I grew up down the Bega Valley on a property. We didn’t have bushfires threaten our home growing up, but my grandparents lived in Sutherland Shire and Sydney, and there were times in the 90’s when bushfires came within a couple of blocks of them. We were there for Christmas once and the whole skyscape was just covered in smoke. That was kind of my main experience of bushfire – Sydney suburbia. Never anything like what we experienced in 2019.
On Friday the 8th of November 2019 we got the call that the fire had started in Terania Basin and it definitely threw us sideways, this sense of surrealness, that that was happening in the rainforest. My husband has a bobcat, so he got on the phone to the RFS and they made a plan to meet first thing the next morning to clear fire trails and put in some containment lines. That was sort of plan one. And then it was madly clearing out the gutters at home, getting the sprinklers set up, clearing debris and prepping. We had done no prep. There was the complacency of, ‘Fires don’t really happen around rainforests’. There’s no living memory of that experience in the local area.
On the Thursday morning the fire had come into the Tuntable Falls community and they had been able to save virtually all the homes. Then it continued down the forest. I got a call from Siddha Farm saying they needed as many people as possible with safety clothes, hand-tools, blowers, and that they were clearing the trail at Siddha Farm north to make a containment line.
That was a turning point for me.
Previous to that we’d been madly focusing on our own property. But I realised if I stayed and waited for it to come to me, then the fire was going to be that much bigger and more dangerous and have caused that much more destruction.
So I rocked up there with my husband’s chainsaw and a couple of other tools. There were dozens of people clearing all the low debris, the dead leaves and sticks for about five or ten meters on the side of the track. It was this hive of activity, everyone was working together, doing what they could with the tools they had. The RFS were there, monitoring where the fire front was. At some stage they made the call that it was about a kilometre away so they were gonna get everybody out.
That night the RFS were able to use that Siddha North track to contain the fire. So it was a great success.
That was a turning point for me
Between Christmas and New Year our family and another family went for a walk up Terania. The track crossed over black zones and we came across a hollow log that was still smoldering. The minimal rain we’d had hadn’t put the fire inside it out. If it had happened a couple of months beforehand, we would have been like, ‘Oh my god! This is full on! Quick, call triple zero!’ Instead, we got our hats, our lunch boxes, and just did a chain-pass of water from the stream ten metres away, and splashed it on the log and got the fire out. It was like, Yep, we’ve got this!
As the summer progressed, the fires moved southward. We’d wanted to have a family holiday down to see my folks in the Bega Valley, so I’d been watching the Fires Near Me app and looking at the risks. I thought we’d probably be able to get down. Then, it must have been New Year’s Eve, I get a couple of messages from friends. ‘Oh my god, Are your parents, okay?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ Overnight the fire had ripped through massive amounts of wilderness, burnt into Cobargo and joined up with another fire, to the northwest of where my parents are, and was burning, moving towards them.
My dad was determined to stay and defend with basically nothing more than a garden hose.
On New Year’s Day, I’m just sitting there glued to my computer, feeling completely helpless. Their home is beautiful, and their gardens. I just could not tolerate the idea that they were so under-prepared and determined to put themselves at risk. So on the 2nd of January, we loaded up our water, our fire-fighting pump, our chainsaws, our goggles and masks. We called ourselves the Long Range Striker Force.
My dad was determined to stay and defend with nothing more than a garden hose
We left Lismore at three in the afternoon and drove to the Bega Valley. Coming down Brown Mountain, the whole Bega Valley was evacuating. There was basically nowhere that was deemed safe. Smoky as anything. So there were people coming up Brown Mountain, but we were one of the very few people going down. At my parents’ place it was about three or four days of cleaning out their gardens, getting the drains packed with sand-socks, filling the gutters with water. They had a reasonable sized water pond near the house and it was a fairly defendable home. But the fires down south were behaving very different to up here. It was an incredibly scary situation. Luckily the conditions meant that it didn’t get to them in the end.
I was glad that we were able to go and help them feel a bit more prepared. My Mum’s garden won’t ever be the same – but she saw it as an opportunity to plant more fire retardant species. We wouldn’t have been as prepared to be able to travel that distance to help them, if we hadn’t gone through what we had in preparing our own home. It was something that I just had to do because I care about them and their home.