“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

“When danger is far off, we must not forget our weaknesses. When danger is near, we must not forget our strengths” Winston Churchill

Looking West at Wog Wog Mountain

Dunblane nestles peacefully in the picturesque Towamba Valley. It is completely surrounded by national parks.  Bordered on the east by Mount Jingera and the South East National Park. To the west is the State Pine Forrests and further west the tree covered Wog Wog Mountain. Wrapping around the south is Mount Imlay National Park. To the South West is Nungatta with forests extending from the coast to the Victorian border. To the north is the Nullica Forest and Tantawangalo Forest. 

In early 2019 the east coast of New South Wales was set ablaze. Ostensibly dry conditions and lightening resulted in spontaneous combustion. Of interest, during this national disaster, some 250 individuals were arrested for arson. So one wonders.  These forest fires were burning in the north of the state. Burning out of control and  working their way southwards. Fires also  started burning in Victoria to our south. these fires burnt in the Victorian Alps and East Gippsland,  causing huge damage to the natural landscape and to property. The Victorian border is situated 15 km south of the Towamba Valley.

In December 2019,  fire caused two terrible  tragedies. 100 km to our north and 50 km to our south East. To the north, the inferno destroyed the small town  of Cobargo devastating surrounding forests, farmland and sadly causing a tragic loss of life. Cobargo is located 40 kms north of the town of Bega. Bega is 60km north of Towamba. At the same time the Victorian seaside township of Mallacoota, 50 km to our south east was destroyed by fire. Three thousand trapped residents and holiday makers had to be evacuated by sea. The Australian Navy sent a warship to moor off the coast and conducted the proceedings. Amazingly there were no fatalities.

It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary. Winston Churchill

The red mark is Dunblane the dark green is the burning fire

 

By now we were at high alert. Fires were burning to our north and our south. The Snowy Mountains a few hundred kilometres to our west were also ablaze. Out of control fires had now burnt the  whole of NSW east of the Dividing Ranges from Queensland to 100km north of the Victorian border. Out of control fires had burnt most of East Gippsland in Victoria and had now reached the NSW border, 15 km to our south. We are completely surrounded by national parks and  fires were burning out of control to our south, to our north and to our west. A state of emergency was declared. People began evacuating their properties and seeking shelter in nearby  Eden, Merimbula and Bega. 

All farmers in our district have a fire plan.  One has to decide if, in the event of a bush fire, you stay to protect your property or you evacuate early. The biggest problem for emergency services is the risk to human life. People, unable to defend their property who fail to leave early, unnecessarily put their own lives and the lives of the emergency services in jeopardy. The decision  to stay and defend needs to be made very carefully. Based on the ferocity of these recent fires, it's obvious that those who choose to stay and defend need considerable skill and fire fighting equipment. Most farmer are equipped to fight ember attacks. No one I know anticipated the heat and ferocity of the recent fires. We all learnt the meaning of "burning out of control"

Elizabeth and my fire plan was simple. Elizabeth is asthmatic, so to remain in smoke filled atmosphere is courting disaster. Further, we are both in our seventieth year, and are very aware that even though we are both quite agile and strong, our age is against us. So when word came on 31 December that the Border Fire was on its way, we hurredly loaded our car with three dogs, one cat, the washing basket with some freshly washed clothes and our passports. We traveled to be with our youngest daughter, Natasha who lives with her husband Andrew and their daughter Sophie, some 5 hours away, in Young NSW. Of interest, the sky was filled with smoke as far away as Young. We remained in exile, hopping between our children for a full six weeks.

4 January, 2020 was dry and hot. In the late afternoon southerly winds started gusting around 40km an hour. Perfect conditions to fan the blaze that roared across the state border in a northerly direction.  A fire front 50 km wide.

The fuel lying on the ground was so dry that it behaved like a grass fire, racing ahead of the burning forest creating the intense heat needed to ignite these huge trees. At 3 pm the black smoke turned day into night. Pitch black. 10 kms to the south the roar of the inferno was audible. It sounded like a train racing down the tracks towards you.  The ground began shaking like an earthquake. Petrifying!!! This fire wall  raced in a northerly direction at about 6km an hour. Heading directly toward the tiny village of Towamba, located at the southern  tip of the Towamba Valley. Everything in its path way destroyed. Huge  heavy steel vehicles used by the forestry people literally melted where they were parked. Miraculously, as this fire reached the edge of Towamba village, the wind dropped and the relentless advance stopped.

