nerriga, residents had sheltered from the flames in the pub as firefighters hosed the building down from the outside. Weeks later, the pub was still operating as a community hub, a place where traumatised survivors could gather for support and vital information.
Kindness reached out in Milton and Ulladulla, when locals distributed food and water to fleeing holiday-makers trapped by road closures on the side of the highway on New Year's Eve. It manifested itself in the deluge of donated goods that filled to bursting relief centres up and down the coast.
People stepped up to help those who couldn't help themselves. As communities, as neighbourhoods, as the country as a whole, we came together.
In February, Greg Webb, who lost his home at Conjola Park, reflected on how his city friends were so affected by what they saw play out on the South Coast they were desperate to come down and help with the rebuild.
Neighbours, who for years might have waved to one another and no more, stopped to talk and check on each other's welfare. The people from number 20 or over the back fence introduced themselves. Names were added to faces.
The people from over the back fence introduced themselves. Names were added to faces.
Out in the bush, where animals in their millions had perished, well-meaning volunteers put out food and water for the creatures which had somehow survived. They did this at great risk to themselves. We saw these food and water stations in places like Budgong, where the fire was still raging fiercely underground and the burnt husks of giant trees crashed down without warning.
The expression "we're all in this together" can seem a little overused but we really were during the fire emergency. We came together because we had to. We'd never faced a rolling disaster on this scale. While it still seemed distant, the potential for catastrophe was well known.
When we revisited recently, we noticed two things. Where there had been deathly silence with no birdsong or insect noise, the forest was alive with sound. Cicadas, frogs, birds, all performing their normal choral symphony.
And that strong human spirit was there too, with neighbours helping each other with the task of reconstruction of not just physical property but haunted souls as well. The Summer of Love prevailed.
John Hanscombe is the editor of the South Coast Register and Milton and Ulladulla Times.