Clouds and silver linings for Batlow nursery, one of few to receive govt. disaster grant

Ian and Mandy say the Canberra markets is as strong as ever, though it will take some time before there’s any demand locally.

Batlow post-fire is a town of stark contrasts. A black line across the Snubba Range marks the exact point at which firefighters caught the Dunns Road blaze on January 4. Properties reduced to mangled roofing tin and brick chimneys sit beside fibro houses that are still entirely untouched. Green grass covers hills where blackened tree trunks still rise.

Life goes on. For Ian and Mandy McCorkindale at Cascade’s Nursery, the plant market is as strong as ever and despite the fires, most of their 260 varieties are still green and healthy.

At the top of the nursery, 3,000 advanced trees sit waiting for buyers. A few metres down the hill sit two drums, full of diesel, that were spared by the flames. Just a few metres further, protected by a row of green bushes, is the torched shell of the nursery’s original propagation shed which bears the most obvious damage on the property. The shed’s thin shade cloth walls and roof are completely gone, though the steel structure remains. Screws are welded into place with melted plastic which Ian will have to chip away before he can replace the coverings, and a temporary watering system keeps the plants inside alive.

A row of hedges separated two full drums of diesel from the burning propagation shed, likely saving the rest of the property.

Thankfully, it’s been a milder, damper February than in years parts, and the smaller plants are doing well.

“It was such a gentle February,” said Ian, “You couldn’t have asked for a better February to come out of the fires with.

“It was gratifying to get some rain we could actually use.”

The heart-shaped leaves of a rare Japanese Katsura show no signs of the embers which fell around them. It’s especially striking because just over the fence, once-tall native Eucalypts have been cut down into blackened logs.

Ian McCorkindale looks over the burned wreckage of his propagation shed, surprised when most of the plants inside survived.

Ian McCorkindale said non-native plants fared much better during the the fires than their native cousins, but it ultimately seems a bit random when he looks at what the fires took and what they left.

“It’s all light and shade,” said Ian. “An interesting study in botany.”

Ian said he was in a paddock bailing hay when he saw the first plumes of smoke from the Dunn’s Road fire in late December. With 15 years on the property and a lifetime on the land, he said he was aware of the fire, but not afraid. He finished his work, delivered the hay to his neighbour and put the bailer back in the shed.

A few days later, returning from a trip to Victoria, Ian noticed the fire spreading across the hills and realized how serious the situation was becoming.

“You could see the fire was massive, and I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” he remembered.

Ian and Mandy got the evacuation warnings, readied the property and evacuated to Coolac on Friday, January 3, with their caravan and two dogs (one an 80kg wolfhound). Right before leaving, on a whim, Ian moved their two-week-old tractor out of its shed and brought it closer to the house.

By the next morning, Saturday January 4, the fire was quite literally on the McCorkindales’ doorstep.

A firefighting helicopter doused the property with water, extinguishing a blazing shed full of old paperwork just a few steps from their home, preventing the fire from spreading across the property. They lost the coverings on their propagation shed, but most of the plants inside miraculously survived.  

The McCorkindales’ 25 Scottish Highland Cattle knocked over a fence and got into a patch of 1200 blueberries which Mandy had just planted and was coaxing through the drought. That watered patch of blueberries was the last square of green in “300 acres of black,” and Mandy is thrilled the cows survived.

The couple’s 15 sheep somehow survived the fire and this week were grazing happily on new green growth in a paddock. Mandy said she doesn’t know where they were during the fire, but guesses they just “danced around the flames.”

Fellow nursery-owner Jamie Gould stayed in Batlow through the entire event, defending his house, his nursery, and plenty of neighbouring homes.  On Sunday morning, Jamie “had a feeling” and decided to stop by the Cascade nursery. He got there in time to discover flames feeding on a small garden attached the McCorkindales’ house and extinguished them with a bucket.

There are dark clouds and silver linings all over the property.

“I lost the hay bailer and the shed,” said Ian reflectively. “That’s also where I would have put the hay, but I was delivering it to my next door neighbour.

“He’s lost his house, but his shed full of hay is still ok.”

“I lost a blackberry spraying unit, but there’s no blackberry left on the place to spray,” he laughs. The new tractor survived.

Like most people in Batlow, there’s a sense of calm resilience at the Cascade Nursery. They’re overwhelmed by the amount of work that sits in front of them (“Where do you put your brain today?” Mandy asks as she trims plants and greets customers during our interview), but they’re grateful for what’s survived.

“We’ll be good,” said Mandy.

“We’re alive, we’re still here, we’re still functioning,” said Ian.

The nursery carried $500,000 worth of plants before the fires, with 90% of them grown on site. The McCorkindales say they lost about $50,000 worth of plants and a full season of propagation. They were quickly awarded one of the few $75,000 disaster relief grants handed out by the NSW Government, but say they’ll use that and much more before their recovery is complete.

“It’s a huge addition to what is a usual workload,” added Ian.

“Droughts are hard, they’re ongoing and slow. Fires sneak up on you.”

Despite the devastation, the Cascade Nursery has been keeping pace with the usual springtime demand for plants. Most weekends, Ian travels to the markets in Canberra, where sales are as strong as ever, even without any specific fire-related marketing.

“I’ve not at all had the impression that people were just buying to give us a hand,” said Ian, “They’re buying because we’re there and we have plants for sale.”

They’re not buying out of pity, but Mandy said their long-term customers have been keeping a close eye on the nursery and following the fires from a distance.

“We have had so many phone calls and texts from customers during the period, it was amazing. Just constant,” said Mandy.

The local market for plants has been nonexistent, which Ian said is to be expected, with most families still cleaning up and not yet ready to think about planting a garden.

One of the first things the McCorkindales did when returning to their property was remove a line of burned conifers behind their home. Mandy said it felt like a constant reminder of the fires being slammed into their faces. It will be replaced with a line of the more fire-resistant magnolias.

“It’s been hell on wheels for us,” said a tired Mandy.

One of the most stressful times for the McCorkindales came immediately after the fires. They packed up their caravan early on Monday, January 6. After a weekend away in the middle of summertime fires, they knew their plants would be desperate for water.

Ian and Mandy had already been told their property was safe, but every hour without water was critical. $500,000 worth of plants were baking in the sun; the youngest trees had no shade at all after the propagation shed was burned.

At 7am Monday, the McCorkindales were approaching Batlow Road. They neared the turnoff and met with a very strict, very official roadblock. No one was being allowed in or out of Batlow, no matter how many plants they had.

“We knew in order to stay in business we had to water them,” said Mandy. After a brief but frustrating wait, a highway patrolman and the RFS organized an escort for the McCorkindales, but once they were in, they had to stay until the road was officially reopened or they would risk being shut out again.

That posed a problem with no electricity in Batlow and the only petrol station had been reduced to blackened rubble.

In just a day and a half, Ian and Mandy’s petrol generators used the full 20L drum of fuel they had on the property, powering water pumps and a few household appliances. The RFS, who have been credited for their compassionate response, started delivering jerry cans of petrol to people stranded in Batlow, saving the Cascade Nursery again.

Ian and Mandy pause for a long moment when asked about the good that has come out of the fires, their minds shifting gears, but their praise for the RFS and the local community spirit flows naturally in conversation.

“The town has pulled together so wonderfully well,” said Mandy.

“Batlow’s been fabulous in the way it’s pulled together for all those who’ve suffered.”