Jamie Gould can mark the exact moment when he would have lost his native plant nursery to the Duns Road fire, the 18-year Batlow business established with a lot of hard work and lifelong dreams.
The plant-loving father of four can physically point to a black line on an old tree at his front gate where the burning stopped and their four hour “full on attack” began.
“If I was a few seconds late, I wouldn’t have got to that tree,” said Mr Gould.
“I was the first one down here in this corner, there were no firies down here.” During the toughest hours of January 4, when the official channels of fire management were debating whether to stay or leave the town, Mr Gould wasn’t thinking about anything but saving his home and his business. He and his eldest son, 16-year-old Jack, were busy dousing flames around their neighbourhood on Bonza Crescent while 14-year-old Rayleigh and 13-year-old Riley kept watch for embers at the nursery.
“They done a huge job,” said Mr Gould.
The Gould’s youngest, 10-year-old Jaymin, had evacuated himself to Tumut with a friend, forcing his mum, Rebekah, to abandon her plan of staying in Batlow with the house.
Jack, a star athlete, worked shoulder-to-shoulder with his dad, sometimes taking orders, sometimes giving them.
“He was an asset. He was leading the way actually. He directed me to leave home to come to the nursery. He said, ‘Dad, you gotta’ go.’”
Jack watched the house while Jamie went to the nursery and the younger kids took shelter at Margaret Issleman’s house.
Across the road from the nursery, the Batlow service station was throwing embers and fire fighters worked hard to contain the blaze, eventually extinguishing it after several gas bottles blew up. Jack joined Jamie and for four hours they chased embers around the property.
Later that night, the fire crept back into the service station and demolished what was left. The nursery was almost untouched.
“I would’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Mr Gould, looking over the Kurrajong Ave property that he turned from a dumping ground for rubbish and blackberries into a thriving family business. “It would’ve been gone. My livelihood, gone.”
The financial loss would have been significant for the Goulds, but the personal toll for Jamie would have gone much deeper.
“I put in every rock, every pipe,” he said, speaking of his love for the nursery.
“Even from a young fella, 9 or 10 years of age, if I wasn’t growing a strawberry plant, I had an indoor plant of some description.”
Fruit picking brought Mr Gould to Batlow when he was 17, leaving his home in faraway Gundagai. After fruit picking, he started working for Tom Roberts, then the owner of the Batlow Rhododendron Nursery.
“He supported me in starting on my own,” he said. “Tom’s really great. He supported me in that way.”
Mr Gould was determined he would save the nursery, convinced Batlow was defendable, even if the higher-up fire managers weren’t always so sure. He never made an evacuation plan.
“I was never scared one little bit and neither was Jack,” he said, both a father and a coach to Jack and Riley who are preparing to compete this month in the Australian Track and Field Championships in Sydney. Both runners qualified for nationals this month, training as a family up to six days a week.
“We were nervous. We’re a very athletic family,” Mr Gould said. “[Jack] described it as just like lining up for a race. Nervous energy, but you’re not scared. You wouldn’t be here if you were scared. That’d be just foolish.”
The kids were determined to stay, refusing to leave even in the days and weeks after the fire went through Batlow and the roads were reopened. Jack, Rayleigh and Riley kept watch for spot fires, protecting the homes of friends and strangers.
“They’re proud of what they’ve done. There’s been no nightmares, no nothing, no delayed reaction.”
Mr Gould said that at one point he was traveling along Mayday Road and happened to look right and he saw a fire which had started in a timber mailbox. The flames were starting to spread towards the house and Riley ran around to find a hose and put out the blaze.
“The ember was sitting in a timber mailbox for two days. I couldn’t believe it,” said Jamie.
While praising his kids and the local Rural Fire Service crews, he is critical of the official debate about residents drawing out of Batlow. He called the safety concerns of high level managers ‘rubbish.’ He said the managers should have been taking an inventory of the residents determined to stay, offering help with planning and resources, instead of talking about leaving and urging people to evacuate. He said that just spread fear through the town.
“They just totally deserted us in that sense,” he said. “I felt it was very poorly handled.
“This is why Australia has a toilet paper issue. Deadset. We can’t deal with things anymore because of hysteria.”
He credits the local fire fighters for sticking to their guns and doing a great job, but is still wary of bureaucracy. The Goulds have applied for a disaster recovery grant from the State Government, but haven’t heard back yet. Mr Gould said the process was simple and it took about half an hour to list their losses, asking for $15,000 to replace a propagation igloo that they lost and other smaller items like pots and benches and fertilizer.
Almost all the Gould Nursery’s plants survived the fire, but they were under threat in the days afterwards, with no electricity to power the misting systems.
Mr Goud bought some generators and was able to keep the misting systems in his remaining igloos operational.
“[Without the generators] I would have lost all our propagation work we did at home, weeks and weeks and weeks of work, which is our income for next year,” said he said.
“Even if we didn’t lose the nursery here, we would have lost next year’s income. Even if the fire didn’t take it, that’s everything gone anyway.”
For now, the nursery is safe, and Mr Gould said the family is faring well. An answer from the grant administrators should be ready sometime within the next month.