Farmers breathing easier as fog replaces smoke

Andrew Scoullar at Hallowe’en.

Fog and rain clouds replaced fire smoke this January, as farmers across the Snowy Valleys felt they could breathe a little easier. 

The first week of January 2021 was as different to the first week of January 2020 as any local could imagine. Instead of bushfires, the region was drenched with rain and mild thunderstorms. In the Lower Bago, Andrew Scoullar and Gavan Willis took a break from fencing and cattle work to reflect on the difference.

“It is getting a bit easier to talk about things,” said Mr Willis.

“My daughter and I got up the other morning and said, ‘Oh you remember this time last year?’ It brought a few memories back; and those feelings. 

“It was a bit of a strange day [with] fog everywhere and we got a bit of rain.”

Mr Willis said when he first looked out the window, he thought it was smoke and felt a bit panicky. 

After losing most of his property last year, but saving his home, Mr Scoullar was in the same boat.

“It’s that first smell of smoke that gets you in the guts after last year,” he said. 

“We haven’t smelled anything yet, but there was one [recent fire] down at Oberne, but they got onto it quick, and that was good.”

Mr Scoullar said conversations about the fire are continuing in the Bago Valley and Yaven Creek as farmers and fire fighters feel more comfortable talking about their experiences. After a full twelve months of rebuilding, most were nervous about the 2020/21 summer. Now that the season seems to be promising mild, wet, almost-autumnal weather, Mr Scoullar said locals are feeling more relaxed.

“People just couldn’t [talk about it]. This fire nearly burnt a lot of local people down there,” he said.

“It was that close to taking out a lot of people, and nobody seems to talk about that at all, and those poor buggers can’t talk about it. It takes a while to get over – if you ever get over it.”

The farmers said they found it difficult to talk about the fires, but have been intent on piecing together the puzzle of how it all happened. Their mission motivated them to start those hard conversations and physically revisit the places where the fire was at its fiercest.

The Dunns Road fire at Hallowe’en in the Lower Bago.

“I went out there the other day to have a look around the area where the fire took us out and they bombed it with the big plane,” he said.

Mr Willis said fence building has occupied most of his time in the past year, on top of the usual cattle work and attempts to control blackberries. Both men said that BlazeAid volunteers had been a lifesaver in 2020.

“All I can say is thank god for BlazeAid, they were just unbelievable,” said Mr Scoullar.

“It’s made that much difference to everyone. There’s still a long way to go, but our biggest worry at the moment is blackberries. We’ve got to try and keep on top of them.”

The men have continued to plug away at long-term fire fighting and forest management reform, meeting with politicians like Senator Jim Molan and Senator Jonathan Duniam throughout the year. They were disappointed with the results of the State Inquiry and Royal Commission and have been inviting political leaders out to the farm to see the situation first-hand.

“We were worried that the Royal Commission would find that climate change was the cause of the fire and nothing would change,” said Mr Willis, adding that he feels that’s the conclusion that’s been reached.

“The way the coronavirus and all the rest has worked against us, it’s taken the Federal Government’s attention away from [the fires].”

Mr Willis said he’s still convinced that the real changes need to take place at the State Government level. The farmers want bigger fire breaks, stricter fuel reduction measures and are desperate for the removal of roadside trees.

“Every time you get a bit of wind, there’s a bloody tree over the road somewhere,” he said.

Some positive steps have been negotiated with the neighbouring State Forests, but the farmers continue to seek agreements with private plantation owners to improve fire breaks in the area and fuel management.

“We try to be optimistic,” said Mr Willis.

“Some days it’s easier than others. The recovery thing’s still going on. They’re still floating around the community talking to people and seeing if anyone needs help at the community level.”

Beyond the community level, Mr Willis didn’t hold out much hope for government support, saying the State and Federal Governments are too busy with the pandemic.

“To a large degree we’re on our own with the rest of recovery, I think,” he said.

Welcoming the rain this week, the pair said they couldn’t have hoped for a better summer in 2021.