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Shoalhaven's Summer of Fire, Smoke and Mirrors

March 15, 2020

The entire south coast region was savaged by fire this summer, the worst fire season ever recorded. Not in lives, luckily, we did learn something from the huge tragic losses taken by Victoria’s Black Saturday fires. In biodiversity loss, forests demolished along the entire south east coast, small patches left, now more precious than ever to the small populations of wildlife that somehow survived.

Shoalhaven's summer of fire. [photo supplied]

The words we have heard repeated over and over again – apocalypse, apocalyptic, unprecedented, catastrophic, emergency – stuck like a sad song playing in our minds, penetrating deep, holding their truth like a weight, a hollow, a pain throbbing inside.

The things we saw – dark orange yellow walls of flames, smoky skies, black plumes, deep red suns and fire flattened moonscapes. The stench we smelt – smoke, burnt forests, burnt houses, burnt animal flesh, asbestos. The air we breathed – dust, ash, smoke; overshadowing our lives. The evilness of the bushfires lurking, festering, growing, then tearing through our communities on a scale never experienced before.

Communities evacuated, some several times, others caught unaware, the front moving more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. Homes were prepared as best they could, many choosing to stay and defend, but once the fire moved in, not much could be done.

Such a scale were the fires across Australia this summer, 100 across NSW, with as many as five, seven, at one stage 11, at emergency level. Resources cut to the bone, government sabotaging the ability of these vitally crucial essential services to do what we rely on them to do. Unconscionable actions, particularly in light of plenty of warnings from fire services and experts, reports ignored, evidence downplayed.

While the losses will take us a long time to come to terms with, the reality is that our lives have been forever changed. Already emerging from the sadness is an anger, a devastation, that doesn’t allow us to let life go on unchecked.

From Shallow Crossing the Fire Spread Quickly

The fire moved north from Shallow Crossing [image supplied]

The Currowan fire broke out in the Shoalhaven sometime around 26th, 27th November, in the Shallow Crossing area where dry lightning strikes were recorded. Everyone understood the severity of the situation and how things could deteriorate fairly quickly, but no one could have predicted just how quickly this fire could move and the path of total destruction it would leave.

The fire spread first to the Brooman Valley where Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley has family and property and where her daughter was at the time, making the situation very personal for her. After a worrying night and day, and with knowledge that her family were safe, the Mayor set off to do what she does best, help the vulnerable in the community.

“The first thing I wanted to do was support people because I knew they would be at all levels of distress and duress.” Mayor Findley tells me. “People wanting to stay in their homes but not knowing the dangers, not knowing where their families were, helping them deal with their stress, and giving comfort, just being there to help in whatever way people needed.” Thus, set the course for Mayor Findley for the next two months.

Only One Road into Bawley Point

Members of the Milton RFS in action on the Currowan fire [image supplied]

The Currowan Fire spread quickly in those first few hot days, leaving Brooman and setting off for Bawley Point, Kioloa and East Lynne, following a past fire route enveloping it and marking it as its own.

Willinga Park, the multimillion-dollar equestrian estate, brainchild of Canberra businessman, philanthropist and equestrian visionary, Terry Snow, owns much of the land bordering Willinga Lake just beyond the town. Efforts to save their own property, valuable horses and infrastructure to protect, and extensive measures taken to do so; helped direct that arm of fire out of the town’s way.

It was a concerted effort that saved the town of Bawley Point. RFS troops arrived on mass, fighting to keep the surging giant wall of fire away from homes. Ultimately it was a last-minute wind change, bolstered by the grace of the helicopter cavalry arriving that provided the game-breaker.

Glenn Patterson, Deputy Captain at Milton RFS, is one of the crew I chatted with in Milton in late January. The fires are not over, both trucks were out that day. The crew rostered off are reorganising the base, keeping a handle on the fire activity. He has been crewed to most fires in the region over the eight weeks since they began. “We would get a handle on one fire and then another fire would pop up somewhere else” he said.

The fire came in fast that day on Wednesday 4th December. No one was prepared for how hard it would hit. That was the biggest shock for everyone. “People who stayed didn’t just get hit once, the fire sat around, and some people were hit a couple of times.” Glenn pauses before he continues, “some people who stayed told me they wish they hadn’t, the intensity of the fire was simply too much.”

