California dreamin’

Charlie Cohen, RFS Nimbin

I’ve been a fiery for over 40 years and a member of the Rural Fire Service, Nimbin since 1978. Until 15 years ago, the number of really terrible fire weather days – extreme or even catastrophic days – would have been about four. I’ve worked on fires all over the Northern Rivers and ‘94 was the only year I’ve seen as dry as it was just recently. That was a big eye opener for all of us. Around here the southern slopes usually stop extreme fires spreading because they’re damp and covered in wet sclerophyll or rainforest. Most fires, when they get into the southern slopes, slow down. But in 1994 they didn’t. And in 2019 nothing stopped it. It just kept barrowing ahead and there was nothing we could do.  

Nothing other than bare earth and flame would stop it.

In the lead-up to the fires I was lecturing my entire community, writing letters to the local papers. People wouldn’t want to talk to me because I would lecture them – ‘I’ve seen your house!’

I knew even rainforest could burn. We all got really worried because the North American fire season didn’t stop and nearly all our heavy aircraft and heavy choppers come from there and they couldn’t part with them because they were flat out and California wouldn’t stop burning.  

I was divisional commander for Mt Nardi, so I was officer in charge. The fire came up out of Doon Doon valley, which had been a lightning strike 35 or 40 days before. Brigades from Kunghur, Doon Doon and Mullumbimby went and did a remote area firefighting effort and jumped on it, chopped and cut and contained it. That landscape has a north-facing aspect on a cliff and below the cliff it’s as dry as a biscuit. Right on the edge are local endemic wattle trees called Nightcap wattles – massive, tall wattle trees. They grow like mangroves, all the roots pop out of the ground. As soon as the fire burned through the mulch, the trees blew up, all of them one after another, and came down every two or three minutes. 

Fire in rainforest at night on the Nicholson’s property. Photo: Terri Nicholson

There were a couple of those that fell off the cliffs. That’s where it came from. I knew we were in the shit then. There was no putting it out once it got into that ridge because there’s so many logs on the ground. All the gullies had fallen trees crossing them from one side to the other. So I got a heap of arborist friends of mine, and we went and cut ’em up. 

The road heading up to Mt Nardi was blocked from a landslide from four years earlier, and they still hadn’t fixed it, which was a massive issue for us – we couldn’t get up on a CAT 7, which is like a medium size fire truck. When we were overrun in two places on the ridge, we couldn’t escape that way. So we had to abandon firefighting a few times, just for safety reasons because we didn’t have another escape route. 

National Parks sent a bulldozer and cleared the main trail coming from out of the bottom of Tuntable Valley up towards the top of Protesters Falls. Later, to contain a fire that was in there, we chopped it, cut it by hand, all the way up behind the creek. And then we used the creeks themselves. We had little portable pumps and we used them to put logs out, with about a hundred locals.  

Young men and women were scraping trails just in front of the fire and with a leaf blower widening them, and we did that for weeks.  I got complaints from my bosses in Casino through my captain that we were not allowed to have locals or unqualified people out of uniform there. And I just ignored it. Because it was not gonna work otherwise. And they weren’t just hippies in thongs. There were people who rolled up as hippies in thongs, but I told them to fuck off and come back with boots and clothes, drinking water, a helmet. Come back with a ute with tools, you know, McLeods tools and chainsaws and blowers. 

And they did, in large numbers. 

I evacuated Tuntable Valley community, all of it, when it burned over our heads. I knew the next day we were going to be going house-to-house. I called the police and said, ‘Get em all out of there.’ And I had these great women, close friends of mine, who put in a roadblock coming into the valley and manned it. I gave ‘em a radio and I said, ‘Yeah, you can have workers coming in here but they got to be properly dressed. And don’t send me any idiots.’  

