From fires to floods

Pat and Dale Oxtoby, Eden Creek
Photo: Jodie Harris

Dale: Pat and I grew up on farms in Canada. We came to Australia 47 years ago for a holiday and stayed because it doesn’t snow here. After working in Sydney and Melbourne for a couple of years, we decided we wanted to come back to the country. So we came up here and raised cattle for 25 years. I’ve been in the RFS for twelve years, have been an officer for seven, and a captain for the last five.  

Pat: I’ve also been in the RFS for twelve years. Before joining I had no fire experience. When we’d moved up to the farm my dad was visiting from Canada and he and Dale went up to the paddock and put a burn in, just to tickle the grass overnight. I looked out late afternoon and saw the fire going up the hill. It looked massive from the house. So I phoned the local fire brigade, and they came and put it out. When they got home the next day Dad and Dale weren’t impressed. 

Dale: Yeah, you put my fire out!

Pat: I found out later that a fire in July or August doesn’t go anywhere because it cools off at night and it dies out. I was very green in the early days.


Dale: In the RFS, a Section 44 is called when a fire gets too big for the local brigades, so they get other brigades in. The first one I went to was in 2013 in the Blue Mountains. Since then I’ve been to Narrabri, I’ve been to Armidale, and Ellangowan, quite a few around the state. I ended up in Bermagui and Queanbeyan in 2020.

Pat: Armidale was the only out-of-area Section 44 that I’ve been to; it’s hard for both of us to go away because it’s five days. They usually allow one day travelling three days on the fire line, and then one day coming home. It’s not always easy for us both being away. 

Dale: In 2019 we’d had no rain for basically a year. Normally, we wouldn’t expect fires in the Northern Rivers area until September, October. The first fires came through in the beginning of August. There was a fire on the New England Highway in August 2019 and when it started everyone said that it’s not going to stop until it gets to the ocean. We all laughed and thought, Oh, what a joke, but that’s what really happened. It burned from the New England Highway to the coast at Iluka. 

Pat and I went away for a while in August and that’s when Rappville got started. The Border Trail fire started in Queensland and when it came over the border, we spent about three weeks up there. After that, we went back to Tabulam because there were fires over there again. And I think Christmas Eve was the last day I spent up there.

Pat: Yes, you got home at four o’clock in the afternoon. Kids were home for Christmas and waiting for you to come.

Wyneden brigade, New Italy, 11th November. Photo: Dale Oxtoby
Wyneden brigade, West Coraki, 12th November. Photo: Dale Oxtoby

Dale: And then it was around the same time when Sydney was going. It took off New Year’s Eve and hit Cobargo. 

Pat: So then you went down to the fire after New Year.

Dale: Yeah, I went down about the third or fourth, so it was just two or three days after it went through Cobargo and was burning towards Bermagui. We were working to put in control lines at Bermagui. So I started fighting fires at the end of August, beginning of September, and I came back from Queanbeyan on the 20th of January. I think I’d put in some 60 days in that time.  


Pat: After being out for the day, we’d come back – it could be anywhere between nine at night and midnight – and either the last thing we’d do, or the first thing in the morning, was to clean up the truck, tidy it up, put more food in, make sure we’ve got water supply. We always fuel up before we get home, if we can. And if Dale went out and I didn’t, I’d try and look at the food supply on the truck. Basically, what we carry are snacks, just quick snacks to have in case our lunches don’t get delivered or delivered hours later. So even if I wasn’t going out, I was still helping get the truck ready because we’d often just bring it up here and deal with it in the morning before going out.

I think I’d put in some 60 days in that time

Dale: In the past there was a catering unit, for small fires. But because this was so big, they ended up bringing the Army in. Then our local CWA did a lot of meals for us, which were the best ones.

Dale: And the CWA would send little messages on their meals… 

Pat: Yeah, that was Lea’s girls. 