The fire came to Bawley Point under a strong north westerly wind doing a lot of damage in a relatively short period of time, something common across most fire grounds. Luckily before it got into the township itself, the southerly came through and pushed it back out. The same happened with Kioloa, it was pushed out of the town by the wind, pushed on back behind Termeil where it went on slowly towards Lake Tabourie, hitting Lemon Tree Creek pretty hard. That is the problem with these fires; always at the mercy of the weather, what is good for some, ends up being bad for others.

The water bombing helicopters certainly helped; the water-stricken town of Bawley Point grateful for the reprieve. Every two minutes the helicopters returned, having refilled, ready to drop a fresh load of water on the bushfire that threatened properties and the homes themselves. Howling winds making the job harder, embers spreading, spot fires starting, fire sprinting its way across the treetops.

Herein identifies the biggest obstacle, the biggest problem in containing the fires this season, at the time when our forests were at their driest, in climate change induced drought conditions, a recipe ripe for wildfires of a scale never experienced before, all that could be protected were villages, towns, homes and infrastructure.

Resources didn’t extend to those most vulnerable, the second-class citizens of our forest villages, our wildlife’s homes. Instead, to protect lives, homes, our firefighting practices engage backburning, which while saving towns, burns more forests in these dry conditions, more animal homes.

In writing these words I offer no criticism, no condemnation, no retort of any type. This is simply what happened, the way it was, the truth. This scale of fire isn’t over, we can learn, we can upscale, we can improve what we do. We can now protect what remaining forests were spared, declare a moratorium on forest clearing and logging in bushfire affected areas. Everywhere really.

All the way to Milton

The Currowan Fire continued through the Meroo National Park all the way to Dolphin Point, moving steadily north, skipping Ulladulla itself, and by mid-December was sitting outside Milton and Croobyar making regular runs and ember attacks. The battle continued across January with Currowan making many attempts to conquer more ground.

Fire Sky in Milton [photo credit Anna Sim]

In Milton itself most of the damage was done to the properties just out from town in the area of Woodburn and Wheelbarrow Road. With so many fires happening simultaneously across the state, resources were stretched to the limit, beyond the limit. There were fires everywhere.

The big southerly ripped through on January 4th, the 100km/hour southerly, now infamous for the destruction it created. The temperature topped 47 degrees in Milton that day, and the sweltering westerly had crews suffering heat exhaustion; completely done. It was a hard day.

Some people have been angry, not understanding why the fires couldn’t just be put out. But it wasn’t that simple. Some properties were hard to get to, long driveways through bushland making it too risky for fire trucks to get in. One small ember would land in an area of scrub and it would take off through the bush with lightening quickness.

One man from Murray’s Creek managed to defend his property, utilising 50,000 litres of water to fight off the attacks coming at him from all directions. He described how one ember had landed in the bush and within 30 seconds it had exploded like a bomb, spreading through the trees and up the hill. Just for perspective, the rural fire trucks carry 3,500 litres.

There simply weren’t enough resources to physically get to every house quickly enough to put those fires out. Some trucks were overrun with fire, many badly damaged. The first priority is always the crew and avoiding those risks. “We have to make the decision - do we go down that driveway that’s burning and put our lives at risk,” says Glenn Patterson. “That’s the hard part. That’s what we would like more people to understand.”

The fire burnt through Wheelbarrow Road and beyond [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

Woodburn was badly hit, Wheelbarrow Road and Little Forest also lost a lot of houses. Where the fire went through nearly every home was lost. With the wind being so strong, air hits weren’t able to be used, the helicopters grounded, allocated elsewhere.

Milton, like other rural towns has a ute brigade and they are fantastic, true local heroes to those whose houses they managed to save. “They would get to fires before us and be there putting them out,” Glenn continues. “Nine utes, 9,000 litres of water, that’s more than we’ve got. And nine different vehicles can be in nine different positions at once. They get into places our bigger trucks can’t.”

Glenn sees the value of the ute brigades and says it would be nice to be able to work more closely with them in some capacity in the future.

Three of Milton RFS's crew-all working mothers with young children-were out most days during this bushfire season [photo supplied]

Anna Sim and her family live in Woodburn and were first impacted just before Christmas. 

