Recovery ongoing for Ellerslie farmer

Images from day one and three of the Dunns Road fire, when Yolanda McMahon’s home ‘Takejo Cottage’ was under threat.

Yolanda McMahon’s Ellerslie property, which neighbours the pine plantation where the Dunns Road fire initially started on December 28, 2019, was one of the first properties under threat of the devastating bushfire.

Over the next 50 days, it would go on to burn over 330,000 hectares across the Snowy Valleys before being declared out on February 15.

One year since the fire was first ignited by a lightning strike, Ms McMahon has reflected on the blaze and the ongoing recovery effort, which she says hasn’t stopped.

The born-and-raised Ellerslie farmer was involved in the firefighting effort for two weeks straight, beginning with “three intense days of fighting it from three sides” on her property at the end of Dunns Road.

On the 28th, Ms McMahon was working at another property near Yaven Creek and first noticed the smoke around midday.

“It was initially heading towards the property that I was working on … then it turned towards my place and by the time I raced home I could see it blazing everywhere, and by the time I got to my place it was in our paddocks,” she recounted.

Because the fire had just started, Ms McMahon said there were a lot of resources available to help with the firefighting efforts, and that her house was thankfully saved.

“I think I was very lucky because I was at the beginning and we had heaps of people out there, bulldozers and trucks and helicopters and planes,” she said.

It was a different story a week later on January 4 when the fire came back through Ellerslie. Ms McMahon was fighting the fire at the other end of Dunns Road where her property runs through to, and where her parents live.

“By that stage, there was hardly anyone about because it was so widespread,” she said.

“It was probably more intense that week later when I was fighting to save the rest of the property and my parents’ house than it was those first initial days.”

With the fire threatening her property on those two occasions, Ms McMahon said that about 50 per cent of the property was burnt in total. She counts herself as “luckier than most.”

“Unfortunately, all of our neighbours lost stock which is heartbreaking for them,” she said.

Members of Ms McMahon’s family, including her uncle, cousin and parents, tragically lost houses further along the road. They have since rebuilt this year.

Ms McMahon said that throughout the year, the recovery efforts ‘haven’t stopped’.

“There’s constant fencing, we still have a lot of wire we need to pick up, we lost a hayshed and our yards as well so they still need to be rebuilt,” she said. Her biggest priorities for 2021 include rebuilding the yards, as well as continuing with fencing and replanting trees.

Yolanda McMahon’s burnt hay shed, a victim to the fire on January 4 when the it turned around and went through the front part of her property.

Ms McMahon was able to access help through BlazeAid this year, who set up camp in Adelong early January and volunteered across the Snowy Valleys throughout all of 2020.

“They came and helped pull down a boundary fence for us and we sort of became quite good friends with the guys who came out and helped us,” she said.

“That was the only thing that we got them in to do, but I do know they’ve just been amazing to everyone; not just helping with the fences, but being an ear for the farmers as well.”

Speaking about the Dunns Road fire and its aftermath is something that Ms McMahon sees as important, especially one year on.

“Everyone really wanted to talk about it after everything started to settle down,” she said, however Covid-19 made that almost impossible. A gathering had been organised for the community but was cancelled due to restrictions.

“I think that would have been very important for the community to get that out of our systems,” Ms McMahon said.

“Even now whenever you talk to other farmers and other members of the community, it’s almost like we’ve all been through a war; we all go back to talking about it and probably will for a long time.”

Since the Dunns Road fire first ignited in the neighbouring private plantation, Ms McMahon said she hasn’t had “a great deal” of communication from Hume Forests, owner of the Takejo plantation in which the fire began.

“I’m a little bit bitter about the pine people, to be honest, like most of the farmers,” she said.

“They seem to make a show of reaching out to us, but never follow through.

“Even before this all happened, we sort of struggled to have conversations with them about certain things.”

Realising how much pine actually burns is one of the biggest lessons to take away from what occurred, Ms McMahon believes.

“It’s just one big tinderbox,” she said. “That first day when it was coming over through the ridge it was like a chaos fire coming at you.”

Before and after photos of Yolanda McMahon’s destroyed fences that were pulled down and replaced by BlazeAid Adelong volunteers during the year.

She also thinks that being on top of dry lightning storms is critical; including having someone out there first thing after a storm to check the area.

“Once it gets hold in those pines there’s just nothing you can do.”

More buffer zones is another thing Ms McMahon would like to see.

“I know buffer zones wouldn’t make a difference in really extreme conditions, but that particular day when it first came through, we did have a buffer zone, because they cleared it,” she explained.

“They’d actually cleared about maybe a 10km block just a month before the fires came through, that was right next to us; me and my neighbours.

“I think if that block had still been there it might have been a different story, cause it sort of pulled up where that block had been cleared.”

One positive of 2020 that many farmers have noted is the amount of rain the Snowy Valleys received. Ms McMahon echoed these sentiments, saying that it has been an “amazing season” for her family, with great prices, full dams and an “incredible amount of hay”.

After the bushfires, the grass they did have burnt so they had to decide whether to sell or halve their stock, or keep them and feed them.

“We made the decision to keep hold of our stock and feed. As it turns out, I think it was a very good thing because the season went as it did,” Ms McMahon said.

“It almost feels like almost back to a normal sort of season.”