Just an idiot trying to be useful

Dan Burt, Nymboida
Dan sheltered under Pollocks Bridge, Nymboida, during the Liberation Trail megafire. Photo: Ben Belle

I moved to Nymboida in 2019 to work at the Canoe Centre as a river guide. I’d been coming up for years prior to that, doing canoe trips. The Centre needed someone close by, because a backpacker bus used to come in every second day, sometimes with five or ten people on it, sometimes with twenty or thirty people. We’d take them down to do a flat-water paddle at the top of the weir. They’d see platypus sometimes, if they were quiet enough. We did regular school trips during the summer. We’d start at Pollocks Bridge here and go down the river. The first day, the kids are just mucking around and tipping each other in. The second day has a few more serious rapids on it. And the third day, that’s a really big day, it’s got a couple of nice rapids on it too. It was great; we’d cook up a camp dinner at the Canoe Centre. This was one of the few places that tourists ever actually left the coast. 

In 2019 it all just died. They just weren’t coming. The place was thick with smoke, you could hardly breathe. It was like a thick fog type of smoke. You couldn’t keep it out of the house. I was shutting the windows and the curtains, trying to keep the smoke and the heat out. By midday the smoke was in the house and then it was impossible. You had to open the house out to try and clear it out, but there was nothing to clear it out with, just more smoke. Every now and again, you’d get a day when the breeze was in the right direction and strong enough to clear it away a little bit. But by the next day, it was smoky again. And that was for three months straight.

On the day of the fire, a Queensland fire truck come past the house I was renting and told us to evacuate. I said I felt pretty safe just going down under the bridge. That was my plan.

‘But have you been to Glens Creek Road?’ I asked them. ‘You should be telling them they need to evacuate.’ 

I knew they were going to get smashed out there. And they did. 

First I sat and watched the fire from the roof. That whole western sky was black. About four or five o’clock, we were spraying water and I felt an ember hit me in the face. It burnt. There were black leaves starting to fall down, the wind was really howling. I said, ‘Bugger it, I’m just going to go down to the bridge.’ We didn’t have any firefighting gear at the house and the guy who owned it had said, ‘Just leave it, don’t worry about it.’ 

On the corner of Laytons Range Road I found my canoe-guide buddy and his family parked in the road trying to decide what to do. I told him about going under the bridge.

Feed for wildlife. Photo: Dan Burt

I said, ‘Bugger it, I’m just going
to go down under the bridge’

‘Worse comes to worse you can always jump in the river.’ 

I’m glad they didn’t try to get to Grafton because they would have been in trouble. 

We sat with our cars backed up under the bridge and watched it come around. That Liberation Trail fire had moved fifty kilometres in a night. It jumped across into the ranges to the west, and it got funneled out of Hortons Creek, and it was just roaring. It sounded like 747s landing. Frickers Road was the worst hit because it’s right on the river and has that western frontage. We found so many houses burnt down through there. Water tanks everywhere were flat pancakes of plastic. 

Straight after the fires it was really hard to know exactly what to do. Everyone was in shock. I could see pretty quickly that there were things being done for people, but nothing really for wildlife. So from the first week, when a kitchen had been set up down at the Canoe Centre, I took the food scraps and some of the hay that was being delivered to cattle and started doing regular food drops, down in Clouds Creek State Forest, along Glens Creek Road and Frickers Road. There wasn’t a single blade of grass or green shoot to be seen in a hundred-kilometre radius. I found wallaby carcasses hanging from fences, the fire was so hot through there. I really didn’t have much hope of anything being alive, but I kept taking food out. People saw what I was doing and praised me for it, but really I was just an idiot trying to be useful. 

We couldn’t have people here for the first six months after the fires, it was just too dangerous. The Canoe Centre had trees down and it looked horrible. There were still things on fire. We didn’t have any equipment. With a third of the houses in the area burnt down, I lost my rental and was facing being homeless, and without river trips running I was also without a job. I’ve only just got a potential trip this summer, three years later.

really I was just an idiot
trying to be useful

Being out on the river or going down a canyon on a rope are my reasons for living. If I’m not doing that I’m just killing time. That was the other part of my involvement with the Canoe Centre – I wanted to expand out into doing canyon trips, taking people on a rope into some of the most spectacular, unseen gorges in the country. There’s nothing like hanging off a rope under a waterfall to make you feel alive. You can do small drops, small groups, and you can do it sensitively, with very little harm to the environment. When people see places like that, or have an experience like that, I would hope they look after the environment better. 

I did find a place to stay eventually, by a river somewhere, that helped me heal a lot after the fires. It was day-to-day things that kept me going. Pulling lantana, planting ferns, being somewhere green and peaceful that wasn’t burnt. Leaving a job where I got to do what I loved was devastating, and seeing first-hand the impacts on the bush and wildlife. I don’t think I’ll ever recover properly. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to move on with my life.

Photo: Ben Belle