Fire in the rainforest at Rainbow Community. Photo: Terri Nicholson

The CWA started pumping out unbelievable amounts of really good food. It’s so many kilometres from one side of the valley to the other, we were getting fed one way and they were getting fed another way and we had trains of workers up the top in different spots. The logistics of all that was amazing. Terri Nicholson, she was key, sending me a crew of really competent, able, and fit young men and women.  Nicole Raward said it; that not every community can be as easily cohesive as we were because of the nature of how we live, the multiple occupancies. In intentional communities, people are forced to share roads and water supplies, own all of them and build them together.  

I was so busy trying to keep everyone alive and trying to plot the fire through. And then we had to back-burn, we tried really hard not to, but this massive hot fire was coming out of Terania Creek straight at us. If we didn’t put a black edge on it, it would’ve jumped us. So we did a back-burn about a kilometre from Hugh and Nan Nicholson’s driveway up through to the entrance to the Upper Tuntable Falls, successfully. And then The Channon brigade and us tried to burn back down, down at Nicholson’s track, but it beat us. It burnt right over and right through the Channon truck badly. I was there when it happened. We did a good job but we got overrun.  It was a very serious event and we were lucky to get out alive from it.  

Then we worked south along Wallace Road until it jumped us again; really severely, and crowned right through. We knew that Tuntable and Siddha Farm were right in the fire line, so we made them evacuate. We went into property protection. You’d get to a house, and you’d rip all the blinds off the verandah, chuck them off, open the door, break in, throw all the furniture and everything inside the house. We’d have a little portable pump. Empty their tank onto the verandas, rip the gutters off. A lot of them were really, really badly prepared, lantana growing underneath the verandah and everything. 

We went house to house. We fought it slowly but surely, managed to push it back up the hill. Slowly but surely. And then we got it up behind the highest houses on that side of the valley. And then the fucking wind changed. And it spotted below us, below another lot of houses. We had to start from scratch. To this day I still don’t know how we did it, because it crowned right through these houses and we never lost one. We chased it along a three-and-a-half-kilometre poly pipe track. We chased it through that night and through the next day and then through the following day. We got it cornered. We managed to cut it off in Terania Creek by hand, humans digging by hand. We had 105 locals rolled up with Hiluxes and little one cubic-metre packs on the back with pumps and they worked their little hearts out. Dead set. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked on a fire like that – it’s really hard to get a fire like that to turn the corner.  

I said, ‘You’ve all gotta drive down this way. I want you to go down to the bottom and turn around.’ And they did. They did it beautifully. With no panic, nothing. They drove out and most of ‘em went home because they were exhausted. But a steady crew of 19 of them in these little Hilux’s reversed up this track and worked all night with us. And that’s how we cornered it.  

It was a beautiful thing. It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and the best. And it was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life. We all thought we were going to lose everything.

RFS head out to strengthen control lines during the Mt Nardi fire. Photo contributed by RFS.
The Channon RFS truck. Photo: Fiona Quinlan

It was a beautiful thing. It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and the best.

The only time I had trouble was at night, when I was off shift. I was terrified that somebody would be killed. I had trouble sleeping. You didn’t worry about yourself. You’re worried about your mates getting cooked. I’d never been overrun in a tanker more than once a decade before. I don’t know how many times I got overrun that season, it’s amazing that most of us survived.Some people are devastated. There’s definitely PTSD kicking around. The worst thing about working on the fires and that season was listening to all the critters die. It was awful hearing them scream, hundreds of them. You can hear them. I can hear them in my sleep.  

One of the most joyous moments after the fires was when we drove back in there trying to look for green patches to see if anything was alive. We found this beautiful patch on the boundary of Siddha Farm. We had tried really hard to look after it. We didn’t back-burn it, we tried protecting it from two sides, successfully as it turned out. It was about seventy hectares or something, the bottom of it is virgin Big Scrub rainforest, never been logged, wet sclerophyll up the top, a big dam in there. It had burned in one side but not the other. We could see lyrebird scat, wallaby shit, gliders everywhere, and it had flowers, trees covered in flowers. The koalas survived. We went in there and the koalas were there, mums and bubs. That was a beautiful moment for us. We cried when we saw that.