I was hoping this really would be the final instalment of a bushfire trilogy. I had written an intro all about the process of relief and recovery, the goodness that sprouts forth as communities pull together, the hope again blossoming like sprigs of green emerging on a forest floor. And lo and behold I drove back home and observed a large plume of smoke rising over the mountains southwest of Canberra. An endless summer marching on. Ten thousand hectares and counting; like Star Wars, there may be more to come.
But recovery is taking place and I think it’s useful to focus on this. Huge amounts of money have been donated, food and clothes given away, houses opened up to strangers. We take our empty eskies down to the coast, we have benefit concerts and tennis rallies, we construct boxes for wildlife to nest in. We pull together, many as one. The best of us on display.
It was inspiring to come across such compassion this past week as I sought out something I could do, anything. This found me on the road to Gundagai and beyond, heading to a BlazeAid camp in Adelong. BlazeAid is a volunteer-led organisation which works with farmers and their families in areas impacted by natural disaster, helping them to repair their property with a focus on damaged fencing. I have never done anything like it. But I definitely will again.
The road from Gundagai was all golden Australian summer, rolling countryside featuring large paddocks baked by the sun. Recent rainfall and violent storms seemingly doing little to break the drought. While parched, there was little sign of the destruction and devastation of fire as I made my way towards Tumut. The blackness was somewhere beyond.
I arrived at the BlazeAid camp in Adelong, which was based at the local showground. More on this later but suffice to say it was all somewhat larger than I had expected. After signing away my life and setting up my tent, dinner was provided and an update on the day’s activities was made. Dessert was had. And with an early start beckoning, people dissolved into their caravans, tents and swags hopefully to sleep. Something which evaded me for a long while, reinforcing the latter day struggle that camping is proving to be.
With a kookaburra alarm clock, a large cooked breakfast and a healthy dose of organised chaos, I was off with a small group of others to a farm somewhere in the hills around Batlow. Batlow is in the midst of a massive swathe of scorched land and the town was isolated at the peak of the firestorm. Several outlying properties are now crumpled, tortured heaps of metal and brick, the shells of cars parked outside. The petrol station in town is a ruin.
Heading up the nearby Gilmore Valley the scene was at first all rather idyllic – good farming country that would not have looked out of place in northern England. And then the first bare and blackened hillside appears on the horizon, like the shadow cast by a massive thundercloud. And before long it is all around.
Climbing up and up a muddy road we reach the home of Paul and Andrea which is – mercifully – fully intact. You can see how close they were to devastation, the garden shrubs singed and charred like overzealously grilled broccoli. We are introduced to Smiley, a farmhand who has that high country man from Snowy River look about him. The hut he was living in didn’t fare so well, wrecked and ruined and taking most of his possessions with it. His ute survived along with a few salvaged remains.
We drive across a few bare paddocks and into the forest. Trees stand like charcoal sticks, branches down but eventually likely to prosper again. The forest floor is another matter: a bare wasteland of ash, like the remnants of a barbecue the day after the night before, spreading out in every direction. The compensation that it has cleared the weeds seemingly a small offset in the greater loss of habitat. And the loss of product – the farm up here produces pure eucalyptus oil, which will take several years to become productive again.
Among this alien landscape there were – of course – long lines of fencing. Some standing, but most bent and broken and needing repair. I was reminded of why we had come up here. The task was to clear the fencing so that new stuff could be eventually put down in its place. This involved a lot of snipping of wires with cutters of varying quality and the pulling out of fence poles with a fence post pulling contraption. I quite liked the post pulling – more so than the snipping – even though some of the sixty-five year old poles were stubborn to yield.
Focusing on the task at hand, the surrealness of the environment fades away, until you occasionally pause and look up again and take stock. Among the ash, small piles of fence post and a carpet of wire lay ready to be gathered in machines by Smiley and Paul. Our team of four alternate tasks, to relieve various aching muscles and torment others yet to be abused. I’m the youngest and glad of the experience of more practical, hands-on kind of folk who offer good advice and warm conversation. Smiley throws in the odd tip, alongside a healthy dose of banter. He suggests I work for Scomo and this is a bait it’s hard not to take.
There is immense satisfaction at seeing the visible fruits of your labour. We work our way down alongside the perimeter track in increasingly precipitous terrain. The sun is heating up and I’m glad when our team leader decides to call it a day. Sweaty, coated in grey ash, there is a perverse pleasure in acquiring the symbols of a hard day’s toil. You don’t get this writing reports.
The next day offered more of the same but better. Better because we had a better idea of what we were doing. Better because it was cooler and more overcast. Better because we had a better pair of snippers. And, above all, better because we got to interact more with Paul, Andrea and Smiley.
Partly this was a consequence of the weather, as gusty winds mid-morning prompted a decision to leave the forested area for fear of collapsing trees and branches weakened by the fire. A small stretch of open fencing beside a dam provided a little workout but, when that was done, morning tea was declared. I like morning tea.
It was over an elongated morning tea that we got to find out a bit more about life on the farm, the people living on this land and their recent experiences as these lives came under threat. Andrea guided us around the garden, pointing out what it was like before flame lapped at the borders. Smiley pointed us towards various contraptions that went into extracting the eucalyptus oil, included a century old steam engine acting as the driving force. And we learned about Paul’s craftsmanship creating gnarly old walking sticks simply with a sheet of sandpaper and a glass of Port.
