20 January 2020

Facing down the mountain fires, and the future, in Tumbarumba

| Edwina Mason
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Bendoc, south of Tumbarumba

Facing a David versus Goliath battle near Bendoc, south of Tumbarumba, the Mid Lachlan Valley Strike Team heads into the heart of the fire. Photo: Farmer from Down Under.

It’d take an emergency to get Johnny Blake to leave his home town of Tumbarumba, but that he did on 5 January as two enormous bushfires started closing in on them like a vice, giving him and his sister Lorraine no choice but to bail.

They weren’t alone. Ten other members of their family – all forever locals – joined the remaining few Tumbarumba residents who turned off Parade Street to exit town down the remaining open exit towards Wagga Wagga.

Many remained for a week – mostly staying with relatives – twiddling their thumbs, watching and waiting to see if their little mountain town of around 1800 people would survive the juggernaut of fires rapidly approaching from East Ournie Creek to the southwest and Dunns Road Fire from the northeast.

That was a little more civilised than the prior weeks, which Lorraine described as “different”.

Up until then, surrounded by massive bushfires, they had no power, no food, no water and little petrol. And they were almost alone.

“There weren’t many people left,” Lorraine said. “It was pretty quiet.”

Determined not to leave, their efforts to withstand the fires, indeed any ember attacks, amounted to sprinklers on the house roof, garden hoses and cleared gutters.

Town meetings three times a day kept them well informed.

“We knew what to do if the town started burning. We wouldn’t have been sitting in burning houses. We knew to vacate to the oval, sprinklers would be activated and we were told that we should prepare to get wet,” Lorraine said.

“We actually weren’t that worried,” she said. “We had a brother fighting the fires and we knew that when he said we should go it was time to go. We felt like we were in good hands.”

Recent cool spells and relentless firefighting has meant residents of the town have been slowly trickling back to their homes.

Johnny, a painter, returned to Tumbarumba to go back to work last Sunday (because he was bored, according to Lorraine). Lorraine remained in Wagga Wagga until Saturday (18 January).

Now the cost to tourism is being counted.

Snowy Valleys Council Mayor James Hayes visited Tumbarumba last Tuesday and was struck by the positivity and strong community spirit of those he encountered, despite the damage to Tumbarumba tourist attractions, including the loss of the 90-year-old Sugar Pine Walk in Bago State Forest, park huts and access to Paddys River Falls being blocked by fallen trees.

“Fortunately, Tumbarumba has the benefit of diversity of industry with the sawmill, the Mannus Prison Farm and the Snowy Valleys Council offices which has around 84 employees,” he said.

Forecast rain is expected to ease conditions in coming days with backburning operations in place south of Tumbarumba. But hopefully not too much rain, the mayor suggested, otherwise vital waterways would be clogged with ash and mud from the steep, bare hills.

Rehabilitation efforts are also underway with the Recovery Coordinator for Southern NSW, Dick Adams, in the region on Monday meeting with local government, industry, government agencies and those impacted by the Dunns Road bushfire.

Assistance is being offered to people directly affected by the fires. If you have been impacted by the bushfires and require emergency support, contact the Disaster Welfare Line on 1800 018 444.

Residents seeking bushfire recovery information are also urged to call Snowy Valleys Council offices on 1300 275 782 or visit their website at snowyvalleys.nsw.gov.au.

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