‘We were wearing masks in the hospital because the ash was so thick’
With roads closed by fires, nurse Diane Lang lived at her hospital and worked double shifts to treat people with burns and breathing difficulties.
NSWNMA Councillor and RN Diane Lang was on nightshift at South East Regional Hospital in Bega on New Year’s Eve as firestorms ravaged towns on the NSW far south coast.
“When the firestorms hit the towns of Cobargo and Quaama north of Bega, it was very traumatic because it was like a fire tornado,” Diane said.
“It moved very quickly and people didn’t have time to plan. Many of our staff live in those areas. A least four or five lost their homes. Many others have damage to properties.
“A lot of staff couldn’t get to the hospital because roads were closed, communications were down and lines were poor, so I just volunteered to continue working.”
With fires out of control to the north, south and west of the hospital, Diane spent a week living out of her campervan in the hospital car park, working double shifts and using the hospital showers.
“I live thirty minutes away, and for that whole week the smoke was so thick it was unsafe to drive at night, and it was better for the emergency workers not to have other people’s vehicles on the road.”
Major roads out of the area were closed and fuel was rationed so that the 30,000 tourists in the area would have just enough petrol to get to Cooma.
“I just went around my house and packed my suitcase with anything I thought was important to keep and went back to the hospital,” she said.
“Staff who could get here were coming from everywhere to offer assistance. If they weren’t working at the hospital, they started working in the evacuation centres.”
Most people arriving at the hospital had sustained burns while protecting their homes, Diane said.
“We were very lucky that we had a burns specialist on holidays from Adelaide who presented to the hospital and offered his services. He did one emergency surgery before patients were airlifted out and he helped with triaging.”
In the days after the New Year’s Eve fire – which burned out of control and returned in force a week later – the sky was dark red and smoke thick with ash was billowing into the hospital.
“We were wearing masks in the hospital because the ash was so thick,” Diane says.
“After the New Year’s Eve fire, most of the people that had been coming in had respiratory COPD issues that had been exacerbated.”
Given the extent of the disaster the hospital staff managed incredibly well, she said.
“The Ministry of Health has been very good, and they have actually brought down nurses from the RPA, Concord Hospital and Canberra.”
But Diane is worried about what will happen when the initial disaster support ends.
“We have always been short-staffed and underfunded. Our LHD always funds us to a certain amount of beds, and we are over that now that we are in an emergency mode, but the additional staff will go back to Sydney and Canberra.
“Whenever we have to flex up, it is the existing staff who fill those gaps, but they are exhausted.”