Return of the Rose Robin

Meredith Stanton, Clouds Creek
Meredith Stanton spent 100 days surrounded by fire at her conservation property at Clouds Creek. Photo: Ben Belle

I live in the middle of the Clouds Creek State Forest on a 25 hectare forested block. There’s warm temperate and subtropical rainforest reserves in the surrounding forests. To my east is Nymboi-Binderay National Park, and to my west is the Chaelundi State conservation area and National Park. Out to the northwest is Guy Fawkes River National Park. Along with koalas, there’s a large list of threatened species that live here. I’ve heard sooty owls here, masked owls. We’ve got greater gliders and yellowbelly gliders, sphagnum and stuttering frogs, eastern bent wing bats and few other different little micro bats.

We’re in a biodiverse wilderness out here.

At 17, I put in a tender for a building that was being removed from the Dorrigo tennis club, which was originally the old Megan schoolhouse. I had $600 in my bank account. I wrote to them and said, “I’d really like it. I want to build a house”. By the time it came through, I was 18. Family and friends came and we pulled it apart, a friend [had] a truck, we paid for the fuel, brought it all out in pieces. Over the next six months we put it all back together. It was a pretty basic little shed, with no power for about ten years. 

It was a totally new experience for me, having to fight fire off the property. Up until that stage, there’d been different fires around the district, not far from here, only 10 kilometres away. Fires that threatened the local village of Dundurrabin. But here, because we’re surrounded by rainforest gullies, it was never a great threat. We certainly never got a lightning-strike fire starting here until 2019. 

I was living on my own. I wanted to help the community fighting really hard at the other end, but I knew if I didn’t prepare, I could lose the house. I cleared around the house as much as I could. I wasn’t certain that it was going to come here, but I knew how dry it was. These forests hadn’t burnt since the mid to late 60s, when there’d been a big fire event through Billy’s creek; locals had told me about it, I knew it could happen. 

Photo: Ben Belle

The smoke came here before the fire. There was smoke here for days and days. I could see big palls of smoke out to my southeast, over the tree-line. I had the sense that I would [stay and defend], but I wasn’t certain what the weather conditions would be when the fire hit. 

The Bee’s Nest fire burned for days. They hadn’t stopped it at Billy’s Creek. This was around the 12th of September, so would’ve been six days. There was a lot of activity with fire crews trying to prevent it coming through the Cloud’s Creek State Forest. It jumped the Blick’s River and burnt up through Blue Rock, and then arrived at Billy’s Creek, which is just over a kilometre south of me. There’s quite a network of ridges and valleys, it’s been previously logged and it was very dry. All of the fire trails were overgrown, so there was no access into most of it. With the wind behind it, the embers were being carried. We were hearing stories of people off the plateau who were getting embers flying down and landing on them down in the valley.  

Nobody was really prepared. It just came upon us as a community so fast.

There were so few people actually in volunteer positions of authority, and a lot was put on their shoulders, and they had very few resources. It wasn’t until the state of emergency was called some days later, three or four days after the initial fire leapt out of the Guy Fawkes gorge that the State swung into action and we got visiting RFS. 

It got to a kilometre away. The RFS were watching what the weather was doing. They decided they were going to do a 20 kilometre back-burn along my road, to burn back into the fire to my south. I really wasn’t happy about this. 

The agencies were burning to stop the flames. Whereas conservationists were looking at stopping the flames. There’s a big difference in the strategies. If you had a lot of people and enough equipment, and a fairly good escape plan, I think a lot could be done to save ecological assets in a fire because different little pods of people around my community were able to do that, using rainforest areas as buffers and helping those buffers so that the fire was put out. In Mount Hyland, for example, the Nature Reserve and the mountain there. It’s a very special place, totally unique. I’ve been there and seen it, it’s one of our local treasures. There were teams of people out there, cutting little trails, raking mulch back, trying to save some of the rainforest out there. They were testing experimentally what you could do on the ground, if you had enough people and a passion to save it.

