A time to heal
As landscapes regenerate after summer’s catastrophic bushfires, communities in south-eastern New South Wales rebuild their homes and livelihoods.
THE SKY WAS PITCH BLACK
as the giant Currowan fire roared over Mt Scanzi and down the hill to Tallowa Dam, on the western fringes of Kangaroo Valley, about 180km south-west of Sydney.
It was Saturday 4 January. The fire had already jumped the Shoalhaven River and thundered along the Bugong Fire Trail, destroying properties in its path. It had generated an enormous pyrocumulonimbus cloud that loomed above, and as it tore across the landscape it sent bright red embers flying.
At about 6pm Alison Baker and Paul Williams, owners of Banksia Park Cottages, an accommodation property overlooking Lake Yarrunga, received text messages from the local Rural Fire Service (RFS) warning they had only 40 minutes to leave. Knowing they were in the fire’s path, Alison and Paul had already decided to bunker down at their neighbours’ fortress-like home. At about 7.20pm, generating an estimated temperature of 1400°C and winds of up to 300km/h, the fire crossed Radiata Road and reached their property.
Later that night, after an anxious wait, Alison and Paul returned to find their house in ruins. Four of their six guest cottages remained virtually untouched and they set about with buckets of water to try to extinguish the burning uprights on the cottage verandahs, in a bid to stop them from collapsing.
A southerly wind saved the village of Kangaroo Valley by changing the fire’s direction, pushing it to jump Lake Yarrunga and the lower Kangaroo River. It destroyed parts of The Scots College’s Glengarry Outdoor Education Campus, then raced uphill, hitting properties on Bendeela and Jacks Corner roads. The fire then headed through Morton National Park and on to Wingello and Bundanoon, in the Southern Highlands, where it became known as the Morton Fire.
With their family home destroyed, Alison and Paul relocated to one of their guest cottages. Seven weeks later, I’m transfixed as they tell me about that dramatic day. Looking out between the burnt trees and plants, I can clearly see the contours of the land, rock surfaces and crevices above Lake Yarrunga, upstream of Tallowa Dam, which provides water to the Shoalhaven, Southern Highlands, Illawarra, and to Sydney.
As we stand on a large rock overlooking the track to the lake, Paul points out scribbly gums shedding bark and palm-like macrozamias that are resprouting from below-ground stems. He, Alison and their two adult daughters are astounded by the degree of regeneration and bright-green regrowth on their property. Although devastated by the loss of their family home, they see this vegetative recovery as a symbol of hope.
“Banksia Park will open again at the end of the year, improved and mindful of what we’ve learnt for our guests,” says Alison, a committee member of the Kangaroo Valley Chamber of Tourism and Commerce. “We see the regeneration as positive.”
I’M VISITING KANGAROO Valley in the weeks after the bushfires to see the impacts here and in other parts of the Shoalhaven, and to talk with locals about the recovery. Despite the devastation in the Tallowa Dam and Bendeela areas, trees are already displaying bright-green shoots and recent rain has made the paddocks appear almost fluorescent.
As a member of the Foxground RFS (based on the other side of the escarpment) and part of an Illawarra RFS strike team, I drove through here with my crew on 5 January, the day after the fire, while en route to Exeter and Bundanoon to help put out hotspots and burning trees. We knew that if the wind had changed the night before, there was a good chance the fire would have ripped through our valley.
Kangaroo Valley’s residents were more than ready for a major bushfire. Following recommendations made after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Mike Gorman, a member of the Kangaroo Valley Community Bushfire Committee and Kangaroo Valley RFS, encouraged people to set up small neighbourhood groups to aid detailed fire preparation. As a result, many residents eventually chose not to stay and defend and those who did stay felt better prepared.
Despite the loss of about 60 dwellings and 70 sheds or outbuildings – about 10 per cent of the valley’s structures – Mike says these plans and the way the community worked together made a huge difference in not only saving lives and properties but helping with the emotional recovery after the fires.
Gail Trapp was a resident who stayed and I meet her at The Hive, an old converted cottage that operates as a community centre. With telecommunication services including landlines, internet and mobiles still mostly out in outlying areas since the fire, locals are making the most of the centre’s wi-fi and phone reception to complete some of their mounting piles of jobs. This includes applying for grants and dealing with bureaucracy, insurance companies and tradies.
Gail and her husband, Geoffrey Fearon, run a 52ha property with guest accommodation below Mt Moollattoo, on the edge of Morton National Park. Pioneers milled cedar onsite to build their house, which is surrounded by cabbage tree palms thought to be a thousand years old.
With advice from the RFS that the property was defendable with a water supply that included the swimming pool, they donned protective clothing and respirators on that terrible Saturday, and clutched hoses.