Andrew and I made a flying visit back to Dunblane on 11 January. The valley was blanketed in thick smoke. You could see more than 20 or 30 meters. We opened all the internal gates to allow the animals free access to the farm. We put out large round bales of hay. Took some hay to a near neighbour who had also evacuated. After checking their stock as best we could, we packed some of what seemed to be more valuable possessions, loaded our remaining horses and took off as soon as the predicted southerlies started gusting again.For the next few weeks the fires slowly burnt in a northerly direction on either side of the Towamba Valley. Still out of control. Our neighbour Alex, his wife Jackie and their three young daughters remained to defend their property. They kept us undated and continued to put out hay for our stock.

 Mid February  the winds swung around and started gusting from the north. Gusting enough to fan the Tantawangalo Forest fires located to our north west. This fire raced towards us moving in a south easterly direction  The Fires of Wog Wog to our west, fanned by the same winds,  swung  around and  began burning towards us. They came within 3 kms of our boundry.  Then as if by some miracle, the winds dropped and the heavens opened, dumping 300mm of rain. Enough to extinguish the fires.  

Over the next few days the smoke cleared and the parched, burnt landscape sprung back to life.

 

The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.

The first Europeans to settle in the Towamba Valley, were Scottish.Dunblane has been an active farm for at least 150 years. The homestead, a timber and weatherboard dwelling has been standing for 140 years. There is no history of any significant fire damage. The village of Towamba has also never been damaged by fire. During this most recent fire event, neither Towamba village nor any farming property in the valley suffered any fire damage. This can not be said for properties to both the east and west of the Towamba Valley.

No one really knows why we in the Towamba Valley have dodged the fire "bullet". During this past fire event, there were some interesting clues.   Those who were present in the valley on the fateful 4 January reported a very interesting phenomenon. The 4th January was the  night the Border Fire raced in a northerly direction and then stopped literally on the outskirts of Towamba village. Locals describe their terror, created by the shaking of the ground and the deafening roar. Remember, the wind was blowing from the south,  driving the fire in a northerly direction. It is said that around 11pm( I'm not certain of the exact time) when the wind suddenly dropped. It swung around 180 degrees and started blowing quite forcefully from the north. 

Fires of such intensity require massive amounts of oxygen. What they do is suck the oxygen from the atmosphere in front of the inferno, thereby creating their own weather pattern. It is postulated that the topography of the Towamba Valley is such that  as the fires approached Towamba Village, the demand for oxygen  sucked the oxygen from between the Jingera Mountain on the east and the mountain  ridges to the west. This, presumably creates a tunnelling effect and the wind created was much stronger than that in the more open landscape. Presumably strong enough to stop the northerly march of the fire. Only a theory, but an interesting one. The changing of the wind direction  from southerly to northerly is confirmed by many.

Never was so much done by so few for so many

This story would be incomplete without mention of the incredible people who make up the Rural Fire Service. These good people live locally. They are our mates, our neighbours, our plumber, bank manager and sandwich maker. They are all volunteers.  During the  past trying times these brave people put on their fire protection kit and never left their post until it was over. During my brief return visit to Dunblane on 11January, I had a cup of tea with my friend and near neighbour John Nightingale. He is a member of the local Towamba RFS. When I saw him, he was gaunt. Exhausted because he had not slept in 36 hours. He told me that on the night of 4th January, he and his offsider Drew Collett had driven from house to house in Towamba village putting out embers and spot fires. Our neighbour Ian Hayes has a bulldozer. Ian and his son Josh between them drove that bulldozer 24 hours a day for the full six weeks. Clearing bush and building containment lines ahead of the approaching fires.

While John and I were chatting, five fire trucks, loaded with crew,  drove past. Lights flashing. Responding to a call. That epitomised it in a nutshell. Local people, willing to leave their own properties and unselfishly give of their time to the protection of our community.

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Latest comments

15.08 | 11:17

This is all brilliantly documented Paddy - am so totally inspired by how you have transformed Dunblane.

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31.07 | 16:36

Hi Peter, exciting indeed. Suggest you contact a Rory O'Leary at BVSC. He is the economic development officer. Big focus on Eden Another farmersnet@fscla.org.au

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31.07 | 12:48

Sounds exciting! I'd like to discuss how this might fit in with some other opportunities for the Port of Eden.

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22.11 | 23:11

I read all the way through again. Well done, Paddy - super proud of you.

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