The Community Defenders

JJ Bruce, RFS, The Channon
JJ Bruce, Chris Anderson, John Hutchinson and Gwanji Monks prepare for action on the Nicholson property adjacent to the National Park, Mt Nardi fire. Photo: Terri Nicholson

Operational log: Fire started Friday 8th November, grid reference 299413. Incident controller: Charlie Cohen. Channon Two stationed at the end of Wallace Road. Organised Erin, with Hugh and Nan’s permission, to clear Nicholson’s Trail from the bottom-up with his bobcat. Nimbin will work top-down. Organised Josh to call Dave to open the track through his and Mop’s to Wallace Road as a fallback containment. At night spoke with Josh, who is at Nicholson’s. Fire is still in National Park crowning and moving south on the western ridge, also burning on the eastern ridge. 

The fire started up at the northern end of the valley in the National Park. I went and watched it from a high ridge. The ignition point was in the north-western section of the Terania basin in a very inaccessible location. The fire traveled downslope and northwards along the ridge, then upslope with a north-easterly wind behind it. On that western slope where it first took off the trees are still dead there. Relatively quickly there were at least two other ignition sources in the south-eastern area of the basin, at least a kilometre away from that first ignition. It almost seems like an anomaly that fire could move like that. So not only did we have this western side of the basin on fire we had the eastern side of the basin on fire as well. It doubled everything.  

The fire would propagate itself by burning above a really steep upper section; things would be dislodged and roll down, start a fire below, and then it would run back up. But wind can’t get into valleys very well. I would often kick the dust on the road to see what the wind was doing, and often it  wouldn’t be doing what the wind was doing even in the tops of the trees. It doesn’t get into the next valley, it overtops the valley. You’d get an antagonistic breeze like an eddy in a creek that goes over a rock, coming in the opposite direction and working against the fire, with the fire travelling downhill. There’s only very marginal opportunities to stop it, so we were often trying to stop it there. 

Nicholson’s Trail runs immediately south of the National Park on the west side of the basin. It joins Terania Creek road and Wallace Road. It has these switchbacks to get through a really steep section. Creeks and intermittent water courses provide natural breaks, but then you’ve always got a waterfall section or a cliff section that you’ve got to navigate. It was quite inaccessible. It could have been strategic, but it ended up being a classic, dangerous place. 

The fire jumped that. It jumped us. The truck got singed.

Melted fairings on The Channon RFS truck. Photo: Terri Nicholson
Community Defenders, Mt Nardi fire. Photo: Felix Shafer-Gardiner

Day two. Crew: Hutcho, JJ, Gwanji, Dave, Mark and Nick. Cleared Nicholson’s trail from the bottom up. Donovan sawing. Erin on bobcat. Met Nimbin and other crew above the switchback and bulldozer coming down. Fire burned to gully at top of switchback. Used water to extinguish it as it reached the gully. JJ, Chrisso and Gabe went to hold fire from crossing the gully at the base of the cliff. However, the fire beat us and overran the Channon truck.

I was operational with that truck. Nimbin 7 was there, and the bulldozer had been down earlier that morning. I was standing at the top of this dry waterfall, and I looked down and thought that it’s not going to stop by itself on this dry watercourse. So I grabbed a couple of people and drove down but we were too late. We were halfway into the bottom of that waterfall and you could hear a roar. If we had got there with leaf blowers and rakes, we would have probably been able to stop it. Once it got away it just raced back up the hill and overran the truck.

The procedure for a fire overrun is trained in the RFS very strongly. But it all happened very quickly. They all got back in the truck. It wasn’t perfect. Two vehicles on a hairpin bend with nowhere to turn. There was enough radiant heat for the stickers and the paint and the plastic fairings on the truck to melt. The driver was still shaking in the afternoon when I saw them.

Their hair was still standing up.

