By Rosie Lewis – Jan 8, 2021
After fighting bushfires for more than 40 years, Bruce Allen is still struggling to describe the fire behaviour he saw in the NSW south coast town of Cobargo on New Year’s Eve in 2019.
The signs were ominous. As he raced from his property out the back of Narooma towards Cobargo shortly after 5am, the Toyota HiLux he was driving was caught in a “fire tornado” and pushed sideways onto two wheels as 20m flames danced among the trees around him.
“It should’ve gone over. I was just hanging on for dear life,” Mr Allen says.
“I had one other person with me. If I wasn’t driving in the middle of the road we would have been a statistic as well.
“I described it as driving through the gates of hell.”
The fire front was just about to hit Cobargo and the town’s fire captain, Mark Ayliffe, was in charge. The duo began planning which businesses to try to save. They prioritised the chemist, the post office and the co-op, which sells gas bottles and fuel.
Cafes had to be sacrificed.
“Then Mark had to take off and try to save his own property,” Mr Allen says. “We were overwhelmed with the incident; we were under resourced because everyone was. There wasn’t an available unit anywhere.
“I’d actually gone to radio at one stage trying to break the seriousness of the situation and said ‘if you can get me a guy on a push bike with two buckets I’ll take him’. I was thinking to myself ‘this is it, we’re not going to hold this’.
“I’ve seen fire behaviour I never want to see again. Unless you were there, you couldn’t explain it. Words don’t do it justice.”
For up to four hours Mr Allen and his fellow NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers battled the worst of the fire — but Australia’s Black Summer, in which 33 people died, 3000 homes were destroyed and 24 million hectares were burnt, kept burning.
Just three weeks later, Mr Allen’s 110-year-old property was burnt. The chimney collapsed on the roof as he fought another blaze at Dignams Creek.
While the rest of the house was largely saved thanks to firefighters who were using his land as a staging area, Mr Allen’s beloved workshop was destroyed.
“I’d been told that my workshop had gone and the chimney had gone. Because it (the fire) had already gone through I’d made the decision in my mind that the damage was already done, so I never got back here until the next day,” he recalls.
“There were priorities in saving other properties and houses other than this one. It was a call I had to make.”
The fire season left the 57-year-old exhausted. Mr Allen received counselling as he came to terms with what he and his community had experienced, but the professional help was not always comforting.
“Most of them (the counsellors) were saying ‘you can move on from it’,” he says.
“I’m saying, ‘were you standing beside me when I was deciding I was about to destroy someone’s life? I was about to change someone’s life for the rest of their days? No. Well how do you know how I feel?’”
Ever since COVID-19 hit, Mr Allen fears the country has forgotten about the fires altogether.
Farmer Wayne Schaefer, who The Australian first met with his wife Helen and daughter Leah less than a week after the New Year’s Eve fire, says the coronavirus had hidden a lot of the trauma that people were feeling.
Following an epic firefighting effort, which at one point resulted in Mr Schaefer surrounded by a firestorm in his ute just metres from his house, they somehow managed to save their Yowrie Road home about 25km west of Cobargo. The 260ha property is surrounded by national park.
They lost friends in the fire, and the homes of Mr Schaefer’s sister Gail and cousin Carol were burned to the ground.
“The loss and the ability to be able to share that loss, the opportunity hasn’t really been there,” Mr Schaefer, 56, says.
“The coronavirus has almost stopped us from doing exactly the thing we want to do. The community is still feeling fragmented and disconnected.
“Farmers are generally isolated people anyway. They’re used to being on their own and making decisions on a day-to-day basis.
“But at the first opportunity we get we need to start getting back to putting on the local show, having the old barn dance we used to have — and we don’t do all those things.
“People used to go to church a lot and be together, and we’ve lost a lot of that.”
Leah, who with dog Casey was dropped at Gail’s house closer to Cobargo the day before New Year’s Eve in a bid to stay away from the fires, only to be forced to evacuate to Bermagui, says there are still triggers for people one year on that bring the nightmare raging back.
“At New Year’s Eve when the fireworks were going off in Bermagui, that freaked me out,” the 19-year-old says.
“I thought ‘what if?’ — even though it had been raining.
“After the fireworks, people would see a little bit of smoke, and they’d think: ‘Oh no, what is that?’”
When the Victorian border closed to NSW a week ago, there was a very different kind of panic to the previous year as tourists rushed to get home.
“I talked to my boss (at Bermagui restaurant il Passaggio) and she goes ‘I just can’t win’. We had people just pack up at the table and say ‘can we take this take away, we need to go now?’ We had more than half the bookings go,” Leah says.
“A lot of business owners have been devastated by the fact we have lost another year — when it’s usually our busiest time.”
Leah is getting on with life, studying primary education in Wollongong, while Mr and Mrs Schaefer have moved to Orange for a new start and visit their Yowrie farm when time lets them.
It doesn’t take much to look past the rolling and now-vivid green hills of the NSW south coast to take in the stark reminders of the fires.
Blackened tree trunks are everywhere and the regrowth is only young. In the worst-affected areas, where the forests were so dense, including near the Schaefers’ property, the trees still look like burnt match sticks lined up one after the other.
The people who lived through the fires are confronted with their changed landscape every day – but they would also like the rest of Australia to remember those traumatic events.
“Remember, there are those who are still recovering. Don’t forget,” Mr Allen says.
“There are people still rebuilding, people who haven’t even started rebuilding yet. People are still living in tents. Yes we’ve moved on, but the scars remain.”