“The fire reached the shed behind the house on the Friday before Christmas. There was a south-westerly and it spotted into the valley to the northern side of Wheelbarrow Road and burnt through that area during the day. By the middle of that night it had reached the edge of our property. And by 3pm the next day it had started heading up the hill to our place.” Anna’s voice gets wobbly as she continues. “That’s when the kids and I knew it was time for us to go, so we went into the town to stay with a friend.”

The front balcony was damaged, but Anna and her family were able to move back to their property for Christmas, then on 4th January they noticed a little spot that was on the southern side of Wheelbarrow Road, which had picked up during the week. On Saturday, that extreme day, the fire really started to get going. Anna checked her weather station that day and it was 45 degrees in the shade.

The plume was growing, then the wind picked up. They were expecting some embers when that southerly kicked in, but it was such a heavy ember attack that nothing at all could be done. They lost sheds, fences, a ute, the market gardens, and a section of the house was so badly damaged it was deemed unliveable. “For us that ember attack hit so quickly and so fiercely that there was nothing anybody could have done.” Anna says. “We’re devastated of course, but are being positive, seeing it as an opportunity for change, to do some of the changes that we have been toying with.”

Anna tells me that they had previously contemplated moving from the area, their ideas and vision possibly taking them further afield. “But there is no way we can leave this town now. It’s been so supportive, and we feel part of it. We can’t leave.”

Across the Shoalhaven, not everyone shares Anna’s optimism. Many people tell me they won’t be moving back and rebuilding. Some are planning to move to smaller non rural blocks closer to town; others considering a city change. For some the privilege of living in such a special area, no longer outweighs the risk.

No New Year’s Eve Joy for Lake Conjola

Lake Conjola was one of the worst hit towns across the south coast, leaving it a disaster zone. Whole streets lost, trees down blocking roads; those who managed to save their homes more traumatised than those who fled and lost all.

The fires hit Conjola Park hard [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The Currowan Fire came to Conjola on December 31st, New Year’s Eve, the 41-degree temperatures perfect conditions for the hungry inferno to grow and destroy, two of its favourite joys.

First it attacked Yatte Yattah; the first front travelling the route of Eagan Farm Road. It hit four of the eight bush properties along the three-kilometre strip before making its way into the tiny community of Conjola Park where it crafted absolute havoc.

Carol Joyce was watching the Fires Near Me app very carefully that day. She had guests staying in her country cottages holiday accommodation and was very conscious it wasn’t just her she was needing to look out for. That morning she called and cancelled a booking, and told her guests they had to leave, the situation was just too risky.

Carol left the property early in the morning but her husband Kees stayed, not quite sure when it was time to go. Then at 10am he called to say he was on his way. White smoke was coming from the west, moving really fast through their 12-acre treed property. Jumping into his ute Kees drove the 800 metres to the highway with metre high flames by his side, all the trees next to the road on fire. He said he still sees that in his sleep.

Their home survived, the fire-resistant Hebel blocks and toughened glass paying off, but Kees’s pottery workshop literally melted. Metals liquified and spread over the ash blackened ground. Many objects melted, water tanks, the septic system, plastic downpipes. Kees, experienced with kilns and high temperatures, believes it reached 1,000 degrees in his shed, judging by the metals that melted in the inferno.

Kees Stap's estimates the temperature reached 1000 degrees inside his pottery [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The property had been identified as an animal and bird paradise, bird experts recording over 50 species in the area. Now many lay dead, scattered over their grass, kangaroos too. Once noisy, loud, with the sound of birdsong, now the silence enhances their absence. “That’s the saddest part really, the loss of wildlife,” Carol says.

Tragically over one billion wildflife died in the fires across Australia [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

Carol and Kees have painted their letterbox yellow, their water tank too, a sign that they want strong action on climate change, knowing this cataclysm should never have occurred, had governments around the world, ours included, taken action as they should have.

The second front came into Conjola from the other side down Tierney Road, the Yatte Yattah nursery and café and all else now gone.

Deep in Conjola Park, Penny Lovelock awoke that morning to smoke as usual. It began as a regular day doing regular things. When she went to go into Milton around 10.45am to pick up her son, the highway was closed. The policeman at the roadblock seemed really stressed and didn’t really offer any advice, so Penny went home. She packed quickly as much as she could. Fed the chickens, and for some reason she doesn’t quite understand, put the washing on the clothesline.

