Ellerslie farmer scathing of bushfire response

Blackened farmland at Ellerslie.

Discontented murmerings coming from the regions first hit by the Dunns Road fire have been voiced in one resident’s submission to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

Many neighbours of the private Takajo pine plantation say the fire could have been stopped in its tracks – and would have been – if local knowledge and a sense of urgency had been employed.

Andrea Tulloch lives in one of those properties, directly bordering the Ellerslie Nature Reserve for close to five kilometres.

“Our experience of the fire was a frustrating one,” she wrote to the Inquiry. “We were threatened and burnt with spot fires on our farm between Saturday December 28, 2019 and January 3 2020. 

“It became a battle not only with the fire but with the RFS and NPWS. We were burnt out to 95 per cent on January 4. What wasn’t burnt out was finished off on Friday, January 10, 2020.”

Ms Tulloch’s property was devastated by the fires, and she said the devastation could have and should have been prevented.

“Our neighbour [name withheld] rang the RFS and asked them to check for a fire at approximately 8am on the Saturday morning [December 28]. It had been smoky all week due to all the fires in NSW so it was hard to get a clear picture. We could smell pine in the smoke for the first time all week.

“There was no call raised until closer to midday whereby the fire had spread quickly in the pines. We don’t know what happened with the RFS and towers for the ensuing four hour period. It quickly spotted onto our back paddock and spread into the National Park on the first night.”

From there, Ms Tulloch wrote that the fire spread to the south and all efforts were put along the southern line, while containment lines were started in the north, but not completed. From there, she said the blaze “was effectively left to burn in the Ellerslie Nature Reserve until close to New Years Eve.”

She referenced a picture of her husband in one solitary vehicle on the ridge at the northern edge of their property, which was continuously under threat.

“Firebreaks were burnt on the boundary of our property as the impending weather was coming. There was no way that they were then going to be able to contain the fire front that extended 5km on our boundary. 

“Our property was going to effectively be used as a fire break for the northern end when the wind change was due.”

Ms Tulloch writes that the backburn was done without consulting locals, and she and her family “begged them not to use the Yaven Creek as a firebreak,” saying it was “too steep and scrubby.”

She said the backburn was too far away from the fire to be effective, but the input of locals was disregarded and the area was burnt. 

“We believe it was from here that we were burnt out.”

The fire continued its rampage throughout the week, infamously reaching Batlow on January 4, and striking Ms Tulloch’s property the same day, spotting in several directions into her family’s paddocks from the national park. At that time, Ellerslie locals had been fighting the fire on their doorstep for a full week.

“It burnt out our property of 3100 acres in a short time,” she wrote. “It burnt through to Adelong destroying four homes and upwards of 23 properties including stock and quality farm land.”

Ms Tulloch said they were finished off on January 10 and still blacking out trees through the Australia Day weekend, two weeks later.

“It was a long physically and emotionally taxing time. We lost 97 per cent of our land, our fences, some stock and infrastructure such as hay sheds. 

“We lost our fodder reserves including silage, hay and straw that was budgeted to last to June for our autumn/winter seasonal weather break. 

“We lost trees that were hundreds of years old that will never be regrown in our lifetime. My husband and his cousins saved our homes.”

In the aftermath, Ms Tulloch said she has witnessed dramatically different attitudes towards those who lost homes and those who lost livelihoods. While she’s seen plenty of assistance for those who lost their homes, and significant assistance from the government for farmers, she said there needs to be more to help primary producers recover their losses. She wrote that the government grants only covered half of their fodder bills, without touching the cost of stock fencing or the emotional, financial and physical toll of losing a livelihood.

“We feel that losing a livelihood is just as bad if not worse,” she wrote. 

“If we could have had a choice between losing the farm or our home we would choose our home because the loss to our farm can’t be accounted for: how do you calculate the loss of ground cover which is feed but also landscape care?”

Along with the personal loss, Ms Tulloch highlighted the environmental loss of pastureland and trees which offset carbon emissions and were “stripped needlessly bare with the fire that could have been contained.”

The family is now struggling with ongoing weed issues due to the stripping of the cover. 

“The ongoing cost is immeasurable and is not easily fixed in the foreseen future,” she wrote. 

“We have to replace fencing, clean dams and regrow woodlands for protection for the landscape and stock. These are issues of global significance if we can recreate a healthy farm environment it will help environmental issues as well as grow food. We are primary producers.”

Looking to the future, Ms Tulloch pointed out the responsibility landholders take to defend their country. She said private forests, National Parks and the RFS must do the same.

She wrote a list of proposed mandates for each agency and concluded: 

“Ultimately we were burnt and without further ado we never heard from either authority regarding the outcomes of their decisions. We have tried to discuss the issues with the parks and RFS but there is no recourse for us except in inquiries like this one.”