The Dunns Road fire sped everything up for the McMahon family. The original home – ‘Bahwidgee’ – was well prepared for the fire as it came through the property’s boundary with the Ellerslie Nature Reserve on its way south.
Bahwidgee belonged to Bob and Lorraine McMahon, and they’d had graders and dozers readying the property all week, laying fire breaks three blades wide.
It wasn’t enough.
“We’d done everything we thought we needed to do,” said Mr McMahon.
“We thought we would be right because we had a horse at the back of the house and that was just bare at the back, the lawn was all mown; I wouldn’t say it was green, but it was half green.
“We cleared everything off the veranda’s and had the gutters full of water.”
Lilac bushes on the northwest corner of the house caught some embers in the early hours of January 4 and funnelled the fire up into the roof cavity of the family home.
“By the time we got there, there was nothing we could do,” said Mr McMahon’s son, Matt.
Lorraine and daughter, Meg, had grabbed some photo albums and a change of clothes, but that was all.
“Just shock, I suppose,” said Mr McMahon.
“It didn’t even register to go in or even think about what was inside or anything like that.”
It was only by chance that the two men found the home alight. They’d been fighting the fire further to the west, where the property adjoins the nature reserve. After running out of water, they lined up for more, but with three fire trucks and two slip-ons ahead of them, the father and son knew the minutes were ticking by.
“We’d thought it’d be quicker to go back home,” said Matt McMahon.
“While we were there filling up, it came across the creek and we were at the hill and it sort of came up to the back of the machinery shed first, and we got it out there, and it was burning at the back of the tool shed, and we got it out there, and it just sort of moved a bit further around and got into the garden.
“I ran out of water and my hose wasn’t long enough and Dad ran out of water as well.”
The men were initially fighting alone, but the RFS arrived to help, saving the shearing shed.
“It went to hell in a handbasket,” said Matt McMahon.
Realising the house was gone, the men focussed their efforts on saving the rest of the property.
“It was burning in the lucerne paddock, so we went there and put a load out there,” remembered Matt McMahon.
“You’d put a line of fire out and look behind you and it’s started up again.”
While they were gone, the buildings caught fire again.
“That was a mistake,” said Matt McMahon.
“We saved dad’s tool shed and garage and store room, so that was still standing when we left and when got back after dark, that was gone. It caught fire while we were away, so dad lost all his tools.”
They fought the fires all day. That evening, exhausted, Bob and Matt went looking for somewhere to sleep.
“We thought, ‘Oh well Bahwidgee house isn’t there any more, we might go up and stay at my place,’” said Matt McMahon.
“We got up there and it was just smouldering ashes, so we turned around and went back down and just camped.”
An old train carriage on the property served as a store room for extra furniture, mattresses and too-small baby clothes. The men found a mattress, laid it down in a paddock and fell asleep, waking twice through the night to put out fresh fires at Bahwidgee.
“It just kept coming back,” said Matt’s wife, Jess, who had evacuated with their four young girls to Wagga.
Aged 1-5, Katie, Emily, Maddie and Alexandrea were mostly unaware of what was happening around them.
“They were probably at an age where it didn’t phase them that much,” said Matt McMahon.
“Katie (nearly 6) was a bit more switched on.”
Mrs McMahon agreed.
“She was more focused on the Barbie bike that she’d just gotten. I had to tell her, ‘Sorry, it’s gone.’”
Mrs McMahon had spent the week packing the family car with the girls’ most important toys and clothes and some of the family’s irreplaceable items, but now she said there are a few things she still wishes she grabbed, but didn’t think about at the time.
The early days immediately after losing the two homes (and a third, unused home on Matt and Jessica’s property, ‘Spring Creek’) are still raw in the family’s memory. They remember the generosity of the community, with neighbours gathering around them to organise housing and emergency fencing. They had lost roughly 430 sheep (including rams) and a dozen cattle, but the remaining stock were roaming across blackened paddocks without any boundaries.
