LAKE CONJOLA, Australia — After no news for three days, Anthony Brennan feared his older brother had perished in a wildfire that turned this bucolic coastal village into a scene of random destruction.
When the phone network came back online Thursday, 50-year-old Anthony, who was 200 miles north at his home in the town of San Remo, received a message that brought intense relief — and profound sadness.
The family was okay. Scott Brennan and his wife, Kris, were unharmed physically by a fire that had jumped an inlet and raced through the town on New Year's Eve. Their four-bedroom house was also safe.
But a few streets away, Anthony Brennan's vacation home was a smoldering ruin. A few years ago, the freelance film editor had ringed the three-bedroom property, which he bought in 2008 after his mother died, with an ironbark veranda. On warm evenings, he would sit outside listening to crickets as the sun set over Lake Conjola, a popular fishing spot for flathead.
"All the good memories of my later life were down at Lake Conjola" with family, Brennan said in a telephone interview Friday. "I thought I had lost them."
The devastation wreaked on the communities around the lake, 130 miles south of Sydney, and the frantic efforts by Australians to save homes from rampant wildfires illustrate how increasingly extreme conditions are forcing regular citizens to make life-or-death decisions in the face of deadly natural disasters.
"There are more people, and they are living in places that are more exposed to bush fire than previously," said Andrew Sullivan, a wildfire expert and a principal research scientist at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government agency. "When firefighters are stretched, it is hard to stop the sources of ignition — and they have been doing so much firefighting for the past three to four months."
This week, about 200 fires have burned across Australia's most-populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, killing at least 11 people and leaving 28 missing. Conditions are expected to be so bad on Saturday — 100 degrees Fahrenheit, rainless thunderstorms and winds of 23 mph — that thousands of tourists and residents have already fled the coastal villages and hinterland hamlets Australians flock to every summer.
Among those who opted to stay is Gary McDonald, caretaker of a housing estate under construction near the banks of Conjola Lake. On Monday, McDonald helped to save all 14 houses that were recently built or close to completion. An older building used as an office was lost.
Near the peak of the fire, the smoke was so thick that McDonald struggled to see his hands. He retreated to his car, parked on the lake's bank, where his wife — who has a physical disability — was sheltering.
"We thought we would be okay on the other side of the water," he said, describing how his shirt had been "drenched from tears" caused by the smoke.
The estate's immediate prospects look grim. Only one of the neat, brown holiday houses has been sold — to the McDonalds — and some 10,000 pounds of mulch that was intended to beautify the landscape with agave succulents was in smoldering piles on Friday. A water main's pipe sprayed a thin mist into the air. Blackened trees threatened to fall at any moment.
McDonald, 60, was using a garden hose to try to extinguish fires underneath the plant matter. He refused his wife's demands that they leave.
"I will defend this until I drop," he said. "There is no way I am giving up."
'What can we do?'
In the adjacent settlement of Conjola Park, Greg Phillips, 47, had also decided to fight the fires on Monday. His orange-brick house, which has a rooftop sprinkler system, was a five-second dash to the water. If there was going to be a house that would survive, it should have been his.
Around 11 a.m. on New Year's Eve, text messages from the fire service warned Phillips that a blaze was nearby. He could see smoke. "There goes Fishos," he thought, referring to Fishermans Paradise, another hamlet a couple of miles away. Like others, he saw the lake as a natural fire break. Within 20 minutes, the fire had roared over a hill and engulfed one-third of Conjola Park, melting forged steel like plastic and turning cars into charred husks. An old tree stump a few yards from Phillips's lounge room seemed to spontaneously ignite.
Phillips opened his front door. The house filled with smoke so quickly that his 80-year-old mother, Shirley, struggled to breathe.
Realizing he needed to get her out quickly, he drove her to a beach downstream in his SUV. He then returned, determined to save their home, driving over downed power lines, past flames and through a broken fence to avoid a fallen tree. "Please be there," Phillips said to himself as he drove into the town.
The house was standing, untouched. But trees were burning 200 feet away, and it was impossible to predict which way the fire would move. The inferno was loud, too, overwhelming his senses with a sound he likened to a freight train.
"It was going left and right," he said. "There was no sense of which way."
At the blaze's height, Phillips discovered a firefighting crew sheltering in a nearby cul-de-sac, wearing oxygen masks and fire-retardant clothing. Topless, he asked for help to protect his house.
"Mate, there are six of us," came the reply, according to Phillips. "What can we do?"
Fearing he would not survive another drive through the fire, Phillips fled on a neighbor's fishing boat to reach his mother, who was being comforted on the sand by strangers.
A bleak new year
Nearby, Scott Brennan had disagreed with his wife, Kris, about whether to stay. A 58-year-old professional with the state fire and rescue service, Scott initially got his way. Around 11 a.m., the couple were dousing their home from water buckets when the fire turned on the town. Scott agreed it was finally time to leave.
The couple drove toward the main coastal highway. Panicked tourists had created a traffic jam they couldn't get past, according to Scott's brother, Anthony, and they turned around and headed for the water.
"Houses were exploding around them," Anthony said. "They got to the wharf, where a neighbor had a boat. They sat there watching Conjola burn."
Once the main threat had passed, Scott collected a couple of cases of beer from his house to celebrate the year's end. He returned to the water's edge and shared them with several neighbors, Anthony said, and together they saw in 2020 amid the destruction of the town.
On Thursday, after receiving a photo of what was left of his house — pretty much nothing — Anthony Brennan made a jibe at Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who spent the day before hosting the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams at his Sydney harborfront residence.
The teams played Friday, a day after Morrison was heckled when he visited another burned-out town 100 miles from Lake Conjola. On the visit, a firefighter who had lost his home was reluctant to shake Morrison's hand. "I don't take it personally," Morrison later said.
"I hope I can get the electricity back on so I can watch the cricket," Brennan tweeted, tagging the prime minister's Twitter account. "If only I could find my TV. #remainsofmyhouse."
On Friday, Anthony received a message from his brother. Scott was preparing for the next wave of fires that authorities have warned could arrive Saturday — and force residents of Lake Conjola to experience the horror a second time.
"I've given the dog to our friends in town," the message said. "If this [fire] returns like they have predicted, he can't go through that trauma again. I'm crying as I pass over the dog to terrific friends, knowing it is the best thing for him."