From the ashes, determination to rebuild

Batlow’s Robert Love says the town will rebuild and come back stronger from Saturday’s fire disaster, which burned down his house, levelled his hostel and caused damage to a nursery he owns.

Facing the prospect of a recovery process involving three properties, Mr Love was positive about Batlow’s future.

He lives and operates a farmstay at Wybaleena to the north of the town off Herrings Road, while also running Wakehurst Hostel at the old hospital building. Both were wiped out in the blaze.

His third property is the Batlow Rhododendron Nursery, which was impacted by fire, but remains operational.

“We’ll be rebuilding everything,” Mr Love said. “Our family goes back 75 years in Batlow, and while we’re more recent arrivals, coming to Wybaleena in 2012, we’ve invested in the town ever since and will continue to do so.

“There are some wonderful people, I’m proud to be part of that community and I’m very positive about the town and its outlook.”

Fire has ravaged much of the lower side of Batlow Road, to the north of the town, including Wybaleena, an 85-acre property off Herrings Road primarily used for agistment. It’s also a farmstay, popular for its extensive garden featuring Bunya Pines and century-old poplars, historic stables and wooden picking quarters.

The house and most other buildings have gone, though the structure of the garden remains. The cattle survived.

Mr Love said the isolated property, located some way from the road, was “almost undefendable”.

“We knew it couldn’t be fully protected,” Mr Love said, who evacuated to Tumut last week.

In town, the Wakehurst Hostel was levelled.

The old hospital, which had been converted into a dorm style share accommodation house for seasonal workers and backpackers, went up in flames on Saturday night.

Just next to it is the Batlow Rhododendron Nursery. It’s been damaged, but there’s also been some “miraculous escapes”. The main buildings, an office and shed, are still standing, as are the transport trucks – which Mr Love parked on the showground.

There’s been damage to irrigation piping, netting and more, but the biggest issue has been getting water to the Rhododendrons.

“A fish out of water, is the best way to describe it,” Mr Love said. “In this heat, they’ll be dying if they don’t get water.”

With Batlow Road blocked up until Wednesday, access has been a frustration as Mr Love worked to sort out his water supply.

There’s no power in Batlow, and the three-phase pump was unable to be hooked into a generator. Mr Love is now using town water.

He’s lost about 25 per cent of his stock, most due to radiant heat, rather than direct flame.

The area around the nursery is a scene of devastation.

“On one side you have the hostel, the other the cannery, and the nursery is like a smouldering ruin, with things still burning,” he said. “We just have to get on with getting all our systems back up and running.”

All properties are insured, though the event “shows you the holes in your insurance”.

“Given the extent of our holdings, we didn’t have enough,” Mr Love said.

The support he’s received has been heartwarming.

“It’s just amazing the number of people who’ve been in touch and offered their help,” he said.

As distressing as the fire is, Mr Love was looking at the upside.

The disaster gave him the opportunity of beginning with a clean slate.

His new home at Wybaleena will take better advantage of the aspect and use fire suppression materials. The garden will regrow.

The old hospital, built in 1960, offered many limitations when it came to modification. A new accommodation-house will be built, more modern and far better, Mr Love said, while recovering from the damage to the nursery would be the start of developing it into a world class operation.

“It’s distressing now, but we’ll come out of this stronger,” he said.

“It could have been so much worse. Out of the whole fire situation, thank god we didn’t lose more life. We got the warnings, we got out, and the losses have been far more limited than predicted. 

“We count our blessing, and now we get on with it.”