“I’m definitely going to get on to this Rob Rogers,” said Jenny Blake, referring to the Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Mr Rogers ordered local brigades in December not to crowdsource firefighting equipment. Ms Blake, who became acquainted with one of the state’s larger bushfires when it threatened her parents’ property at Tumbarumba, is compiling a list of equipment the RFS might consider in its next budget: full-face respirators, 3-inch quick fill trash pumps, satellite phones and head torches.
The Blake property was spared on New Year’s Eve when the wind changed and the fire did a 90-degree turn on the fenceline. At that moment the family also pivoted – from a position of defence to one of support. “We didn’t get burnt out but everyone around us was and we had to do something,” Ms Blake said.
Shared trauma can change a place. It can tear a community apart or herd people together. Since fire came to the western foothills of the Snowy Mountains, the people surrounding Tumbarumba have leaned inwards. Initially, they had no choice.
Power was down and mobile phone service was out, as well as most landlines. Roads were closed. Tooma, a 30-minute drive to the south, was isolated for days.
“The trouble was that farmers whose lands were blackened would go out with a trailer to get fodder for their stock and the police wouldn’t let them back through again,” Ms Blake said.
“No one could get any food because the roadblocks were in place, no one could go to the supermarket and no one could get fuel for fire pumps and generators. It was a few days of absolute chaos.” And the fires kept circling.
Ms Blake returned to her home in Narrandera, 200 kilometres north-west of Tumbarumba, and ordered supplies. The first priority was a batch of radios so people could communicate. Next was a cook-up involving all her friends for meals to take to families cut off from supplies.
She put out a call for full-face respirators. The valley is surrounded by pine forest plantations, which produce ferocious fires.
Ms Blake said the RFS-issued fire-resistant masks were insufficient: “There were 60-metre flames above the pine trees and these guys could not breathe. The air was like soup.”
Within 24 hours, two Sydney women had donated $29,000 to supply every fire truck in the Riverina Highlands RFS area. The Blake family also set up a quick-fill pump station for trucks to draw from their dam and Ms Blake cooked roasts and made sandwiches to feed the crews.
“Everyone just pulled together,” she said. “Most people are farmers and they’ve all got generators and they’re all pretty capable of looking after themselves, but when that fire came through the resources were so stretched we couldn’t rely on the RFS. It was every man for himself.”
It certainly felt that way to Will and Sam Triggs and their friend Sam Barrow, who were stuck in the middle when the Dunns Road Fire merged with the Ournie Creek Fire at their parents’ property near Tooma on January 10.
They were cutting a fence at the top of a hill for the trucks to get through – Will and Mr Barrow in a Toyota ute and Sam Triggs in a semi-enclosed vehicle – trying to contain one fire down at the creek when a second jumped out of a pine plantation and raced towards the Triggs’ property.
“And that fire was just like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Will Triggs said.
“I said to Sambo, ‘What the hell are we going to do here?’ We had two or three trucks but when it gets in the scrub you’ve got Buckley’s of doing anything, especially when it’s like that.”
The trio drove through 100 metres of flames to reach a fire break and get to safety, but Sam Triggs was badly burnt on his hands and face and flown to Concord Hospital.
The incident was considered a near miss – an experience Will said galvanised the district. “It’s brought us together more because these communities are getting smaller and smaller generationally as people move away from the land. You’re fighting as much for yourself as you are for the guy next to you,” he said.
Maragle RFS deputy captain Ian Bell said the lack of communication had made firefighting difficult, and he often had to physically drive to people’s houses to organise crews.
“It must be the resin in pines, the fire behaviour is unpredictable and it’s quite scary actually,” Mr Bell said. “It just explodes.”
One woman in Tooma had been inspired to raise funds for a mobile cell tower in preparation for the next fire season, he said.
Other offers of help have come from further afield. Nicki and Jim Pearce, whose Yaven Creek property was among the first to be claimed by the Dunns Road Fire when it burst out of a pine plantation near Adelong, were visited by New Zealand friends who stayed for a week, fixing fences and retrieving wandering cattle.
The fire had come to them unexpectedly.
“It was like we were going to lose our back-country, and then someone flicked a switch and said, ‘No you’re not, you’re going to lose it all,’ ” Ms Pearce said. Just 80 hectares of their 2000-hectare property was spared. They also lost 150 cattle, though they are grateful that it was not more among their 2000 head herd.
“It’s a miracle. We’re really hilly and there are lots of creeks and swampy areas and they just went and sat in that and it’s incredible how they survived.”
The Pearce family have survived on kindness. Just yesterday a stranger offered free agistment for a month. Friends have turned up with food. One from drought-stricken Walcha insisted on donating them a precious load of hay.