At about 7.45pm, the firestorm headed their way. They lost their stables, bunk house and studio apartments but managed to save their house. “If we hadn’t been here, we would have lost everything,” Gail says.
SHE HOPES THAT DOWN THE TRACK, VISITORS WILL RETURN TO THE VALLEY.
Although they’re frustrated at how slowly services are being restored to the valley, they are thankful none of their horses, cows and dogs were hurt. And gradually the wildlife that survived, including wombats, wallabies and kangaroos, is returning. “On our walk yesterday morning we heard birds for the first time since the fire,” Gail says.
Like others in the community, she hopes that down the track, visitors will return to the valley to enjoy picnicking, hiking and canoeing on the beautiful Kangaroo River. “In places like Kangaroo Valley, the locals spend enormous amounts of time, effort and money to regenerate and preserve the environment,” Gail says. “To do this they work largely in tourism, which is the financial backbone of small towns like ours. It is important that people come to visit, not just to contribute to the local economy, but to share in the pleasures associated with being in a pristine environment and also watch nature doing her bloody best to fix up human derived messes.”
KANGAROO VALLEY IS part of the Shoalhaven local government area (LGA), a huge municipality of about 4600sq.km that runs from just north of Berry in the north to Depot Beach, north of Batemans Bay, in the south and west to Nerriga, Shoalhaven Gorge and Upper Budgong. It has an estimated population of 104,000.
About 80 per cent of this area was scorched or impacted during the summer fires. Recovery Coordinator for the region Vince Di Pietro says this was one of the largest percentages of any local government area to have burnt in NSW during the recent fires. Three people died and much of the region’s farmland and many coastal towns were impacted, with 1600 buildings and 309 houses destroyed. Shoalhaven City Council has received $1.4 million from the federal government to assist recovery, with aiding businesses and tourism at the forefront. Its to-do list includes continuing the clean-up; removing asbestos and debris on private properties; monitoring air, water and sea quality; helping residents with insurance issues; and communications repair and restoration.
“Our vision is that the Shoalhaven that emerges from this disaster is stronger, better and more resilient,” Vince says. “For the immediate term our aim is to get everybody back on their feet as quickly as possible.”
As for all the affected areas, the Shoalhaven bushfires took an enormous toll on wildlife. Here that included the decimation of thousands of grey-headed flying-foxes. At the Wandandian Kangaroo & Wallaby Sanctuary, which has turned into a
LOCALS SAY THE WILDLIFE, INCLUDING WOMBATS, IS GRADUALLY RETURNING.
busy triage centre, owner Adrina Selles is overwhelmed by the volunteer help, veterinary assistance, donations and supplies she’s received from all over the world. She evacuated her injured macropods before the fire swept near this area on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, the buildings were left intact.
I meet Adrina in the enclosure for 10-month-old wallaby and kangaroo joeys as she bottle-feeds them formula. Some of her 25 or so animals were caught in fences, while others had their feet burnt. They were underweight, dehydrated and malnourished when they came to her. But the biggest issue was smoke inhalation. She explains that an animal’s burns may seem to be healing, but it’s not uncommon for them to die 4–6 weeks after a fire due to smoke inhalation. “It damages their lungs and overloads their hearts…leading to pulmonary oedema,” Adrina says.
For the ones that survive, animals of up to 2kg are fostered to other carers, returning, once they weigh about 4–5kg, to develop fitness and survival skills. They are usually released when they are about 18 months old, or when they weigh more than 15kg.
“We have to rethink the way we deal with our land,” Adrina says. “We can’t keep destroying their habitat.”
Budawang Yuin elder Noel Butler and his wife, Trish, passionately agree. They run Nura Gunyu, an Aboriginal education and cultural teaching property in a valley below Balgan (or Pigeon House Mountain), near Milton.
Noel says it’s time the country listened to Indigenous people and learnt their land management practices, including cultural burning. He adds that his 40ha property would have been burnt only around the edges if he’d been able to manage it traditionally. But in the 4 January fires, all seven buildings, including their home, were wiped out.
As we wander past the debris that was their two-storey house, Trish calls out excitedly. She’s discovered new seedlings bursting through the ash and soil. With the help of volunteers and donations, the couple has replanted 800 native and edible plants as food sources for native fauna. They are building new structures and planning a big community garden. Noel and Trish moved to a friend’s house at the beach before Christmas, but on 4 January, before the fire swept through, they returned home to collect plants.
“It was really eerie,” Trish says. “It was like 47°C and I said, ‘We need to leave now.’” Half an hour later their property was hit with an 8km-long fire front.
When they went back the fol low ing day, the sight that affected them the most was a burnt wallaby sitting in a smouldering hole.
Inspired by the Butlers’ can-do attitude, builder Dan Wellman turned up to help a few days later with his 10-year-old son and an excavator. They expect the education centre to be back up and running in the next two years.