From up the top of her property she could see a huge amount of smoke billowing from the north, slightly north west. The situation became extremely dangerous very quickly. A call came from a friend who asked Penny if she had left; telling her she had to get out immediately. “I just didn’t realise it was so bad. I don’t think anybody did. Because we had no warning,” she said.

Luckily Penny made it to the highway without trouble and was in town within 15 minutes. An older man wasn’t so lucky, found dead in his car near the highway later that day, not the only life lost in this one attack.

Safe in Ulladulla Penny united with other Conjians, who had also evacuated.

“One friend who got stuck and couldn’t get out, ended up having to drive to the Lake through flames, others had lost their homes. Two of my friends were distraught, their husbands had stayed to fight, communication was out, rumours were flying, emotions were high.”

Penny didn’t know that her house had burnt down until late that afternoon. Even her husband, involved at government level and in Ulladulla at the time setting up the evacuation centre had not been able to predict the attack and warn his family. Their home, like 89 others in the Conjola area, completely gone.

What remains of Penny Lovelock's home in Conjola Park [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The devastation is everywhere, whole streets flattened. Those that saved their homes every bit as distraught as those that lost all. Survivor guilt real, heavy, possibly worst for those whose homes survived – their homes like poison now, sitting among the scared war zone landscape.

The aftermath is visually shocking. The vehicles on the street of Conjola tell the story that the flattened homes leave unfinished. A car sits on a corner, burnt out, paint melted off, solidified, looking like streamers placed out on the ground around it, frozen in this obscure manner. Alloy wheels were melted on another car, this time leaving pools of silver.

Some managed to keep their sense of humour [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

One woman said she was just in her house, and she would never have known if she didn’t go outside to do something. The level of smoke had trapped most indoors for weeks, windows closed, air conditioners providing cold air.  

In areas south of Batemans Bay, people had received the text that morning at 6am. The text telling the area to evacuate now. But for Conjola Park that text didn’t seem to come, mobile towers out, communication not possible.

Clive Turner, Captain of Lake Conjola RFS knows how quickly it came in that day, the high winds from the north west, speeding it in. By midday a big southerly had stirred taking the fire off in another direction. It was quick. It was destructive, like a hurricane of fire terrorising the streets and neighbourhoods.

“Hopefully we don’t see anything like that again in a long time,” Clive says knowing his town is one of the most damaged places on the eastern seaboard.

“We were impacted, very heavily impacted, but we will recover. Slowly but surely, we will recover,” he tells me. “All working together. We’re hopeful. We’re a strong town. I’m confident of that.”

But while many are talking of rebuilding and waiting impatiently for the state government clean up promise to come through, a lot have decided to move away. Living so close to bush no longer viable for them, in a warming climate. Businesses too are feeling the strain especially with recent flooding in low-lying areas adding to the town’s trauma.

Nowra escaped but nearly everything west burnt

The year began badly for Nowra. Fires dominated, extreme hot weather ever ripening the path for the Currowan monster as it eyed off its next strike. Both RFS and the emergency operations centre told tourists to stay away, uncertainty and anxiety ripe as the fire attacked selectively and unpredictably. 

Through late December the fire mass marched its way north burning through forest and bush as it went, some homes lost, many saved. It hit Tianjara on December 22nd, fuelled by the heat from the Saturday which topped 46 degrees, then in the next few days it moved savagely through Sassafras and Nerriga.

Remains of a house in Sassafras [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The next weather peak was New Year’s Eve, and Currowan was making runs all over the place; a bad fire day across the state with resources really stretched. Tuesday brought the fires to Nowra Hill, and over the next few days Burrier and Yerriyong and beyond burnt too, threatening Longreach, Tapitallee and Cambewarra, where it would have happily run across the escarpment all the way to Berry and onwards. Instead, on January 3rd it jumped the Shoalhaven River near Tallowa Dam and made its way across the area west of Kangaroo Valley.

