Estonians escaping the inferno in Australia

Devastating fires in Australia.

PHOTO: Stringer/Reuters/Scanpix

Marianne Perrin is one of about a thousand Estonians who have settled in Australia and are now facing devastating fires that have claimed 24 lives and burnt down some 2,000 homes.

“The situation was critical by Saturday evening,” Perrin said after her annual vacation in the coastal town of Eden turned into a fight for her life. “There was so much smoke in the air that your eyes watered and throat burned when you went outside.”

Even though the Perrin family saw a blood red sky from the windows of their home and were forced to wear masks because of smoke already around the turn of the year, the fires were just five kilometers away from her father-in-law’s house by Saturday. A difficult decision needed to be made. To stay with her husband and father-in-law to try and protect the house or evacuate with a relative whose health had taken a turn for the worse.

When it was said that evening that all roads leading out of the town would be closed in a few hours, Perrin decided for the latter option. They headed for an evacuation center half an hour away.

Estonians in the midst of the inferno

“We drove through the thick smoke in complete darkness. I switched on the high beams but could not see more than a meter ahead,” Perrin described.

Even though the decision to leave behind her husband and father-in-law was not an easy one, it quickly became clear that leaving Eden has been the right thing to do. Perrin’s relative was having trouble breathing and desperately needed medical attention.

“I had to carry them into the evacuation center. It was a matter of life or death by then,” the Estonian woman said.

After trusting her relative to doctors’ care, Perrin had to stay at the evacuation center for two days as roads leading back home were closed. “I was given a thin mattress, soap and towel and food and drink,” she said, describing the relatively good conditions at the center. Perrin was worried about her husband who had stayed behind.

“I told him they should leave the house because life is more important. But his father was stubborn,” Perrin said, adding that their backup plan was to escape the flames in the ocean.

While Perrin was able to return home on Monday and the situation in the area has improved somewhat, Perrin and her husband need to find their way back home to Melbourne. Unfortunately, many roads remain closed and instead of taking the 700-kilometer direct route, they will have to drive inland to Canberra first, stretching the total distance they need to cover to around 1,000 kilometers.

“I had spoken to people who lost their homes in the fires, but only once you come into contact with the fire on a personal level do you understand the severity of this disaster,” she said in summary.

Estonians in Australia are worried that while the fires started back in September, the summer is only beginning, meaning that they will likely rage well into March.

Estonian Jane Viljak, who lives near Brisbane in the east of the country, told Postimees how her peaceful family life suddenly became a living nightmare because of the fires.

“I took the kids shopping with me. When he came out of the store, there was thick smoke everywhere,” she said. “Then I started seeing bright flames, there were helicopters and the entire city lost power a few hours later.”

Viljak took the children home and put them to bed at 6 p.m. and went to sleep herself. “I woke up at 10 p.m. because it was light outside. I thought it was morning,” she recalled. In truth, the evening sky was lit up by fires raging on both sides of the road.

Even though the fire that burned around where Viljak lives was quite small, it took weeks to put out. The wind still blows smoke to where Viljak lives from hundreds of kilometers away. “The air is so bad that we are told to stay indoors,” she said.

Heat and water shortages are making the situation even worse. “My partner grew up in this city, and he has never seen the water level in the river so low,” Viljak said. Her family is only allowed to use a certain amount of water every day. In the neighboring state, people are told not to do their laundry every day and it is prohibited to spend water on washing cars or windows.

Prime minister has lost the people’s trust

The situation is completely extraordinary in the state of Western Australia where there is flooding in addition to bush fires. All highways leading into the state have been closed to ensure people’s safety, while this means the area is completely cut off from the rest of the country.

Estonian Martina Ait told Postimees that she planned to travel from Esperance in Western Australia to South Australia, but the highway connecting the two parts of the country has been closed for a week and because the area is suffering floods, she could not reach her destination by taking an inland detour either.

The fires are a serious touchstone for the Australian government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is visiting people who have lost property or loved ones to the fires, with over €1 billion allocated for crisis relief. The family of an Estonian woman was paid €500 for food that went bad in her fridge after a power outage.

However, many believe it is not enough. Aet Madison living in Sydney said that people cannot forgive the PM for cutting the rescue budget by €8 million compared to last year, meaning that half of Australia’s firefighters are battling the flames on a voluntary basis today.

Another incident that irked the people was when Morrison went on vacation to Hawaii as fires were raging out of control, as well as his decision to spend close to €4 million on New Year’s fireworks in Sydney despite petitions asking for the money to be made available to firefighters keeping the flames away from the city.

It is no secret Morrison doubts there is a connection between climate change and more intensive bush fires this year and claims that because the climate has always been in a state of changing, costly campaigns to fight it aren’t sensible.

“He is a climate change denier,” Marianne Perrin’s husband Matthew said. “However, a lot of Australians believe in climate change.”

It is creating a rift between the government and the population because residents are not given the support they need even in words. Australians praised the Estonian government for allocating €50,000 in crisis relief for the country. “We are very grateful for the contribution,” Perrin said. “We are not a poor country and have a considerable GDP, but everyone needs help in a crisis.”