The Forestry grader came in and graded the road. I’d been down at Muck Creek in the old-growth rainforest with a group of conservationists. We were doing some mapping and documenting, because at that stage the New South Wales Government was talking about opening up the old growth reserves to logging. So we had a campaign going to prevent that happening. I came home from doing that day out in this beautiful old growth forest. And I thought, Oh, somebody’s graded the road. What’s that all about? I didn’t actually know it was an intention for them to do a back-burn along my road until about three days before they set the date when my neighbour came and said, They’re going to do this

And I was like, Oh, no, they can’t do that. No, no… What about all the koalas and the gliders? And there’s all this rainforest in there, that would be stupid

It would be like sandwiching all of these threatened species between two fire fronts. I was aghast. I really didn’t know what to do. I thought, I’m going to try and convince them not to do this

So I stayed up till 4am trying to put together some information about the threatened species. Nobody had given me any contact numbers. I didn’t know who was running the show. All I could do was send an email to my neighbour who is in the RFS. Up until this day, I don’t know whether anybody actually read my plea. All I know is that I tried to get it there.

I had an official person come and talk to me about it three hours before they lit up. By this stage, I was tearing my hair out and quite emotional. I was angry that I hadn’t had any kind of consultation. In the end, I kind of pulled myself up and I said, Well, you know, I really don’t want this to happen, I think it’s a really bad idea. But you’re obviously going to do it. So how can I be useful?

It was a chaotic invasion of RFS and bulldozers. They started down one end of the road, putting bulldozer lines in. There was a lot of tension amongst the fire crews, they were under a lot of stress. We had very grumpy people to deal with. I’m a pretty empathic sort of person so I tried to be cheerful and helpful, to keep the peace. There’s some really big old trees around the house here, visited by gliders. There were probably hundreds along the road before the fires. Big hollow-bearing trees are what makes this place the best habitat around. We had a bulldozer working on the road pushing trees. It was pushing really big trees out of the ground and ended up pushing in excess of probably thirty big old habitat trees over into the fire zone. Just along a two kilometre stretch of road.

The fire down at Billy’s Creek never actually made it here. The back-burn was the thing that burnt most of the bush back from my place. It also escaped, and jumped the road where they were trying to stop it and ended up burning a bit of my property. The smoke was just so thick from the back-burn that we almost missed it. You could barely see. The wind must have changed. There was a fresh pall of smoke coming up on the wrong side of the road. I reported it to the people on the ground. They didn’t actually agree with me. They said no, no, that hasn’t jumped the road.  And I said, Yes, it has. It’s just right on the back of my boundary, I know exactly where it is

I also made a point of ringing the local RFS. Then it was eleven o’clock at night and there was no action. By this stage, I could see it from the house creeping down through the bush and I rang the local RFS station again. They said, “What fire?” So I just rang triple zero at that point. Two guys came down, and they knew nothing about it. People [had gone] off shift without telling anybody there was a fire.

I was getting pretty angry at that point

 I took them into the bush to the fire line. Flames were about a metre high, coming down through what was logged five or six years before. They were saying, somebody’s lit this, somebody’s lit this! They were quite suspicious. I was thinking, no, no, it’s from the back-burn. There was a risk that was taken, and this was the result. Those suspicions flew around and everyone was trying to work out why would someone deliberately light up on the wrong side of the road? I just wanted them to put it out. It was about to burn right into my property.

I didn’t sleep much that night. They put a couple of guys and a truck between me and the fire overnight to keep my nerves. By 11am the next morning they started arriving with the helicopters, extra crews and the bulldozer. There were bulldozer lines going in under the power lines, across the paddocks, through the bush, trees being pushed over and huge dozer lines through rainforests and old growth. Smoke everywhere, trucks all lined up between me and the fire; it was noisy and smoky. It went on for hours and hours until about three o’clock in the afternoon. And the skies opened up with thunder, and we got this amazing thunderstorm. You could hear it hissing as it hit the fire. Thirty-three millimetres of rain fell. It put the fires out, it put the spot-over out, and it damped down the whole back-burn. It just felt like a miracle. 