Everything west of Nowra burnt [ photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

Nowra’s other fire was the Comberton Fire which flared up around Forest Road near Falls Creek on 19th December. It ripped through forest and farmland, threatening south and east of Nowra and the town of Worrigee. Horses, alpacas, goats and some cattle were evacuated to the Nowra Showground. The fire came under control towards the end of December however, a peat fire continued to burn in the dry Brundee Swamp that is on the 200-hectare Bennett family property.

Smouldering ever so slowly underground, flare ups were common occurrences. John Bennett and his father Merv managed the swamp fires, putting out spot fires and most flare ups, notifying the RFS of any too big to handle. On one occasion the fire was so bad the helicopters were called in. The heavy rains in early February finally replenished the lagoon, putting this fire to bed.

Seventy-metre-high flames extending way above the treetops [photo supplied]

Every single firefighter I speak to says the exact same thing. Uses the exact same words. The same pause to begin. They say, “We keep hearing the word unprecedented”, they say it almost apologetically, then there is another pause, and they get really serious and finish by saying, “but these fires really are.”

Everywhere was at threat, not just a couple of villages, the whole state, the whole east coast. Seventy-metre-high flames extending way above the treetops, two-metre-high fire balls roaring across paddocks like a freight train, fuelled by a mere 20mm of dry grass.

A firefighter described a scene at Currowan during its peak, their crew one of maybe 50 or more attending on that day. All were lined up fighting a mighty wall of fire, fire trucks for as far as the eye could see, each truck working its little piece of forest trying to contain it in its tracks.

The Firespread Map for 31/12/2019 [source NSW RFS]

 Two separate incidents in Nowra on 31st of December, New Year’s Eve, show how difficult these fires can be even for our professional firefighters, and also demonstrate their bravery and the unbelievable forces they face.

A Fire and Rescue crew from Wyoming on the central coast found themselves caught in an emergency bushfire zone as they went in to assist a RFS crew out at Hames Road near Yerriyong.

It came in quickly and was so intense that in an instant a flashover formed engulfing the trucks. There was no way to get through, so the crews retreated. The drivers, to their credit, manoeuvring the way out through the fire. The intense heat was too much for some of the fire trucks however and a few failed; crews having to abandon the vehicles and make their way through the raging fire to safety on foot, through the smoke and dangerous burning bush.

Luckily the entire crew made it out, united in saying afterwards that while scary, they were well trained and simply acted accordingly. Crew members did admit however that they had feared for their team members lives and weren’t confident they would make it back alive. The endless fire surrounding them.

Earlier that same night, a Nowra Fire and Rescue crew who were on their way back from a smoke alarm call out to Albatross, noticed a grass fire on the side of the road. Thinking to themselves they should be able to extinguish it in a couple of minutes they got their hoses off the truck and set to work. The fire was unusual, and it was growing and growing, but they seemed to have the upper hand on it. Then suddenly from the valley below, it was like its big brother came roaring up the hill an enormous fireball wall attacking at a ferocious pace. 

Jason McManus was part of that crew that night. A professional firefighter of 35 years, he thought he knew fires. “We suddenly realised it wasn’t just a small fire in front of the fire front, but it was actually the fire front itself going for a run, trying to make it all the way to the coast.”

Realising their position was no longer tenable, they had to get out of there fast. Hoses were quickly abandoned, the situation so dire that hoses were actually cut away from the truck, no time to reel them in. Hurriedly they began to retreat to a safe position. That’s when the drama really started.

The Fire and Rescue truck they were in was an urban pumper, not a bush fighting truck used to being in the midst of things. The sensors melted in the intense heat being radiated from the fire instantly, putting the truck into limp mode.

“Being in limp mode meant we couldn’t operate the water pump, or go into reverse, and we could only go forward in second gear.” With the threat of fire upon them, they retreated into the fire truck and drove through the giant wall of flames up towards Albatross, hoping for the best, hoping that the truck wouldn’t fail completely.

The crew made it back to Nowra safely that night and the Currowan fire didn’t head to the coast. Instead it took a trip around Nowra Hill destroyed some properties on the eastern side and then moved onto Hames Road, Palmer, where the other Fire and Rescue strike team lost a few trucks that same night.

Jason McManus lives at Huskisson, in one of the few remaining unburnt areas on our south east coast. He kept hoping for rain, good rain; good enough to put these fires out once and for all. But he knew then that good rain was still a bit away. “The one defining feature of this fire is that there isn’t anywhere that’s safe at the moment. Anywhere that’s unburnt…isn’t safe. That’s why the anxiety is there.”