They are nothing if not creative, resourceful people, sensitive of the land that they live in. You feel – you hope – this will stand them in good stead moving beyond the fires. You know that this is what probably saved their lives.
Inevitably the conversation moves towards January 4th and the days before and after. There was a sense of inevitability about the fire coming and Paul highlights that the waiting was one of the worst things about it. Days of anxiety and alarm that came from forewarning and a frank admission from the fire service that, if they were to stay, they would be on their own. During this time, busying themselves with preparations: clearing the land of debris, felling overhanging branches, watering down around the house and sheds. Getting the car packed with essentials should they need to flee. Watching. Waiting. For what seems like an eternity.
Eventually it appears on the western horizon. They talk – and it feels an almost cathartic exchange – of defending their home as the fire lapped at its doors from three sides. Erratic, violent wind changes pushing the front from the west, the north and the south. The noise terrifying. Raining embers igniting bushes and trees around them. Sprinklers on the roof previously used to clear snow now somehow sputter enough to dampen sparks. The power goes out but – mercifully – the generator kicks in and the water pumps persist.
It is the longest, darkest day, one they freely admit they would never face down again. Barely was there time for a breather, though Smiley managed to take five and puff on a rollie. Paul captured this image on his phone and chuckles: if ever there was a sign of an addict that was it. Chuffing away as smoke surrounded.
He probably deserved a ciggie, his hut lost along with many of his possessions, his ute still bearing a few scorch marks from the moment he fled. On the back were some salvaged items, including a charred tin of loose change, the coins inside faded and melded to grey. Hopefully still legal tender – there is a fair amount in there, though the dollars no longer shine gold.
Smiley fondly recalls his home in a hollow among, but not right next to, the trees. It was always ten degrees cooler, he says, natural air conditioning and breeze. Snug in winter. A place of peace and solitude. He’s now in a caravan which they managed to pick up at a bargain price – for this he feels lucky. Lucky! But he hankers for a hut again and intends to rebuild in another nearby pocket of paradise.
If that isn’t inspiration enough to get back out to finish our job, I don’t know what is. The gusty change of the morning has subsided and we venture back into the forest, working methodically uphill towards the boundary of the property with the forestry road. Someone spots a red belly, thankfully not me. The fence is horizontal here, and the pole puller contraption largely redundant until they can be bent upright.
As we approach our last stretch of fence to clear, rumbles of thunder echo through the forest from the west. Large spots of rain begin to plop into the ash and earth and upon our hats and gloves and hi-vis vests. The last post is pulled and we march back to the vehicles as the heavens open. It is but a shower, but a heavy shower and every little helps.
Before departing Paul invites us back to the house, offering a cold beer and a gift pack of eucalyptus products. Andrea and Smiley join us, as do the two dogs, keen for a spot of attention from strangers. Or those who were once strangers, but who now chat away like old friends. Mates helping mates.
Of course, it is now abundantly clear that BlazeAid is about more than just fencing. It’s about connection and conversation, and a manifestation of community looking out for one another, through good times and bad. It’s not really charity, nor is it solely a case of do-gooders looking to do good and boast about it on social media. Everyone gets something out of it: practical, tangible skills, connection and interaction with different people, sore backs and filthy clothes, and the opportunity to enter some of the most beautiful lands within Australia, as savaged as they are.
It seems a bit strange to say in the context in which it takes place, but there is a feelgood factor around the experience. The atmosphere at camp is both soberly reflective and celebratory. Teary eyes are never far away. Inspiration is on tap. People from all walks of life, across the ages, from all over Australia and beyond, come together over dinner, swap tales from the day, share the stories of farmers and their families, reel off the length of fence cleared or erected.
Dinner itself is an achievement, a carb-filled wonderland engineered by an angelic mix of locals and visitors giving their time to tray bake and slow cook and whip cream and take receipt of an endless donation of cakes from CWAs and Rotaries and Mums. If I stay any longer, I’ll get fat. They keep offering me biscuits and caramel slices and passionfruit tarts. Manual labour can only burn off so many calories.
I do stay one more day. One more cooked breakfast, one more hearty dinner, one more day of snipping and pulling and – this time – rolling up wire and starting to put brand new fence poles into the ground on a different property. The temptation to stay another day kicks in too, especially as the farmer promises to cook up a BBQ lunch the next day, the centrepiece being his 11 month aged beef nurtured on this land.
But my body, and my lack of sleep, tells me no. I struggle to clean my teeth, the grip and motion jarring on my hands and my shoulders and my chest. Writing is also pained, as I finally sign out and walk out to my car to begin the journey home.
As I do so, new arrivals are emerging for the long Australia Day weekend. A minibus of Afghan refugees from Shepparton set up their tents. A couple from Queensland offload supplies from their caravan. Teenagers from Wagga help to sort out donations. German backpackers encourage an international kickabout on the oval.
BlazeAid veterans wonder at it all. Unprecedented events resulting in unprecedented kindness. Not from superheroes, but from everyday people. Recovery belonging to us all, the community, now and in the months and years ahead.
Please check out www.blazeaid.com.au for all the details and camps currently in operation across several states. They will be running for many months.
Anyone can do it. Like me you don’t need to have any particular skills. Just a keenness to get involved and learn. Some people are great snippers, others are wonderful sausage sizzlers. All are needed and all are valued. It’s worth it just for the bounteous dinners and home baked cakes! It’s rewarding and enriching and it will be the best thing you have done in a long time, I promise.