Bushfire hell: ‘It was like watching sunrise in reverse’
It was the most beautiful yet terrifying sight, for what Hamish Payne was witnessing on New Year's Eve, 2019, signalled certain destruction and long-lasting pain.
As he drove the usual 43km from Tathra to work at Woolworths Bermagui, Payne recalls watching a "sunset in reverse" created by bushfires during what is now known as the Black Summer.
"Normally on my drive to work I would see two cars the whole trip but that day, on New Year's Eve, I saw at least 150," Payne, 49, said.
"The colours outside went from blue to orange to red to black in the space of about 15 minutes."
With memories fresh in his mind from the 2018 Tathra bushfire that destroyed 65 homes, Payne knew the importance his role as store manager played in times of disaster.
"The supermarket I ran is the only food store in town, so I knew if I didn't make it there to open, 2000 people wouldn't eat," Payne said.
"When I opened at 7.30am there were about 500 people in the carpark - normally there about 20 - and that day I only had six staff members. Yes, we all work for Woolies but we were all locals, so a lot of staff were protecting their properties or had packed up and left to stay safe.
"It was the busiest day I have ever experienced. People were queuing for 1.5 hours at the checkout but no one was panicking, they were all fantastic. The whole town lost power at 1pm, fire had knocked it all out, so we were running on a generator.
"We then lost the phone lines, so we had no power, no phones, no internet. People were really nervous but we were the biggest business in town and it was really important we stayed open to keep providing people."
Payne did not stop working for 27 hours while he led his team and made time to check in with customers. More than 100 fires were burning across the state of NSW and tragically, two lives were lost when the small town of Cobargo, just a 25-minute drive inland from Bermagui, had been completely decimated.
"We ran the store with no power and no comms for three days," Payne said. "All the roads were shut so we couldn't get home. We did the best we could then after three days the town was under direct threat so we had to evacuate."
Instead of taking a break, Payne helped co-ordinate volunteers at the evacuation centre in Bega to provide food and comfort to some 2500 people.
Payne, who now manages Woolworths in Narooma and has continued to lead with similar vigour during the pandemic, has been nominated for Thanks a Million, a nationwide News Corp initiative supported by Woolworths, to acknowledge the special contribution everyday Australians make in their community.