It was to be nearly six weeks before the good rains finally came. The first week of the new year, of the new decade, was hot, dry and damaging; and it created a lot of anxiety.

Fire in the Valley

It was early in December when the Kangaroo Valley RFS started sending crews down to Shallow Crossing where the Currowan fire had begun. The two-and-a-half-hour trip to the south of the Shoalhaven gave plenty of time for crews to contemplate the spreading mass of fire slowly make its way north.

The town of Kangaroo Valley was watching the Currowan fire too. Well prepared, as far as you can ever be when an out of control wildfire is heading your way.  About 16 Months earlier the community had begun planning.

Gary Moor, a retired professor in Upper Kangaroo River, had been watching the changing environment as temperature records continued to be broken every month, every year. The forests surrounding his property were becoming noticeably dry, the permanent Gerringong Creek had ceased to flow. The Black Saturday fires from 2009 when 173 people lost their lives, were on his mind. He started reading the findings from the Royal Commission that followed, thinking about what he and his neighbours could do if the fire threatened them.

Mike Gorman, the immediate past captain at the local RFS, worked with Gary to develop fire plans with the community and to educate them on fire behaviour.

First the Upper River got organised, subdividing into nine Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods, preparing their properties, developing emergency communication systems, developing neighbourhood buddy systems especially for any vulnerable people, knowing trigger points and more importantly, knowing when to leave. Preparations began later in the lower valley areas and in the town itself.

Like everyone else Mike had been watching the fires and the landscapes around the valley and became convinced that there was a real risk the fires would come into the west area of the valley, identifying the route he thought it would take and the roads it would affect. He called three urgent community meeting and worked with the Tallowa Dam, Bendeela Road and Jacks Corner neighbourhoods to help them prepare and make sure everyone evacuated in time, or, if they chose to stay and defend, knew what they would be up against and were prpared.

All eyes were on the fire, many evacuated, returned, then evacuated again. For days, perhaps a week, it looked like the fire would cross the Shoalhaven River. Then on Saturday 4th January, a scorching 43.2-degree day, it took a run jumping the Shoalhaven close to Tallowa Dam. From there the inferno took a major run down Tallowa Dam Road before the Southerly hit and redirected the fire onwards towards Bundanoon. It all happened really quickly; winds were close to 100 km hour. Everything to the west burnt; around 30 homes incinerating that afternoon. The most damage was in the areas around Duffy’s Lane, Budgong Road, Tallowa Dam Road, Jacks Corner Road, and the off-shoot roads.

The flattened remains of a home in Kangaroo Valley [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The areas crushed by the whirlwind fire that blazed into the valley that day were exactly those predicted by Mike Gorman. His concern for the community, and the initiative to do something about it, without a doubt, saved lives.

Michelle Parmer lives on Duffys Lane and lost her home to the fire. Having evacuated just after Christmas taking a collection of random objects, her three dogs and a bird, she spent the next week on the computer glued to the Fires Near Me updates. Then on 4th January Michelle noticed it was close and she knew they were in trouble, calling her neighbour who had stayed to fight, questioning if he really wanted to stay. “A few minutes later I got a message from him to say he was leaving, with a photo of the fire heading his way. It was brutal, he only just made it out.”

It was a week before Michelle went back. “It was quite shocking. Nothing like I have ever seen. There’s nothing there. No birds, very minimal wildlife, we saw just two wombats.” What used to be an abundance of the sounds of birds, was dead quiet, and there was a smell that reeked death. “The ground is like ash, and black,” she continues. “It looks like a moonscape with black sticks poking out of it. It’s just horrendous.”

Only the chimney remains on this property in Kangaroo Valley [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat was just one of the properties flattened by the fire as it moved through the western area. Katrina Endean ran a very successful wedding catering business  at the retreat and lost everything that afternoon.

Although Katrina’s own home in the upper valley was safe, the bush retreat was her second home, where she spent her days, it was still her patch.

Katrina had only taken a few essentials – her recipe cards, cookbooks, and a few precious things – just in case.