That was just the beginning for us. In September, we did monitoring of the spot-over, going up daily and checking that things were staying out. When the dry lightning storms came over in October, we had three or four different local fires start up. There was one at Muck Creek, one at the top of Billy’s Creek, on Schultz Road, there were more around Dundurrabin. We still had the Bee’s Nest fire at that stage, which hadn’t been [brought] under control. It was burning out towards Chaelundi National Park. They were doing forty kilometre back-burns and things out there. They were fighting it up further north on the Guy Fawkes gorge. It went on for months and months. Then those winds came up on the 8th of November, and they all grew into a mega-blaze, which they renamed the Liberation Trail fire. That’s what wiped out all those areas right near Nymboida. And the pine plantation that’s just down the road. 

The Cloud’s Creek pine plantation is about 800 hectares. They began that in the 1960s. They actually had a little settlement there – houses and buildings and infrastructure set up [for the plantation workers]. Now their workers travel from Grafton. I was actually down there looking at what the Muck Creek Fire was doing on the morning it happened. The wind was howling, the trees bending over the road. I just knew it was going to be devastating. It started to spot tens of kilometres ahead of itself in a really strong wind. I never worked out how many kilometres it travelled that day, but it went all the way through to Glenreagh. Along the way it picked up the edges of all these other little fires, like a big suction of hot air and dry embers. Most of the people around Nymboida had so little time. That ember storm flying out from the gorge was basically upon them within 12 hours. 

I was watching it on digital mapping, and I was frightened. 

It took a big toll on me going through that. The chaos of the State response. My anxiety about the fire going through these wildlife habitats. 

Wiriri Road. Photo Ben Belle

Living with the animals here is the thing that keeps me here.

Without them, everything’s changed. I’m traumatized by a sense that nobody cares as much about the ecological values as some of us do. Our State emergency response is so geared towards saving houses and farm animals and the recovery process has been very much the same. 

There’s a whole lot of mixed emotions when the fire’s hitting. There’s all this kind of unwanted change going on around you. You get really angry. And that brings a lot of conflict into your personal relationships in the community. Some of that ends up as a sort of a residual, I don’t know who I can trust anymore. I’m not sure who’s my friend anymore. There’s a general sense of, if I’m going to survive, I’m going to have to do it myself. Because everybody else in an emergency is just doing the same thing. 

Our wildlife populations have just sunk. It’s going to take a really long time, probably decades, for any kind of recovery. My friendly yellow-belly glider doesn’t call to me anymore. Even the redneck wallabies and pademelons have been really scarce. I used to have a mob here, up to 16, in good seasons. I’m seeing about three now. The glossy black cockatoos have been really impacted. The birds have come back better than other things. Just the other day a rose robin started calling. In late November and December of 2019 we saw some koala survivors here, but they haven’t been heard or seen since. Whether they’re just being scarce, like they normally are, or whether they didn’t quite make it through, we don’t know. We’re waiting on some DNA results from water sampling taken from creeks and rivers around here. We’ll get a sense of what kind of wildlife are using the rivers and creeks from their DNA. 

I’m not looking forward to the next dry season. I think these forests will burn hotter next time. It’s just a physical fact; if you fire a forest, it’s going to regenerate eucalypts, because you give them that bare ground. That’s the best conditions for getting eucalypts to grow back. That’s timber industry knowledge, for production forests. If you want to grow eucalypts, because you want to cut them down and sell them, then you’ve got to maintain that forest structure in that way. But if you’re wanting a landscape that’s resilient to say, a hotter world, and the coming climate risks …

I’m really fearful that they’re going to keep logging all the intact forests around me. I really like the idea of the Great Koala National Park protecting all of the forests from the coasts right through to the ranges. All koala country. 

If we manage to for resilience instead of for timber,
the koalas just might have a chance.