Reflecting on Talbingo’s fire nightmare

The scene confronting firefighters in Talbingo on the night of January 4.

This week two community leaders in Talbingo reflected on the Dunns Road fire and recovery progress over the last 12 months, sitting in the Country Club where those who stayed in town evacuated to just over one year ago.

John Scott, the local RFS Brigade Captain, and Dick Bye, Vice President of the Talbingo Country Club, were both involved in the firefighting efforts and recounted the progression of the blaze.

Mr Scott counts the town as fortunate for having almost four days’ notice.

“The fire kicked off on New Year’s Eve over on the Dunns Road area with a lightning strike, then it was fluking about day-by-day whichever way the wind was going,” he recalled.

“We had a few days in here to get ready, check all our gear, check all the hydrants [and] do a bit of pre-planning with the brigade.”

Mr Bye explained that the fire had originally started heading towards Talbingo on New Year’s Day, but backed away.

“It wasn’t until we had the meeting, the council and the RFS came up on Friday the 3rd and said now it’s getting serious, so make up your mind – stay or go, this is it,” he said.

“It really brought it home how serious it was.”

Mr Scott said that defending the town was his “prime responsibility”. At 75 years old, he has been the Talbingo Captain for around 20 years.

“I wasn’t a sort of director, I was just left more or less to my own devices to set up what defensive lines we had,” Mr Scott explained.

The Talbingo RFS has 26 members, but only nine of them live permanently in town. A large number of the volunteers have holiday homes so are only in Talbingo for certain parts of the year.

“We were very fortunate on that day that we had 17 members for those four days, which allowed me to run three shifts,” Mr Scott said.

January 4 was when Talbingo was hit hardest, a similar story to towns across the Snowy Valleys region.

Regularly checking in with the RFS radio, Mr Scott knew how stretched crews were across the region and was thrilled when Fire and Rescue and National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) turned up that afternoon.

“It was like the old John Wayne movies where the wagons are surrounded and circled, and then over the hill comes the cavalry when they arrived,” Mr Scott said.

Soon after, however, Fire and Rescue had to go and assist with fires at the Snowy Hydro power station and NPWS went to Boraig, which was undefended.

That afternoon, Mr Scott worked with the volunteers and any locals who had stayed behind to defend Talbingo, and spread everyone out to defend major infrastructure.

The national park land across the dam from the town was the biggest threat, with embers flying across, dangerous wind and scorching temperatures.

“It sounded like 20 trains coming over the hill, it was so loud,” Mr Bye recounted. He had been riding on his motorbike, directing locals with their slip-ons about where to target, and the force of the wind almost knocked him off the bike.

Mr Scott admitted that he wasn’t scared for himself, but at the height of the fire, grew worried for the people in town.

“I did feel at one stage when the whole hill over there was on fire and the embers were raining in and [there were] hundred mile an hour winds, nearly 50-degree temperatures, I thought ‘how many people are going to die’,” he said.

Everyone in town was told to evacuate to the Country Club if sirens sounded, which happened that evening.

“I’m not really sure how we became the designated area or how it got announced, but it turned out to be a good thing,” Mr Bye said.

The official designated evacuation point is the sports oval, Mr Scott explained, but the Country Club made more practical sense.

“The Country Club had had their sprinklers going for a couple of days with their recycled water, everything was swampy and great – everything was wet – they still had power and air conditioning, water, toilets,” he explained.

Mr Bye estimates that there were around 70 people taking refuge in the club, with between 120-150 choosing to stay in town during the fire.

Talbingo Country Club Vice President Dick Bye with Talbingo RFS Brigade Captain John Scott on Monday.

On the way to the Country Club that night, the house next to the service station caught alight, which the RFS crew were able to extinguish and save both it and the service station.

The turning point was late that night, around 10pm, when the worst had passed and Fire and Rescue returned and helped extinguish the remaining structures.

“Another task force arrived to relieve us, so I staggered home and collapsed in bed,” Mr Scott said, sharing that he lost six kilograms throughout the ordeal.

“I’d been on the go, running on adrenaline for four days.”

Mr Bye said that at the Country Club, they began telling people at 10pm it was safe to return home.

“Because it came from a few different directions during the course of the afternoon, it virtually burnt 100 per cent around us at some stage,” he explained.

“By the time it started heading up the hill, well, there’s nothing left to burn.

“We realised that the worst had probably passed.”

One year since the town was threatened by fire from nearly every angle, Mr Scott said he is proud of how everyone came together.

“I’m immensely proud of the town itself, the way people here stood together,” he said.

He also had some key takeaways from the experience, one of which being the importance of preparing your property for bushfires.

During the first four days of January, 2020, Mr Scott said there were a couple of houses that proved to be large distractions due to the high level of overgrown fuel and accumulated rubbish.

“They were a threat to the community,” Mr Scott stressed.

“If they had ignited, they’d have taken a whole street of houses out above them.”

He would like to see legislation enacted, compelling homeowners to take greater responsibility with fire mitigation and fuel reduction on their property.

“We live in a fire prone country and there’s no use waiting until the last minute and expecting a red truck to pull up at your front gate and protect you,” Mr Scott said.

He would also like to see the Country Club designated as the official safe haven moving forward.

“That would at least then enable them to apply for a grant to get a generator, given that the power line is so vulnerable,” Mr Scott said.

Talbingo lost power and mobile connection on the afternoon of January 4, and it took over a week to be restored. New power lines have now been rebuilt with fibreglass rather than timber, making them more fire-proof.

One of the biggest problems facing Talbingo in terms of bushfire preparedness and action, Mr Scott said, is membership.

This is certainly not a unique issue, with brigades across the country struggling to recruit new volunteers. However, Talbingo has a significant number of part-time members with holiday homes, who aren’t in town year-round.

“Because the town is more or less a holiday resort type of thing, with retirees who are either too old or have medical problems… we don’t have a town with the normal demographics,” Mr Scott said.

There are also little-to-no teenagers to mentor as cadets and train, skilling up as they go. Most members are in their late 50s and early 60s, with the eldest member 86.

“It’s a struggle everywhere in the Rural Fire Service; I don’t know what the long-term prognosis is,” Mr Scott said, commenting that “it’s going to have to change.”

In terms of the town’s recovery, both men agree that Talbingo has bounced back relatively quickly and that the Covid-19 pandemic helped attract more local tourism. The Country Club had a great year financially, and accommodation venues – including local AirBnB’s – were said to have had lots of people coming through.

Mr Bye said that because the town didn’t lose much infrastructure compared to places like Batlow, this also helped them bounce back.

“We’re an older sort of demographic in town; a lot of people are from the age where you just get on with it,” he said.

“It’s just another thing that’s been knocked, so you just get back on your feet and go again.”