BUSHFIRES: ONE YEAR ON Renewal, not recovery

From the rubble that greeted residents in January, Snowy Valleys Council Mayor James Hayes hopes the region can build back better than before.

This time last year, Snowy Valleys Mayor James Hayes was watching the first plumes of the Dunns Road fire rise from the Ellerslie range from his farm outside Adelong. He knew it was going to be big. Really big.

The fire was started by a lightning strike in Takejo, a private pine plantation in Ellerslie, 10 km west of Adelong. It built quickly in the intensely dry, hot and windy conditions and started spotting out of the plantation to the Yaven Creek Road area on December 30, 2019. 

That afternoon, the Dunns Road fire broke out of the plantation and travelled 15km south through the Green Hills state forest, crossing Batlow Road and reaching the edges of Kunama and Laurel Hill a little before 1am on December 31. From there, it continued a steady march south and east, claiming 180 homes and burning for a total of 50 days across 330,000 hectares – a massive 44.9 per cent of the Local Government Area. 

On the morning of December 30, it was just 4600 hectares in size.

A situation report from that day describes 150 fire fighters tasked to the blaze south of the Snowy Mountains Highway in the Ellerslie Range west of Ellerslie and Yaven Creek Roads. They had support from water-bombing aircraft, but deteriorating conditions were being forecast, including 90km/h winds. Residents along Yaven Creek and Ellerslie were told by the NSW Rural Fire Service that it was too late to leave. Instead, they were urged to take shelter.

“If your plan is to leave, or you are not prepared, leave early,” said an official statement from the Riverina Highlands RFS.

“Well prepared and actively defended homes can offer safety during the fire.”

By the afternoon of December 30, an Evacuation Centre had been established at the Adelong S & C Club for Ellerslie families displaced by the blaze.

That evening, a community meeting was held in Batlow and RFS Inspector Peter Jones urged residents to prepare their homes for the fire and to evacuate if they felt vulnerable.

Against this setting, Mayor Hayes began facing his most pressing fear as a public leader.

“It was one of my greatest fears in becoming mayor; how do you handle major disasters?” he said this week, reflecting on that Black Summer.

“You have doubts about your capability.

“I’ve been a member of the Rural Fire Service since I was very young, and I’ve been to a lot of fires, but I’ve never been to a fire of this magnitude and of this duration and intensity.”

Mayor Hayes remembered standing at his home, settled in 400 acres in Adelong Gap, watching burnt leaves falling at his feet from the fire in the pines.

“That’s when we realised that this was truly bad,” he said.

The Hayes family prepared their home and farm, made their fire plans and Cr Hayes hit the road.

“I was doing crazy amounts of driving just trying to get around, and then of course the roads started to get shut and we couldn’t get through,” he said.

“Once the emergency people took over, I was just there to back them up and to hopefully give people confidence that as a council we were doing everything we could that was possible.”

For the council, that meant maintaining regular services like water and sewer, while coordinating logistics for the fire response, ensuring there was sufficient water pressure for the fire fighters, coordinating relief organisations and donations, responding to requests from the Lead Emergency Operations Controller, liaising with utility companies like Essential Energy and Origin, and more.

The ‘yellow fleet’ of graders and dozers was also assigned to the fire, with Cr Hayes saying some of the machines were in use virtually 24 hours a day.

“It was tiring,” said Cr Hayes.

“Some people sleep well and some people don’t and depending on what’s going on around you, you might not be able to get to sleep; and you’ve got to keep updated as well, so you’re always at the telephone or the computer or whatever, just to try to keep yourself updated because you’ve got to know what ‘s going on.”

The Hayes’ farm was threatened by the fire, but never directly impacted.

“The fire got to the other side of Adelong and we were very glad to see those big planes come through,” he said.

It wasn’t until the rains came in February that the Mayor started to finally feel like he could start to rest. 

“The only thing that was going to make us safe was that break in the weather,” he said.

“After years of dryness, the lack of subsoil moisture, a relative humidity that’s lower than 10 and wind and heat, it’s just the recipe for disaster.”

Cr Hayes said the councillors debriefed together, drawing on the emergency experience of the Deputy Mayor (and ambulance officer) John Larter and CEO Matthew Hyde, and he watched ‘mindless rubbish’ on the tv to decompress once the danger had fully passed.

“It took until the rain to realise we were actually out of the woods, and then the hard work started,” he said. “Liaising with people like BlazeAid and the likes and getting them onsite and getting the cleanup started. 

“We had BlazeAid on site before the fires were actually out, and they’ve been magnificent.”

The council is currently seeking funding to continue the work of the BlazeAid camps, describing the volunteers as a confidence booster for the community. Mayor Hayes said the assistance of the Army in January filled a similar role.

“It gave the community a bit more confidence,” he said. Cr Hayes said he’s changed the word which he said defines the Snowy Valleys’ current state. Instead of being in ‘recovery’, the longtime Adelonian said the LGA is in a state of ‘renewal’.

“I think we’ve come out as a stronger community. I think we’ve come out with certainly a lot of better resources and our potential to our knowledge and our potential to prepare and control disasters once they occur is strengthened,” he said.

“We’ve been fortunate. It’s almost serendipitous in a way -it is serendipitous. We now have the funds to strengthen and extend our airport. We now have the funds to provide updated accommodation in Batlow. The mills were just given another round of funding to improve their facilities. There’s betterment in the narrative coming through. 

“The farmers have been impacted badly, but they were also given financial assistance from the Federal Government which was rapid at the time. Whilst it didn’t pay for all the damage, in my experience, it was unprecedented that that came through so quickly and so generously. In previous fires we haven’t had that advantage.”

Grant funds from various governments, agencies, communities and individuals continue to flow through the LGA. Other local governments sent donations to the Snowy Valleys (such as Griffith and Temora), sporting teams donated funds (such as the Canberra Raiders) and hundreds of volunteers from across the world have joined the BlazeAid camps to help rebuild fences.

“They’re the sorts of things that are good. I think most communities have experienced a few windfalls out of the situation,” said Cr Hayes.

Despite running headlong out of the fires and into the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mayor said the region has been strengthened through the devastation suffered.

Cr Hayes said the new homes that are being built will be more energy efficient and less fire prone and that some orchardists have been able to plant new varieties and modernise their operations as they ‘build back better’ after the fires.

“Renewal. That’s my word. I like renewal rather than recovery,” he said.

“In any tragedy or any part of your life, do you ever recover? Or does it become part of your makeup and something that you draw on and rely on and gives you strength and memories? 

“Recovery is a difficult thing, but if we renew things and if we build back better, that’s got to be a positive for the community.”

This is the first in a series of articles the Tumut and Adelong Times will be publishing this year over the course of the 50 days during which the Dunns Road fire burned in 2019/20.