Farming flowers through fires and floods

Tara Luca, Korinderie Ridge
The Luca O’Reilly family – clockwise from left, Tara, Alex, April and Olive (Younger sister Cedar was unwell on the day of the shoot). Photo: Ben Belle

Very soon after my first daughter was conceived, we had a total change of life and moved out here to Korinderie Ridge where my husband Alex had grown up. It’s a co-operative established about 45 years ago. We are the last property down the Gap Road towards Bundjalung National Park. We have a border with the National Park and the Minyumai Indigenous Protected Area. It’s beautiful. It’s not particularly good farming land, unfortunately, but it’s a beautiful spot with ocean views.  

We’ve been living here now for twelve years, and have three girls. We lived away for years and explored lots of different things. We kept putting The Ridge aside because it wasn’t as romantic as other places. There were no other young people up here, it was an ageing community, we knew we were going to be pioneers. And we were concerned about the soil because we wanted to grow our own food. 

We ended up building up our soil and established half an acre of vegetable gardens. I went to TAFE and did organic farming and that’s where I became obsessed with growing flowers. I came home one day and said to Alex, ‘Honey, you know that quarter of an acre, can I just plant flowers in it?’ And bless him, he let me.

Tara Luca in her flower garden. Photo: Ben Belle

We ended up building up our soil and established half an acre of vegetable gardens. I went to TAFE and did organic farming and that’s where I became obsessed with growing flowers. I came home one day and said to Alex, ‘Honey, you know that quarter of an acre, can I just plant flowers in it?’ And bless him, he let me.

We ended up buying a farm down the road, a certified organic tea tree farm we share with Alex’s sister Tess. We’re a really small tea tree farm. Our point of difference is that we do wood steam distillation, which is the hundred-year-old bush distilling process they used to do. Most farms now have really large distillation setups, but because we’re small and off-grid, we still do it the old way. It does produce quite a different product that’s a little bit more floral. A lot of people say it’s more gentle on the skin. We’re branding it as a boutique, best-of-the-best tea tree oil. 

Bushfire was always an issue. It’s one of the first things that you discuss when considering living up here. It was definitely one of the first conversations that we had. It’s one of the main considerations in how you’re going to build, how much land you need to clear and all that sort of thing. 

Once the Bora Ridge fire started we were definitely in action mode. Our place has never looked so neat. We bought one of those massive leaf blowers that nearly catapulted me off my feet. We installed new pumps, hoses. We were very aware of it across the Pacific Highway, we could see it coming closer, we were watching it all the time. 

At first the RFS and National Parks both came up and declared us undefendable. That meant that we wouldn’t have any support, they wouldn’t bring trucks up or anything like that. There are a lot of rural properties where RFS just wouldn’t look at them, it’s too much of a risk to bring people and trucks up. 

Then, we had a catastrophic day, the 12th of November. We had been watching the fire. Alex kept saying, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s still far away.’ At one point, we got: It’s crossed the Pacific Highway, it’s rushing down the Gap Road. But it hadn’t actually happened. I had said if we have a catastrophic day, we’re out of here, whether there’s a spark or not. Alex agreed with me on that. So we packed the car, and we left. We stayed in Evans Head for a few days, until it all settled down. 

Another time, it was about eight o’clock at night. I went and looked at the horizon, it actually looked like a fireball was on top of us. And it wasn’t even meant to have crossed the Pacific Highway yet, which is 16 kilometres away from here. And I was just like, ‘We’re out!’ 

That was the first time that Alex said, ‘I’m going to stay honey. I think that just looks way worse than it is.’

I ended up leaving with the kids.

Korinderie Ridge community members discuss strategy with RFS. Photo: Sam and Nadia Collins

Alex was more confident about things than I. I was really trying to respect how he felt about things, but also respect how I was feeling about things. Some people were kind of going, ‘Oh, he’s just being macho man’, but I really didn’t think that he was. He had knowledge. In most cases, it was safer for him to stay here. He could make a difference that way. 

So Alex, my friend Nadia’s partner, Sam, and a couple of the older guys on the other side of the property decided to stay. Not stay and defend; they were going to leave just at the last minute, which we didn’t think was a particularly good idea. They felt nervous, but Alex had been through bushfires as a child with his father Jack. Jack is our community fire chief. Early in the summer he was away overseas, otherwise he would definitely have been here. He was on the phone to Alex, saying, ‘Why don’t you stay and defend? We don’t see crown fires here. You can save your house if you stay home.’ 

There was so much coming and going. We were given evacuation orders. Nadia and I were in Evans Head, when Nadia said to me, ‘I am just so sick of being off the property and being scared about what’s happening. I just want to see what’s happening. Why don’t we drive to the front, and just go and check it out?’

We weren’t doing anything dangerous. We thought we’d drive to wherever the roads were closed off and just observe what was happening. We had both learned through experience what the mind does when you don’t know what’s happening. 

So we left our kids with some family members, and when we got to the front, which was in New Italy at the time, it was really amazing because there were logs burning on the side of the road and there were RFS walking around, chilled out. We went up to some of the RFS people and said, ‘We want to talk to you, we’re feeling concerned for our partners’ safety. Can you tell us what’s happening with the fire?’ 

We ended up speaking to the fire chief for the whole region. He was just gorgeous. He was like, ‘Where are you guys from?’

We said, ‘We’re from Korinderie Ridge.’

He said, ‘I was just looking at that property. If you drive there, I’ll follow you.’

Nadia and I drove back to The Ridge with six fire trucks with their sirens on behind us. 

We came up the hill and you should have seen their faces. They were all at the community centre at the time, and some other people that had evacuated overnight had come back during the day. Jack was back by this point, and we had our team all up here: the communications officer, Chris, he’s really into the walkie-talkies; our community liaison person, who was updating everybody by phone. Other people decided to stay because there was that support. They were ready with maps, and basically just sat down and did this amazing strategy. The RFS guy got on the phone, called National Parks; we had bombers coming in dropping all that pink crazy stuff soon after. And they stopped it right at the back border, right on our property. 

Korinderie Ridge fire break. Photo: Sam and Nadia Collins

After the fires, when we returned home, Alex and the girls went for a walk through the burnt landscape, and my middle daughter, April, who was ten at the time, stepped into an ash pit from a burning stump and got third-degree burns on her foot. The coals had fallen into her boot and she couldn’t get them out. That was a huge thing for us. It was a very serious burn, she needed scar therapy and trips to Brisbane Children’s Hospital. She has a very different bushfire story that she’ll carry with her forever. I think probably her siblings would too; if you asked them about the bushfires, probably what comes to mind is that recovery of her foot afterwards and that care that was needed.

The overarching thing for us is that we have been so lucky. I’m just so grateful. We could have lost the farm with the fires, we could have lost our property. We had so much support. And the same through Covid our business survived, we are so lucky. We live off-grid and just kind of went about our business. Same with the 2022 floods. We are lucky we have a tea tree crop that will recover. I don’t mean to say there hasn’t been hard times. There’s been so many horrible things that have happened to so many people that I love. 

People keep saying we’re resilient. I think we’ve also been really lucky.