“I was hoping for the best, but the worst happened.” She tells me, grief stumbling her words. The business had 78 weddings booked for this year, employing 12 staff, and with enormous flow on to the town. Something the town is very aware of. “I don’t even know how to come back from this. My staff were like family.”

Burnt bush smouldered for weeks after the fire went through the valley [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

The town has really mobilised. Andi Csantos, a community member, started a Go Fund Me page the night after the fires, wanting to do something. What began as an idea to buy the local fire crew a beer and a meal when it was all over, raised $20,000 in two days, nearly doubling it a week later to $38,000.

At the same time people had started contacting Andi, wanting to know what they could do for the wildlife, about clean ups, and helping those affected to get back on their feet. Within five days the drop-in centre had opened. Everything just came together, the venue was made available, computers loaned, services turned up; Centrelink, Reservists, the Disaster Welfare team, counsellors. It also became the base for volunteer clean ups with teams gathering daily with trailers, utes and chainsaws.

Michael Cox is just one of many locals I meet at the drop-in centre. Evacuating three times, but luckily not affected this time, he’s there to see how he can help. He tells me he is incredibly humbled to see the community support each other and was in awe of all the drop-in centre had achieved. “Even though this is a tight community, this has taken things to a whole new level. It’s profoundly changed us, for the better.” That’s a sentiment I heard many times in the Valley.

True, Kangaroo Valley has always been a small friendly community, but it was never like this. People were busy, life was busy. Being well organised, the network systems, providing a calm planned retreat, is believed to have been crucial in the towns ability to rebuild and recover.

Army Reservists helping at the Kangaroo Valley recovery drop in centre [photo credit Bonnie Cassen]

Mayor Amanda Findley and Ward 1 councillor Nina Digiglio met with Gary Moore and Mike Gorman eager to bring this level of connection to all villages across the Shoalhaven. The resilience of individual villages to deal with the turmoil they had been through and bounce back had a lot to do with the town’s preparedness, the Kangaroo Valley model one that more need to embrace. It is good to see the mayor taking action on this because seasons like this aren’t going to go away.

Months of anxiety finally eased

In many ways it is sheer luck that not more people lost their lives. Mobile towers crashed limiting vital communication, warning texts were not received, internet not accessible. Pathways to the beach were not as easy to access as expected in the thick liquid smoke blackened air. Some people had to drive through firewalls, others hid behind buildings to remain safe. One man showed me the spot where he and his wife had planned to bunker down had they been caught by surprise and unable to leave. It had been the only brick section of the house. Nothing remains.

The rain, in its flooding, finally came, filling dams, lagoons, lakes and greening farmlands, burnt forests and gardens. The monster fires across the state are finally declared ‘out’,

but the drought is not over. Temperatures continue to rise and year-round it is becoming hotter and dryer. The rain is a reprieve, and a nice one, but in a one-degree-warmed world, unpredictability and uncertainty, are the new normal, and what will come tomorrow no one can foresee.

Prime Minister Morrison has now come out declaring that he has accepted climate change is happening, inferring that we all need to be resilient and adapt to the new ways of the land. At the same time continuing to rush through approval after approval towards the go-ahead for the likes of Adani and the giant Burrup Hub project in WA, combined adding nearly 10 billion tons of emissions to the atmosphere over their lifetimes. That does not speak like an acceptance of climate change, nor demonstrate a respect for his constituents.

It is going to take more than good luck and prayers - more than a miracle to bring an end to this climate destruction. It will take us, remembering, harnessing the anger, and wisely using our democratic voice and holding our democratic rights close to hand, and close to our hearts. The next superpower to rule our global world, is surely the people – you, me, and those that hold our future, our planet in our hearts. This is our hope for tomorrow. This is our hope for change.

The Currowan Fire was ruled out on 8th of February after burning for 74 days [photo credit Matt Jeffrey]

On February 8th the NSW RFS made the following post to its Facebook page.

“As of 8pm tonight, the Currowan Fire burning in the Shoalhaven has been officially set to be out. The fire, which spanned for 74 days, burnt out 499,621 hectares and spans from each end of the Shoalhaven Local Government Area, as well as spreading into neighbouring areas including Eurobodalla, Wingecarribee and Queanbeyan Palerang. 312 homes were destroyed and 173 damaged. Tremendous work by firefighters and residents, saw 1,889 homes saved.”

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