“For us on the farm, the McDonnell boys, Dan and his family, [were incredible],” remembered Matt McMahon, still overwhelmed as he remembered their kindness.
“Dan was on the tanker on the day of the fire and a couple days after, he came back with a team – family but also other people – and started fencing,” explained Bob McMahon.
“They were replacing strainer posts and straining fences. I think they did that for three days.
“They came and fed some hay out.”
The remaining stock were contained within about ‘three or four days’, and the men stuck around to help with the injured animals.
“We were destroying stock and they helped us dispose of those,” added Matt McMahon.
Bob, Matt and Jessica tell the story together, finishing one another’s sentences as the memories get too strong.
It’s been a full year, but due to Covid (which cancelled numerous community and bushfire brigade social events), they haven’t shared their story often.
“The neighbours took control of burying all the dead stock so that we didn’t have to do that,” said Bob.
The family are quick to name everyone who helped, both during and after the fires. The memories run into one another, but they talk about the Reynolds and other McMahons who came to help with the burial and Richard Martin on the dozer, the LLS vet ‘Emily’ who assisted, Joe McCormick who found the McMahon’s Batlow cattle after they escaped from a leased property and brought them back to Adelong (despite losing his own cattle), Alan Podmore, RH Blake, BlazeAid, Lisa Bowden, and more.
The family stayed a week and a half at Margaret Hassett’s ‘Yellow Door’ holiday rental in Adelong, where community donations poured in – especially for the girls.
“A lot of people donated toys and clothes,” said Mrs McMahon.
“They thought it was Christmas all over again, with all the toys coming through the door.”
Matt McMahon said the girls have developed a genuine excitement about seeing strangers which they’ll have to break.
“While we were in town, there were regular visitors and it got to the point where if anyone turned up, they almost had their hand out,” he laughed.
“People’s generosity was just extraordinary. On the whole, we were exceptionally well looked after.”
Bob and Lorraine moved into their rental home in Adelong – which they had planned to do eventually – and Jessica started designing a new home right away.
Matt and Jess had planned to build a bigger home, to make sure each of the girls had their own room, but they thought it would still be five years away or more – far enough ahead that the toddlers wouldn’t be tempted to decorate the walls with their own crayon art.
Jessica contacted Austwide Homes, based in Wagga, and had their home under construction (off-site) by early February 2020, just four weeks after the fires.
When the Laing O’Rourke clean-up crews made it to the Snowy Valleys several months later, Mrs McMahon liaised with the company to clear a spot for their home a little ahead of schedule, and they were moved in by June, less than six months after losing their home.
Jessica designed the home with huge bay windows, to take advantage of their beautiful views and provide extra light and space for the girls inside. Four large bedrooms for the girls and one for Matt and Jess fill out the floor plan, along with a generous kitchen and a big, central bench.
“We picked the floor plan that we liked the most, and then I just added to it the way I liked it,” said Mrs McMahon.
“Big kitchen. Big bench. Just big everything… and a spot for the fridge. We’ve never had a spot for the fridge, it’s just always been wherever we put it.”
Matt and Jessica’s new home was built offsite, transported to the site in pieces and then connected. It’s located more centrally in the Spring Creek property, well away from the timber.
Matt’s brother, David, and his wife, Tammy, built a similar home on the Bahwidgee site.
While all of the neighbours enthused about the new home, Matt and Jessica said they just continued on with life and rebuilding.
“We were just relieved to be back on our own turf,” said Mrs McMahon.
“Everyone kept going ‘Oh we’re so excited’ and I just didn’t feel excited. Just numb.”
Mr McMahon agreed.
“It’s a bit weird, we probably should feel something, it’s a brand new house, a new start, but I didn’t really feel anything.”
The couple are moved in, complete with fresh crayon art courtesy of the girls, and work has begun in earnest on a new shearing shed. The shed will hopefully be finished by the end of the year, and after moving three times immediately after the fires, the McMahons don’t ever want to do it again.
“Yeah, we’ll be here forever hopefully,” said Matt McMahon.