Middle ground

Nic Margan

The first ever burn I attended was down in the coastal heath at Bundjalung National Park. It was a small fuel-reduction burn on one side of the campground. The aim was to remove fuel so that if a fire came from that direction, it would slow down as it hit that area. We lit up in the morning, and then contained it all day. That heath is so explosive. But it was really impressive. There was so much smoke and fire, birds coming out of the bush. I immediately felt that this was the most exciting part of the job. That was a successful day. We got in there, we burnt in the morning, cleaned it up by the afternoon.

Fire is exciting. It has this amazing history in this country. It’s visually compelling, it’s unpredictable. Firefighters, too, there’s all these stories about them.

Shark Creek marked the start of the 2019-20 season. I missed that one, but I remember hearing the stories coming back. Then I got the call to go down to Bees Nest in October. I was definitely watching fires at the time. I had seen Bees Nest grow really quickly. It’s a really steep, bony landscape out there and I thought, Wow, this is going to be nuts.

There was smoke in the air. The road was empty. We arrived at Tyringham, at the town hall, where the RFS had set up. There were lots of townspeople there. Some had obviously come off property that had been burnt. They looked in shock. There were police around. The ladies inside the hall had cooked up a mountain of food.

Pyrocumulonimbus clouds form ahead of the Bees Nest megafire. Photo contributed by NSW Rural Fire Service.

Fire is exciting, it has this amazing history in this country

That first trip was disorienting, chaotic

I didn’t know much about the way you start these things. How to begin? But the guy I was travelling with was a really experienced firefighter. He asked around for a Division Commander. No one could give us an answer. We went to a demountable out the back. The guy there was completely flustered, he had no idea where the fire was.

In the end, he said, ‘Go down this road and find the fire, and tell me when you find it.’

Travelling down this road, we passed a farmer who waved us down. ‘My neighbour is being overrun by fire,’ he said. ‘Can you help?’ It was pretty clear that it would be unusual to respond to a request like that – someone asking you to go somewhere and you don’t know what it is and what the risks might be. But we decided we would go, carefully.

It was a complicated way to get there. Trees had fallen over the road, so we had to go around through a neighbouring property. There was a little spine we went over and I remember the guys were really nervous about that, because this narrow part of the road would be difficult to escape through. We came to a caravan that was completely on fire. It was next to one of those houses where they just hoard stuff, and all the stuff they hoarded was on fire.

That first trip was disorienting, chaotic. We slept in the day and then worked through the night. The guy I was working with was environmentally-minded, so we were talking a lot about climate change. That was a big part of how I was processing what was happening. When you get four, five years of drought, and predictions of a big fire season, I was starting to understand it in those terms.

Shark Creek Fire. Photo: Daniel Getaz

It felt like a really bad glimpse of what was to come.

The second deployment, a seven-dayer, was much more organised. We would get briefed in the morning, long drives, a lot of getting to know the area, clearing fire trails. I then did firefighting for a few days at Bungawalbin on the Myall Creek fire. It was frustrating. We’d go through an area and try to mop up, and then the next day find out that it had jumped. There were a couple of days on that fire out the back of Whiporie in the pine plantations. It was a crazy fire, 20 metres high going through pine trees. Then there was property protection out at Jackybulbin Road. And some stuff off the highway as well. We were getting pulled in all directions.

I knew that the Mt Nardi fire had started. We’d been going to the Doon Doon saddle and hiking in and doing work along those lines a month before. Someone had said that lightning had struck Mt Nardi, and a Large Air Tanker had dropped, and I saw a video and I was like, Oh my God, this is insane.

I don’t know how to describe it. But it was very different. I’d spent heaps of time in my childhood, particularly in my teenage years, going up to the forests, camping or going for walks. It always felt like a special place. There’s usually water flowing everywhere, creeks twisting throughout, lots of waterfalls, big trees with massive buttress roots. It’s cool and dark, full of bird sounds and glowing green. It’s really beautiful.

It felt like a really bad glimpse of what was to come

Mt Ernest and Mt Barney near the NSW-Queensland border. Photo: Innes Larkin

We were working off Terania Creek Road. The first day I was with the Division Commander, answering radios and writing things down, relaying messages for them. The next day, I was on the ground with another crew member, doing bulldozer support. Then the third day, we were working off that bulldozer line. I remember going various places using a leaf blower, there was a lot of that.

Every little corner of that fire has its own story of how it went and how it could have gone.

I don’t know how the community defenders were coordinating things, but they were. I think they knew someone in the RFS, and were talking to them and then informally deploying people to do jobs that they’d gotten assigned or something like that. Some of it was really awesome and impressive, and some of it was really scary. I remember seeing this group of people going out in shirts and hats, with shovels or something and I thought, Oh, that doesn’t look good. Good to put the forest first and everything, but it looked legitimately dangerous at times.

People I was working with were saying, ‘These people shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous.’ But there was just so many of them. No one got anywhere with that argument.

I also spent a lot of time around Woodenbong, which was my backyard at that time. By this point the whole state was going up and they’d stopped sending crews from out of the area. So it was just four or five guys from Woodenbong doing all of this by themselves, exhausted. I spent quite a while on the Mount Clunie fire and on a fire at Yabbra. We had a really long job at a place called Sandy Hill Road; it’s on the very western part of the Border Ranges National Park. We had to continuously mop up for two and a half weeks along a four-kilometre stretch. This one corner basically just refused to die. The next day, there’d be more smoke, more smoke, more smoke. But we held it there.

When everything else is happening and you’re focused on your four kilometres, that feels a bit strange.

There’s this guy who owns the Mount Clunie Cabins, Jim Standing. He grew up there, his father owned a Private Native Forestry license and a mill. Jim went away for years, and then came back and started a tourism thing. We were working up there. So we just went in to say hello and he said, ‘There’s this massive stinger in there, and it’s the biggest stinger I’ve ever seen.’

I guess my conclusion is, everything’s not ruined at the moment

It was arranged that we’d do a special operation for this one tree. He showed me in. I went out, got all my stuff ready, and then went back in by myself. And the stinger was insanely huge. It must have been five metres across at the base; easily the widest stinger I’ve ever seen. I spent a few hours with a leaf blower, until it was cleared back 15 or 20 metres, and then then walked out.

A year and a half later, I went and stayed at the lodge and walked in and saw the stinger was still there. That was very cool.

When that ended, I went down to the western part of Wollemi. We were in helicopters, getting dropped off the winch into the fire. You use a rake hoe to make the lines secure again, then walk out. It was insanely physical. We were absolutely wrecked by the end of it.

Now when I go for walks in those areas I ask myself, ‘Is it recovering? Or is it not?’ Some of it looks like it is, and some of it looks like it isn’t. Some of it is full of weeds, and some of it always was. If fires of such scale happen again, in the next ten years, there’ll be massive large-scale losses of important environments.

I guess my conclusion is, though, everything’s not ruined at the moment.

Fire spreads across the eastern slopes of Mt Barney near the New South Wales-Queensland border. Photo: Innes Larkin