Dale: As a crew leader, after the fires, I like to talk to the people on the way back, and just relax. Have a beer afterwards while you’re unwinding. But it was so late sometimes we got back so it was just, ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’ Yeah, but most of the time, you know, it’s an hour drive each way to get to ’em and the same people in the morning. So you just discuss how it went the day before. 

Pat: There are some days when you’re out there and doing a lot and you’re so exhausted. You just crash when you hit the pillow. And you’re not getting home until ten o’clock. 

Dale: Maybe you’ll be out again at seven. 

Pat: You have a bite to eat, if there’s anything. That’s why I didn’t go out as much, because I just had to make sure things were still ticking over at home. Every once in a while I had to stop and do the laundry to catch up with all our dirty clothes, and make sure that we have a bit of food around to nibble on when we got home. Something for brekkie in the morning, so yeah, long days.


Pat: We’re having more and more disasters more frequently. I think bushfires like we had in 2019/2020 are going to be happening more often. I’m not saying that they could be for that long, or all the way down the state – here to Victoria – but I just think they’re going to happen more and more regularly. 

Dale: The whole thing about climate change is predicting more variable and more severe weather (it was all with the fires and then with the floods…)

Pat: So now we’re gonna have to start retraining. Now we need training in floods.

Dale: So I’ve spent just as many times, just as much time away from cleaning up floods as I have fighting fires in the last five years. 2017 in Lismore was our first major effort with floods. We spent several weeks over there, cleaning houses, hauling stuff. Then in 2019 I went to Port Macquarie cleaning up floods. And then the 2022 floods. 

Pat: And you’ve said to me so many times coming back from a flood or helping with flood cleanup is that it’s harder to take than going out to fires. Because I think with fires, we do protect most properties. We do save most of the properties, so people aren’t directly affected. But when you go to a flood, you see everyone on a street. You see hundreds of people that have been totally affected by that flood and you can’t do much about that. It’s come and gone. It’s the emotional toll.

You just crash when you hit the pillow

Photo: Jodie Harris

When the floods happened, we didn’t have any quilts on hand

Dale: It was definitely a lot worse these floods. Within the first week, before out-of-area trucks came, they were putting out maybe 40 vehicles a day and 100 people. I can’t remember. But it was literally hundreds in the end, hundreds of trucks out there with people. This is Lismore, Coraki, Woodburn, Broadwater, Bungawalbin, a lot of the country. 

Around the Coraki area, the Bungawalbin area, it was incredible. Looked like an inland sea. It was just devastation, dead animals and smell and rotting. Woodburn, there was fish floating, dead fish and all the shops. It was just pretty devastating. 

Pat: I spent a lot of time worrying about the people that were affected by it, because I feel helpless. Yes. I feel I really need to be doing something for the people that were flood-affected. 

That’s what our group, Kyogle Quilters, does. The group was started in 2016 or 2017 in Kyogle to make quilts for community. Quilts if there’s anybody in the community that had been traumatised, or had like a house fire. Or we’d make a lot of quilts for the kids, through the hospital in Lismore. So every year we’d donate X number of quilts, could be 10, 20, 30 quilts, to the kids and they get to keep them. 

When the floods happened, well, we didn’t have any quilts on hand. We might have had one or two but you know, it was justm ‘Okay let’s have a big day.’ We have lots of fabric donated and we just had a big Saturday and grabbed some fabric and everyone took it home to try get some quilts done to donate to flood affected people. I think we’ve got about ten or twelve to deliver tomorrow. I did about half a dozen or so last week. And I went through my own stash and found a few in the cupboard. Because you only need so many quilts, there’s no point in having them sitting in a cupboard. If people out there can use them, and one of the churches in town is taking bedding. And they will make sure that the quilts are going to families they know need them, families around Kyogle, Casino, Coraki, Woodburn, all along the Richmond River area. 

So that’s where our quilts come in. That’s what we’re doing. That’s just part of helping.

Photo: Jodie Harris