Remembering what the fires brought and took away

The oak tree, planted for Australia’s Federation, shaded generations of childhood games, family celebrations and quiet moments of reflection.

Across the Snowy Valleys, December 28 will be a unique anniversary. Few other days on the calendar this year will bring up as many mixed emotions as those ranging through the 50 days that the Dunns Road fire burned last year, changing families and landscapes.

Eastern Riverina Arts (ERA) and local artists will be marking the time through a one-off Arbour Festival, celebrating and commemorating the historic fires from December 28, 2020 through February 15, 2021.

A variety of artists will use their talents, with a series of mostly-free or nominal fee installations and workshops situated amongst the trees of the Pilot Hill Arboretum. 

ERA said the purpose is to gather the community in celebration, memory and growth, giving visitors a reason to holiday in the mountains and locals a chance to gather and regenerate.

Award-winning Batlow author Sulari Gentill will be using her skills, along with the help of friends to “make the trees talk.”

“Some things will never, ever be the same again and other things will be better. It’s one of those things,” said Ms Gentill.

Ms Gentill’s actual project is a closely-held secret, but she hinted that it will include her skills as a writer and the help of other writers.

“It’s really big,” she said. “I can’t do it by myself, and I’ve had so many people say they’d help, because people really want to help Batlow and do something for the Snowy Valleys, because they’ve almost lived the fires through us.”

She said writers from all over Australia, in a variety of genres, will be helping to “make the forest ‘talk’ at the arboretum”, near Laurel Hill.

“I think it’ll be something special and really unusual. I love that so many people have wanted to help,” she said.

Ms Gentill’s family was profoundly impacted by the fires. Their home survived January 4, when the fires tore through Old Tumbarumba Road. They lost sheds, outbuildings, tanks and gardens, but thought that the most precious parts of their property had survived – their home and a 120-year-old oak tree which had been the site of all their family parties, birthdays and Christmasses. 

“One of the things that I found really the most difficult thing was the loss of the great big trees,” she said. 

“Trees are almost friends because they’ve been here for so long, you’ve come to rely on them as a background to your life, and then they’re gone.”

The Arbour Festival was originally proposed as a celebration of trees and the natural landscape. Ms Gentill knew that her oak was suffering, because it started to drop limbs a few weeks after the fires, but the family thought it would recover.

“It was still standing on the 4th and we thought, ‘At least the oak has survived. We can rebuild everything else,’” she said.

“What we didn’t realise was that it was burning inside.” 

In mid-August, Ms Gentill was having coffee with the Arbour Festival’s curator, Vanessa Keenan, to discuss their plans. When she came home, the tree had fallen over.

The tree began dropping limbs a few weeks after the fires, but it wasn’t until mid-August that it finally fell.

“It was one of those trees with great, long branches that shaded the entire place. I look out now and everything looks different,” she said.

“It wasn’t over on the 4th. It was a year of things coming down.

“That’s something people from Batlow have had to get used to. Our homes look different.”

Like everything else to do with the fires, Ms Gentill said there are positives and negatives rolled up into the same events at the same time.

“We see these great burnt hills, but suddenly by the same token, I can see the mountains from my house, the snow capped mountains, and I never could before, because trees were in the way.

“You get things, but you’ve lost things.”

Ms Keenan agreed. 

“The festival was something that started before the fires, recognising the importance and that value that the Sugar Pines and the Arboretum have, not only for visitors up to the region, but for locals as well,” she said.

“In the aftermath of the fires and being directly impacted by the fires myself, I shelved the idea, but it wasn’t long after that, having discussions with Eastern Riverina Arts, we realised we still needed to celebrate what an amazing place the arboretum is in itself, as well as the region as a whole and the ability to create something for that one year anniversary, which is going to be so difficult for many people.”

The arboretum has been a special place for Ms Keenan for many years and she said she’s excited to share it with local residents, since a lot of Snowy Valleys residents either know it and love it, or have never heard about it.

“As it slowly comes back to life after the fire, a lot of that understory is growing back. It’s really starting to return to that beauty that’s always been there,” she said.

“It’s one of the best kept secrets of the region.”

The festival will also include a concert from Tooma-local Fanny Lumsden and the beloved Woodland Film Festival, which will hold a special cinema screening in the forest itself.

“Because Covid followed so close on the heels of the bushfire, I think it’s been a very strange emotional recovery for Batlow,” said Ms Gentill. “It’s almost as if we’re just a little bit suspended. We haven’t had that change to actually get over what happened.”

Organisers say the festival will both remember the losses sustained during the fires and celebrate the strength of the community which emerged during that time.

“It was a time when Batlow really showed its mettle,” said Ms Gentill. “It really showed its strength as a community.”

Ms Keenan added, “it’s about creating a positive experience. Acknowledging the devastation and hurt that happened, but also celebrating that collectively, everyone still has such an amazing natural environment to live amongst.”

Further details about the festival’s workshops and dates will be announced in the coming weeks on the Arbour Festival’s website ( Facebook page and Instagram.