“Two more just died in the last few minutes,” Tom Grant said as he inspected a lamb that had fallen to its haunches. “When they’re like this they give up. They just give up.”
Grant and a crew of helpers spent Tuesday carrying out the grisly task of burying about 200 sheep killed on his property near Cobargo near the New South Wales coast when fires tore through the area in the early hours of New Year’s Day.
As he spoke to the Guardian, more of the lambs who survived the blaze dropped to the ground.
“The only water I’ve got for the ones who are left is what’s in the troughs, and we’ve got very little feed,” he explained. “There are about 10 cattle we still haven’t found. If they do show up I don’t know what I’m going to feed them.”
“A lot of them were our breeding stock for next season. We lost all four rams, too. It’s roughly $36,000 to $40,000. We’re insured though, so don’t feel too sorry for us.”
A white pony which Grant had dressed as a unicorn for his grandchildren recently was also among the dead animals collected on Tuesday.
Grant was one of dozens who lost his home in the blaze. As he used a tractor to lift sheep carcasses into a truck that then dumped them into graves dug with an excavator, his son Paul explained that Grant and his wife had built the home together as part of their retirement.
“I think this will be it for them now,” Paul Grant said. “They’d talked about downsizing in the future and I think this will just speed that up. It’s pretty heartbreaking, though. Mum’s really gutted but I suppose at the end of the day it’s just things. Funny how life has a way of changing your plans for you, though.”
All across the southern part of NSW, similar scenes are playing out as the clean-up continues.
More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed in the state since the start of the unprecedented fire season, and a record-breaking area of land – 4.9m hectares (12.1m acres), an area larger than Denmark – has been burned, according to the latest figures released by the Rural Fire Service. Almost 118 fires continue to burn across NSW with 50 uncontained.
About 100km north, in the beachside suburb of North Rosedale, Dafydd Gwynn-Jones and his daughter Caitlin had driven down from their home in Canberra to find the ruins of the holiday house his parents built 41 years ago.
As they dug through the rubble – “that was the door, that was the fridge” – searching for mementos that might have survived the fierce blaze that has levelled about 75% of this holiday suburb near Batemans Bay, they reflected on something that had always been there but now was not.
“For my sister and I this house was pretty much the one constant,” Caitlin said. “We’ve lived in different cities, Sydney and Canberra, and different houses, but this was the one place that was constant. We tried to come here every year in the summer. Tried not to take it for granted.”
The damage here is almost surreal. This small, out-of-the-way suburb was almost entirely levelled in the early hours of New Year’s Day. The panoramic views across the Pacific Ocean that drew holidaymakers are now offset by a brutal carnage. “It will take a long time to rebuild this place, a long time,” Dafydd Gwynn-Jones said. “But we absolutely will.”
The bushfire emergency gripping the east coast of Australia did not begin with the New Year’s Day fires, and with more dangerous conditions expected this week it probably will not end with them either.
But across hundreds of kilometres, the first week of 2020 has seen a trail of destruction.
On Saturday, as thousands of Rural Fire Service volunteers battled an onslaught of emergencies sparked by blazing heat and relentless winds, the Guardian watched as the sky in the Snowy Mountains town of Adaminaby turned black by 3pm.
As the fire peaked over a ridge near the town and headed towards properties defended by thinly stretched fire crews, the RFS group captain, Scott Lonard, simply did not have the resources to protect all of them.
“We’ll do our best but five trucks for this much space isn’t going to be enough,” he said.
While milder conditions on Sunday brought a reprieve for the mountains, a strong southerly wind only exacerbated things in the far south coast town of Eden.
When it was evacuated on Sunday many in the town fled about half an hour north to Merimbula or west to Bega. When the evacuation centres in those towns began to fill, people began camping along the waterfront or under overpasses, a flood of people left with nowhere to stay and nothing to do but wait.
“I don’t know when I’ll get back into Eden and to be honest I wouldn’t want to go back yet,” John Ironmonger said near the water at Merimbula on Sunday.
“Everyone here has just been shuffled around from place to place.”
When the Guardian spoke to Shelley Caban in her makeshift shelter on a bus on the Eden wharf, she had no idea whether the historic 150-year-old home she lived in with her husband and three daughters just south of the town had survived.
By Tuesday it was still standing, but with conditions expected to deteriorate again the family are not out of the woods yet.
“It came to literally within a paddock of the house and then the rain started,” she said. “In a weird way I’m kind of at peace with whatever happens now. I just want it to be over one way or the other.”