Only got to sing out

Steve and Linda, Rappville
Steve and Linda at their Rappville property. Photo: Jodie Harris

We came to Rappville because we were looking for a holiday destination and place to retire that was within 250 kilometres of where we lived in Brisbane. Our kids had left home. And we’ve always been into gardening, always been into looking after the land. We used to have a tugboat before that, an old wooden tugboat from the ’50s. And that was our passion. But when we bought this place, we couldn’t do that as well, so we got rid of the boat, and this became our passion.  

The community has always been helpful, right from our first day here. Keith Cole was the first person we met. He was the fire chief. We got bogged the first couple of times out here, and we didn’t know who to call and he was the only one we knew. Got us out of the bog, an 80-year-old man hooking up chains! It’s like that out here with everyone – Jeff, and Dave, a few doors down, and Justin. They all know they’ve only got to sing out and we’ll drop everything and go there. And vice versa, they’ll come here. We all have to look after each other out here because we’re so remote.

The communication isn’t very good out here. We don’t get mail. We don’t get the paper. You’re lucky if we get to make a phone call. The internet was very helpful during the fires.  Lot of posts going up, and the Fires Near Me app. That helped us so much one day. We were stuck but we had to leave, we had to evacuate, and we got to watch that app and see where the fire was and how we could drive around it. 

We have a gentleman that lives behind us in a van on 3,000 acres. When the Rappville fires were on, he didn’t even know. We’d rush over and tell him that the fires were on and what was happening.

Photo contributed by Steve and Linda Cavanagh

The community has always been helpful, right from our first day here

Our property burnt a month before the Rappville fires. We didn’t even know there was a fire. We had my daughter, her husband and our grandchildren here. And our neighbour up the road rang and said, ‘Are you alright, Linda?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we’re fine, we’re watching a movie.’ And she goes, ‘There’s a lot of smoke your way I think the fire is close to you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll send the boys out.’

It was an eerie feeling, walking around seeing all that

I sent Steven and our son-in-law Stu for a drive. They went out our front gate, went right, but the fire was all over the road. So, they came back in, told us – myself, my daughter and my grandkids – that we have to leave and to go left. We all got in the car, took all that stuff and went left and the fire was over the road there too. We couldn’t get out. So, we came back and we said, ‘Looks like we have to fight it.’ We pulled out the gurney and everything. Then the fire brigade pulled in and said, ‘You can get out going right.’ So we just packed the family up and went out. We went into McDonald’s at Casino and stayed there for a while and our daughter and kids ended up going home, back to Brisbane. We slept in the car. 

We came back the next day and the fire still wasn’t here. But by eleven o’clock, it was getting very close. We had the choice to stay, but the RFS said it was defendable – we’ve got a lot of open area around here, and that’s all deliberate for the fire as well, we’ve got about 40 metres cleared from the buildings. So we jumped in the car and we went and stayed at the school outside of Leeville in the car. We were there for a couple of nights with our two big dogs. People said, ‘You could have come to us’, but with our dogs, it’s a big ask. We’re kind of independent. We didn’t want to ask for help. 

We ended up coming back on the third night. About three in the morning. It was wild driving – all the embers, trees down, dead animals. It was like an alien landscape. You just couldn’t believe what you were looking at. The sand on the ground looked like it had been baked, was  hard to walk on. Like you were walking on concrete. There were dead animals on the tracks that had tried to escape. You could see where the fire had been more intense than other places on the property, down in the real thick tea tree. It must have been horrendous for the wildlife because we found dead kangaroos and wallabies on the track. They must have tried to get onto the track to escape the fire but they couldn’t. It was an eerie feeling, walking around and seeing all that. 

At the house site, the fire got some tyres that we had apple trees and pear trees in that we had grown from seed but the RFS put the trees out. So it was coming… but we had the place so clean. There was no rubbish under anything. No grass. We didn’t want to endanger anyone, not the fire brigade or ourselves. One of our neighbours, Roger Bailey, who’s in the rural fire brigade, said this is one of the best places in the district for fire protection. We were pretty happy to hear that. 

We’d already been giving water and food to all the wild animals. Sometimes the camp’d be full of them. Kangaroos everywhere, and wallabies and pademelons. And there were a lot of burn victims in amongst them as well. We’ve still got one pademelon that comes in here that’s got little burnt hands that are just stumps.

A month later when the Rappville fire was on, we were in town doing our fortnightly shopping and we knew it was coming. We left with our shopping to come back home and the cops had all the roads blocked off, just this side of Casino, and we couldn’t get back here at all. Eventually, we gave away all our ice creams to the coppers, at the road closure, and said, ‘Hey, guys, it’s a hot day, have an ice cream! We can’t take these home.’ They were pretty happy about that. We eventually found a back road to get home, got our dogs, and then we camped out at the Leeville School and we just stayed there. 

I remember we were in the car, it was late at night and there were other cars parked there, but no one was in them. Then we realised they were RFS people who had gone into Rappville to fight the fires. We’re just sitting there, and one of the firemen came out and we said, ‘How is it?’ And he said, ‘It looks like Armageddon.’ He said, ‘It’s gone, Rappville’s gone. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ By the time he left, he was saying, ‘Oh, maybe not gone, but a lot of houses are gone.’ He had a strong local name. It would have been heartbreaking for him.

Steve and Linda’s new dam put in after the fires. Photo: Jodie Harris

A friend of ours that lives over on the avenue, she’s a nurse and she’d done a night shift and was home asleep. The kids had gone to school and her husband was at work. She woke up and all she could see was an orange glow. She looked out her front door and the fire was just heading straight for the house. So she just got in the car and left. And everyone else around her was evacuating at the same time and they saw that there was no one home, but her dogs were still there in their cage. So, someone just went in and grabbed her dogs and put him in his car, and then, when the fires were over, brought their dogs back home. They lost all their other animals, all the rabbits and chickens, and they all died. But luckily, the dogs were saved. And all the horses and cattle, they got picked up by someone who had a truck and were taken somewhere and looked after until they needed them back. So, one neighbour took all the dogs and another stranger took all their horses and put them in the truck. How good is that?

There was no water anywhere during the fires, so after the fires we built this dam and made sure it was big. The dam builder said to us, ‘This will be the dam they take water out of.’ And we’re like, ‘They’re welcome. Come and get our water! Put out the fire!’

When we first moved here that was my biggest fear fire. But I don’t have that amount of fear now. I’ve lived through a fire, and I know we can do it again.

Daisy and Buddha walking through the Steve and Linda’s burnt property. Photo contributed by Steve and Linda Cavanagh