A fleur de lis without rumples

John (Jack) O’Reilly, Korinderie Ridge

I came to live in the bush in 1976. It was mostly old-growth forest except down in the valley, where someone had tried to log the property. They went in and took logs before the then-owners gave permission, so they got their backs up and told him to piss off. So that was very fortunate. We have a lovely ecosystem here with some ancient trees. I haven’t studied ecology, but we appreciated the property, and that’s why we bought it. Two square kilometres on a hill overlooking the ocean. Coastal climate. 

We’ve done a lot. We’ve slowly built houses, put in roads and infrastructure. I started building in August 1977. I started digging by hand and getting stumps out. We dug into the hill here and created retaining walls. Is this house finished? No. I just described it today to someone. I spent $3000 dollars and then I moved into it. That was with secondhand and salvaged timber, poles and hand-hewed beams. It was functional. It had plumbing, could catch water, store water. I put in a stove, you could heat water, have a shower, do laundry. Fourteen years later I decided to build the bedroom wing. I got a chainsaw mill and I cut timber for five years.

I tinker with big things

Jack O’Reilly in his fire bunker. Photo: Ben Belle

It’ll be 46 years here in December. I’m retired now, but I never seem to stop doing things. I tinker with big things. If we get an Armageddon fire here, I’ve recently built a fire bunker, behind two big concrete tanks which make up one half of the walls of the bunker. It’s quite voluminous. You’ll fit a lot of people. Plenty of air, and with the two tanks right there, that’s 120,000 litres of water. I will be installing an electric pump inside to turn the sprinklers on which have not yet been installed in the house. I’ve also got a firefighting pump outside the room down there, which supplies more pressured water here. But our reticulated water supply is pretty damn good at the moment too. We just upgraded it all and we get masses of water under pressure. It will have a constant temperature, probably about 15 degrees, if you keep the door shut. It’s a great cellar. I had all my pumpkins out here and the bloody rats started getting them.

It’s an unusual shape, like a fleur de lis without the rumples. The rear is a core-filled concrete block wall with drainage behind it, a big sort of arc which sits on top of bedrock. It has a six-inch waterproof concrete roof, which will be covered with dirt. I have a carpenter mate who has a fire door he got given somewhere, and we’ll be installing that in a couple of weeks. So that’s the last thing, putting in a door. 

The main drive was not just for myself, but my son’s family next door. Close neighbours, we could all fit in there no problem. When a crown fire went over, if you wanted to stay and defend, and go out and put out spot fires, once it’s gone through, that’s a very safe place to be and it’s not crowded. Fire is not going to be there for very long. Crown fires go through really quick. You’re not going to have conditions where you can’t breathe long at all. It’s only that blast in front of the fire where there’s no oxygen and the heat and everything. Once that’s gone, you can come out. 

With climate change, if we get worse droughts, and things go crackly, crispy, you’re likely to get these events on a huge scale. Everything’s going to go up. You’re not going to stop it, which they couldn’t. You might not save the bush, but the bush generally has evolved with it. It can cope. 

Everybody thought Armageddon was coming with the Busbys Flat fire. That’s when I was overseas. Luckily the wind stopped and it all petered out. There were only a few people on the property who’d been through fire here and had a bit of experience. Then another fire broke out and it was that one that eventually, many weeks later, ended up here. It took a fair while to get here. First thing we knew of it physically was about four in the morning, a bit of a breeze blowing it quick our way in the dark, ash falling. It took another day or two and reached our fire break where it was stopped.

Everybody thought
Armageddon was coming

You need a bunker for those worst case situations

I think our topography saves us a lot. Communication between RFS, Parks, fire people and us has helped too. They always bring in a bulldozer and scratch the line again along our southern boundary.

I’ve been in lots of other fires that have approached the property from different directions. In 2001 there was a lightning strike in the neighbouring nature reserve; a wind came up and it started burning to the north. It might have had a four or five kilometre front when a massive westerly hit, and it took off and in half a day reached the ocean. The whole area turned into a moonscape. Large macropods and pigs were found dead on the beach. It didn’t come through here, but it was a very fast, intense fire and an example of the worst thing that can happen. 

One of those sorts of fires hasn’t come up to the tops of these ridges in the time I’ve been here; it’d be a once-in-a-thousand year event. But you need a bunker for those worst-case situations.

Korinderie Ridge during the fires. Photo: Sam and Nadia Collins