THE FIRE MASTERPLAN of local resident Terry Snow – along with the work of the RFS – has been credited with saving the coastal town of Bawley Point, further south, when it too was hit by the Currowan Fire. Terry owns Willinga Park, an 800ha state-of-the-art equestrian centre at Bawley. He had long been preparing for a major bushfire and had followed the advice of a fire consultant to maintain strong fire breaks on the property and install advanced irrigation systems.
When I visit I’m given a tour of the Olympic-sized equestrian arenas, as well as its stables, accommodation and grounds, which include some 30 modern sculptures and a botanic garden. Terry then drives us to the back of his property, which is surrounded by Meroo and Murramarang national parks, past some of his 650 head of Hereford cattle. Along the way, he discusses the differences between his land management practices and those of the parks.
Terry dismisses the argument that this past summer’s fires were much worse due to climate change and is critical of the way the state forests and national parks are run. “My message is they’ve got to start burning these state forests back,” he says. “They’ve got to have these tapestry burns in the parks because it’s the only way you are going to get a cooler fire.”
FURTHER NORTH OF HERE, there were three fires that fatefully converged on New Year’s Eve on the usually peaceful and picturesque holiday and fishing locations of Lake Conjola and Conjola Park. By 10am the water supply was cut off and soon afterwards all communications went down. Tragically, three people died in the area and 89 homes were lost. The community was later hit by a double whammy with torrential rain and floods.
You can see the destruction as you drive through, with indiscriminate ruins surrounded by tape, and warnings about the presence of asbestos and hazardous materials. But down at the lake, near the white dunes of the surf beach, locals are fishing off platforms over the clear turquoise water and kangaroos nibble on the grass.
I meet Matt Del Turco and Brad MacDougall from Holiday Haven Tourist Parks here. During the fire, Brad and his team took 1500 guests from Holiday Haven’s Lake Conjola park to the beach for safety. In the weeks and months that have followed, they’ve brainstormed ideas to support their guests during future fire events. As a result, they’re considering putting together “fire toolboxes”, equipped with quality face masks and goggles, as well as a list of emergency numbers.
Lake Conjola and Conjola Park are tiny communities with only a bakery, convenience store, bowling club and cafe. Locals are all on first-name terms and are keen to support each other as they rebuild their lives and re-establish their businesses following the fires.
At the Lake Conjola Community Centre, I meet up with local couple Peter and Lindy Dunn. Peter, a retired army officer, was commissioner for the ACT Emergency Services Agency after the 2003 bushfires. Following the recent fires, he was asked by distressed locals to coordinate the region’s recovery.
As a member of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, which includes 29 former emergency services bosses, he had been warning for months before the fires that the 2019/20 summer was going to be a horrific season. Although there are now plans for three different formal inquiries – the NSW
“THERE HAS TO BE A BIG REVIEW OF HOW THESE SITUATIONS GET HANDLED.
Independent Bushfire Inquiry (where RFS volunteers have for the first time been invited to make submissions), a Senate Committee inquiry and a Royal Commission – Peter believes there’s a dire need for considerably more long-term planning.
Peter says that the Australian Defence Force, which spent weeks helping with the clean-up here, was not deployed early enough, and the firefighting methods used were drastically outdated. “It [firefighting] needs to be brought into the 21st century, with 10 times more water-bombing aircraft,” he says. “The government has to accept we’re faced with massive climate change… You’ve got to say to all the fire services and agencies that the enemy is different from anything they’ve fought in the past.”
In the days during and after the crisis, Peter says people power came into effect in the 800-strong Conjola community. The volunteer committee set up the Conjola Recovery Fund and helped with everything from filling in forms to providing security from looters, and from feeding endangered animals to counselling for mental health issues. As Peter says, the community is working together to make Lake Conjola the “happy place” it once was.
EVERYWHERE I GO I’m told to speak to Monica Mudge, founder of Milton-based environmental charity Treading Lightly. Among many other things, during and after the fires, Treading Lightly organised food and medical supply drops and evacuations at Lake Conjola using a marine rescue vessel, local fishers’ boats and jet skis.
As we chat at her yoga studio, one of Monica’s stories really hits home. An elderly man who lost his home was most upset that he no longer owned a Sunday church suit. Using donated money, it was organised for him and others to buy clothes and shoes from businesses in town. When he saw himself in a dashing new outfit, he broke down and cried.
Treading Lightly is now organising bush regeneration groups; weed education, propagation and planting workshops; wildlife recovery; grief counselling; and other disaster relief.
“There has to be a big review of how these situations get handled,” Monica says. She believes the fires have brought communities together and made them more self-sufficient, but there is a long way to go.
“I’m nervous about what the next 12 months is going to be like, but at the same time I’m really excited to be part of this regrowth and regeneration,” she says.