Gilmore valley: scorched but still standing

The Dunns Road fire swept through part of the Gilmore valley on Saturday.

Early reports from the Gilmore Valley were painting an incredible scene. No homes in the valley were lost and although firefighters and residents are fatigued, there were no reports of serious injuries after an intense night of fire activity. Residents and the Gilmore Fire Brigade say they were able to save all the homes in the valley, despite losing numerous paddocks, sheds and other outbuildings.

“It was a hard, scary night for them,” says Maggie Ravenscroft, a 79-year old Gilmore resident who was evacuated to safety in Tumut late last week.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s a lot better than it was.”

Power has been out in the Gilmore Valley since Saturday, and phone calls have been patchy at best. Residents who stayed in the valley were using the Gilmore Hall as a sub-base, making the most of the kitchen, air conditioning and mobile phone reception.

Nakia Morriss has been helping to coordinate activities at the Gilmore Hall while her partner, Jonathan Caffery, fought the fires as the Deputy Captain of the Gilmore RFS.

“I haven’t seen the news for days and I haven’t even listened to the radio,” says Morriss, “I’m not sure what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Morriss estimates there are 45 homes in the valley and roughly half of the families who live there left at least one person to defend the home against the approaching flames.

Reports from the front lines say the fire came down from the far southern end of the valley and seemed to stabilize there until close to 8pm when it crossed over towards Blowering Dam. The damage is most severe towards the southwest side of the valley.

Fire burnt to the edge of this house.

The fire breached the top of the range along the western side of the Gilmore Valley and spread.

Morriss and Caffery live close to 3kms down East Gilmore Road.

“I was sitting at my home, which is up towards the hall end of the valley, and when that all erupted, it was really frightening,” says Morris.

“I could see those clouds forming and then you could see the glow of the flames just getting brighter and brighten and then it erupted over the hillside and then flew down the hillside and then back up the gully on the other side. “

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Morriss says there’s still active fire on either side of the valley, up in the hills, but it’s mostly out of sight of the valley residents.

“We can’t see it, but it’s there.”

She reports some shed and hay losses, some lost stock, and pastures completely wiped out.

“I could hear everyone on the radio when they came down to fight it,” says Morris.

“It’s unbelievable that they saved the homes and no one got hurt.

“I felt really helpless sitting there watching that all happen.”

Morriss and Caffery spent a week preparing the house, keeping it watered and trucking their stock and pets out to safety. She’s grateful they didn’t lose any animals, but has heard reports of other landholders euthanising stock injured in the fires.

Fellow Gilmore resident Catherine Kelly says the stock losses are taking an emotional toll. She says they’ll eventually need mental health support in the valley, but for now, what they need most is road access.

“They’re cutting us off,” Kelly says, frustrated with the road block that’s been set in place to limit traffic in and out of the alley.

“We can cope with this fire,” says Kelly, “We’re strong farmers, we can help ourselves, we can do this, but they’re cutting us off.

“We can’t get to town to get food and water. We don’t need a disaster recovery squad, we just need to get to town to get fuel and ice and to call my daughter and tell her I’m alright.”

Kelly and Morris have been part of a small group of volunteers, three ‘soccer mums’, who have been delivering donated food to fire fighters and other volunteers, but Kelly says most of the food has been left sitting in Gilmore Hall, because they don’t have enough people or vehicles to deliver everything.

The ‘soccer moms’ say it’s also been difficult to communicate with fire fighters and volunteers to find out where the food is needed.

“We have got a lot of food and water and essentials at the hall that’s been brought in,” says Morris, “It’s just more the logistics of getting it out to the volunteers and the people left out here.

“Fuel is also a big issue; unleaded for people’s generators and sprays. We’re having issues getting people out to get fuel back in.

While each of the Gilmore properties has been affected differently, the residents all speak proudly of the strong community bond which carried them through the firefight.

“We pretty much knew we were on our own,” says Morris, “And I assume other brigades around the area were the same, because resources we so stretched, so we had men and women with their own equipment, fighting that fire with what they had.

“That was pretty amazing.”

A shed lost in the fire.

There were also friends and extended family members visiting from across the country who helped monitor the fires.

“Someone’s friends came down from Sydney the day before it happened, they just got in their ute and said to the RFS Captain, Greg [McLaughlin], ‘What can we do?’ so their job was to drive around the top half of the valley and keep an eye on spot fires.

“For hours, that’s just what they did.”

Along with watching for hot spots, volunteers and representatives from agricultural agencies have been assessing the damage to buildings, stock, and wildlife. Morriss says it was the heat which killed wildlife, not the flames.

“Down the end of the valley, there’s dead birds everywhere.

“They weren’t burned or anything, they were just dropping out of the sky because of the heat.”

Col Locke monitored the fire via text messages from Gilmore RFS Captain Greg McLaughlin.

“It was a devastatingly long firefight all night,” says Locke.

“Even at the far end, all homes were saved. The pasture was fully burned all around them. That’s up around about as far as the 7km mark up to the 14km mark, the last 7km of Gilmore.”

“There’s a good team there,” says Locke.

Along with the local brigade, the fire Saturday night was faced by a forestry support teams, and a crew from out of the area.

“It was quite well-manned, which was great,” says Locke.

“The fire crews could get out into the paddocks and attack the spot fires that were coming off the top of that western side of the valley, while the people could protect the home sites with the backup of the regular brigade.

Maggie Ravenscroft says she’s texting her daughter, Jennie Fischer, who stayed to fight along with her husband, Kevin Fischer.

“I expected my house to go,” says Ravenscroft, “It’s surrounded by very old elm trees, but my son-in-law did a great job watering everything down and it’s still standing.”

Flames are continuing to roll along the ridges of the valley, and residents are watching the winds carefully, but Ravenscroft is in good spirits, knowing that those who are still in the valley are working together to keep everyone safe.

“It’s incredible. It’s like everything all over the country,” says Ravenscroft.

“The community spirit of country people and the Gilmore Valley people is quite incredible.”

Ravenscroft says without the combined efforts of the community, Kevin and Jennie would have lost their home and hers would have burned as well.

“My husband and I built it 20 years ago,” says Ravenscroft.

“I would have been a bit sad if it had gone, because my husband died five months ago, but it’s still standing.

“If we don’t get winds and spot fires, it should be okay. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s only a house. The people’s lives are far, far more important.”