Paradise lost: residents flee Eden as Australia fires race towards them

Michael McGowan in Eden
Paradise lost: residents flee Eden as Australia fires race towards them. Days of limbo wear down NSW-Victoria communities displaced by blazes ripping through great swaths of east coast

Shelley Caban just wants it to be over.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Fuck it, just burn it all, the house and everything,’” she says. “It’s the waiting and the limbo, you just feel like anything has to be better.”

When the Guardian spoke to Caban on Sunday, the 33-year-old was sheltered inside the safety of an unregistered bus-turned-refuge on the wharf in the coastal New South Wales town of Eden with her husband, Oliver Tratham-Webb, her three daughters Pearl, Aster and Aria, three dogs, a cat and several ducklings.

Related: 'We realised we can't stop this': locals flee inferno that smashed NSW village of Wingello

They have not seen home – a historic 150-year-old timber house in the picturesque Nethercote Valley just south of Eden in the state’s far-south – since New Year’s Eve, when they woke to chokingly-thick smoke outside their home, packed the bus and left.

“I just knew we had to get out of there,” she said.

Now they find themselves among the thousands of Australians displaced indefinitely by the bushfire emergency gripping this country, a rolling crisis that has torn through great swaths of the east coast since November. In its wake, the fires have left whole towns decimated and forced new pressure on the Australian government to act more aggressively to address the impact of climate change.

“It has to change something, doesn’t it?” Caban said on Sunday. “I really, really hope it does. The spiral can’t keep going like this.”

After communities across the state’s south coast were struck by fierce blazes on New Year’s Eve, authorities had warned that blistering temperatures and strong gusting winds on Saturday could make for even worse conditions.

They were right.

At least 60 homes have been confirmed destroyed by fires which ripped through NSW on Saturday, though that total is expected to rise once Rural Fire Service crews are able to properly inspect the fire grounds.

Related: Morrison's government on the bushfires: from attacking climate 'lunatics' to calling in the troops

It brings the total number of properties destroyed in this state since bushfires gripped more than a month ago to 1,400.

The worst-affected areas on Saturday included Batlow, a small village in the foothills of the state’s Snowy Mountains, where multiple homes were destroyed and a man died of a heart attack while attempting to protect a friend’s property.

In the Southern Highlands, south-west of Sydney, homes were destroyed in Kangaroo Valley and Wingello after embers from the Currowan fire crossed the Shoalhaven River and sparked fires in the dense bushland on the river’s northern banks.

In Victoria, where dozens of blazes continue to burn, a total of 18 communities remain cut off, including Mallacoota, where residents had previously had to be evacuated by the navy after a previous round of fires tore through.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has promised an aid package for areas ravaged by the crisis and said on Sunday he would consider a royal commission into the deadly blazes, which have burned vast areas on the east coast.

Related: Kangaroo Island fires: Farmers shoot injured sheep after 'unfightable' bushfire ravages SA island

Morrison, who has been heavily criticised for taking a holiday in Hawaii during the crisis and was heckled by locals in Cobargo after forcing a handshake on an unwilling woman, also again defended his leadership during the emergency.

In the small fishing and logging town of Eden, near the NSW and Victoria border, hundreds of people huddled at the wharf on Saturday night as a large and uncontained fire driven by gusting southerly winds raced towards the town.

By Sunday morning conditions remained dire, and police began pleading with people to flee north to the town of Merimbula or west to Bega.

In Merimbula, about 27km north, an evacuation centre has reached capacity and shanty towns have emerged along the water. Among them was Rodney Sargent with his girlfriend, Jaymi Herman.

The couple had driven almost 2,500km south from Townsville in Queensland with their dog Rex to meet Sargent’s father, Alan, who had come 4,000km across the country from Western Australia to meet for a holiday in Eden.

Now they’re stuck.

“It wasn’t the holiday we were expecting,” Sargent told the Guardian. “We can’t get any phone service and we’re pretty much out of fuel.

“We’re just waiting here. You feel pretty lost. I just want to get out of this entire state as quickly as possible.”

Related: Explainer: how effective is bushfire hazard reduction on Australia's fires?

Despite the urging of police to leave Eden though, many decided they were safer in the town near water.

On Saturday night as the fire approached, Matt Proctor, a fisherman, took his partner and two children on to his dinghy and took shelter in a harbour near the town. In pitch black and surrounded by acrid smoke, they tried to wait it out as relentless gusting winds buffeted them and ash rained from the sky.

“It was apocalyptic,” Proctor told the Guardian. “Like end of the world stuff.”

Eventually they took shelter in one of two tugboats at the town’s wharf along with dozens of other people who had fled to the water.

“It was tense, it was eerie, you know it’s the safest place to be but we didn’t sleep much.

“It’s been chaos here not just today but for days and days. We thought New Year’s Eve was the worst we’d ever see. Little did we know. It plays with your mind a bit. Eden is such a beautiful place to live and now we’ve lost so much.”

Easing conditions later on Sunday enabled RFS crews to bring the fire under control, and the town itself remains intact. But authorities say places to the south including the Nethercote Valley where Caban and her family live remain under threat.

Not long before she spoke to the Guardian on Sunday, she received a call from neighbours who told her the house was under threat from embers.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It was our dream to own a beautiful home like this. I know I will cry a lot if we lose it.”