For three days we had wins, stressful wins, but wins, all night sort of missions. Then I was starting up a night shift on the east side of the Terania basin at a place called Rainbow Community. We had our briefing and we were just getting ready to go when I saw a community member. It was Ivy. She was walking along where the fire was petering out at a little dirt roadside. I saw Ivy putting it out, she had a rake or something. And I stopped the truck and put my head out the window, and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s not gonna make any difference anyway. It’s gonna stop there.’ And she turned and said, ‘I just want to do something.’

As we got up to changeover with the National Parks, the fire had jumped, getting up to half a hectare in size at the top of a hill and starting to burn down into steep country. It was a big psychological blow for me because we’d been scoring successes. It just knocked me. We investigated, tried to get around it, but it was too hot and moving quite fast, and the terrain was steep and viney. We pulled out and went back down to regroup, but it was very much; oh no, we’ve lost it now. 

There’s more houses just over the other side of that valley. We decided to go back up and have a look. The fire had cooled down, and I saw there was an opportunity to stop it there. We had a crew of four people. Half the crew went up to deal with the top, and a couple of us went on foot down the bottom edge. I walked in there and I thought, We can stop this by creating a break, a hand-tool line of mineral earth. It was very steep terrain. It would be very slow and very hard work to make that mineral earth trail. I remembered Ivy standing back there on the road saying, ‘I just want to do something.’ I found her number and I rang her, said, ‘We need as many people as you can get right now, bring them up.’

And she said, ‘Right, got it.’ 

And then people just started coming. It was amazing.

Because without the people helping, without having those volunteers there, there was no way. I mean even by the time they got there, we were done. You know? We were choked out from the dust and sweating and just done. I remember just lying back and not having to do any more. It was such a relief. 

Those people worked all night. There were rakes, secateurs for cutting vines. One leaf blower. But it was done on hands and knees with scraping hands, mostly. It was called a turkey trail, after the brush turkey, the rainforest bird around here which scratches up all the leaves into a mound. When the National Parks came back and relieved us in the morning, I remember Matt pulling me aside saying, ‘Wow, I did not expect that you guys would have stopped this.’

That was the community. We wouldn’t have been able to stop it without the community.

The turkey trail went on for nights and nights, just patrolling it. It’s why the fire didn’t get away when it broke out two days later, because someone was there watching it. It was patrolled 24 hours a day. It was a huge effort, a very professional effort. Until the end of December, there was always community effort being put into strengthening control lines and blacking out more perimeter. We had volunteers on motorbikes, doing reconnaissance. They would be able to duck back to where you were operational and do a report. Or we could put a knapsack on the person on the bike, and they could go down with 20 litres of water.

Friday 15th, night shift. Discovered the fire was over the containment line near the pole house. Recon with crew and found spot fire one acre in size growing quickly. Called for volunteer help, and lots of people came and helped put in a containment line. Fire contained and line strengthened throughout the night. Just before dawn Scott called to say there was a spot-over two hundred metres east of his house. Donovan went with a knapsack on the bike to assist while we refilled the Channon 2 and responded. Arrived on scene and proceeded to contain with direct attack using live reels. Donovan and Scott had put out two other spot fires crowded from the original spot-over which were 50 meters away from the main spot over, with knapsacks. Crystal worked on containing by scratch line. Blue Knob Nine responded to assist while we went to refill from bulk water carrier at Gibberagunya. Return to Rainbow for shift change 7:30am. 


The community has been made stronger in a number of ways through this. This area has a lot of rural land sharing communities, and that was an important mechanism that allowed the community to respond quickly, to feel empowered to come together. There’s a long history of standing up for community values. Those pioneers saved what is now  aWorld Heritage listed National Park at the end of the valley, and the children of that movement are the peers in my community now. The defenders, supported by local council, made a hub, with different types of community strengthening and disaster resilience and recovery type activities. Floods, fires, things like food security, that’s a flow-on from this.

That fire season was a very big marker in my life. I was so stressed about the fire getting out and burning my community. The responsibility I felt for that was huge. We got through this without significant loss of houses or lives.

If there’s no other high point in my life, I can always look back on this.