16 February 2020

'It was a roar like nothing I had ever heard': The farm that survived fire

| Edwina Mason
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Beatrice and Tobias Koenig

Beatrice and Tobias Koenig were forced to wait for the Clear Range fire to emerge from the bush onto their property. Photo: Supplied.

It’s the blessings that Beatrice and Tobias Koenig are counting as they reflect on the past fortnight at their small farm near Michelago.

Out their window is a bare, charred view that will remind them for many years of that day in February 2020 when they faced off against a bushfire that came at them at the rate of 400 hectares an hour.

The Clear Range fire was one of several that dominated Canberra’s horizon for days as blazing weather, winds, flying embers and dry matter lethally colluded to destroy thousands of acres of bush and property.

It had started some 20 kilometres south and certainly wasn’t their first bushfire but – as Mr Koenig described – it was a whole other level.

On approach it jumped the Murrumbidgee River, hastily ripped through the final two kilometres of bush, before breaching the boundary of their 231 hectare biodynamic and regenerative property.

“It was a roar like nothing I had ever heard,” Mr Koenig said. “I had heard people talking about it but it was something else; not a very good feeling.”

The Koenigs had decided to stay and defend their home this time, a decision made in late December when fires had burned erratically 20 kilometres to their west and they had evacuated.

“I realised that was not a good decision to leave because if you get embers nothing can be done and we believe we are responsible not just for your place but your neighbours,” he said.

Second time around, predictive maps pointed to the fire going straight over their property, ‘Ingelara’.

“We were well prepared. We had pumps and water everywhere, a truck with 3000 litres of water.”

There was also a refuge spot beneath their house.

As the fire approached on three fronts, at first the Koenig’s could only watch.

“There was nothing we could do. You couldn’t fight the fire in the bush,” Mr Koenig said. “But I think that was the worst time: the waiting.”

Ms Koenig agreed, “that was the scary part, to see it coming, not knowing what would happen when it came out of the bush.”

Embers breached the boundary and their pasture of African lovegrass began exploding.

“The embers would land 800 metres apart and the grass just went up, like, boof,” Mr Koenig said.

That’s when the blessings came – in the form of five neighbours in three small trucks.

“I think then Beatrice felt more confident we could do something.”

As fences were cut to move cattle, the small trucks zipped around the property extinguishing grass fires, saving one farm cottage and three neighbouring houses.

Six NSW Rural Fire Service trucks delivered the final blow to the fires that had annihilated a bush hut, beehives, six kilometres of fencing, 100 hectares of vital pasture and plantings of young trees, while destroying most of the irrigation supporting 1000 apple trees.

“At the end of the day I would have to say we were very lucky,” Mr Koenig said. “I’m so glad we decided to stay.

“It would have been absolutely terrible if we had left again. The whole place would have burnt.

“It was saved because of the efforts of our neighbours, the RFS and us.”

This power of community has amazed the couple, including the efforts of a neighbour who days earlier had transported 16 wooden bins of their main crop – garlic – by trailer to Canberra for safekeeping and eventual sale at the Capital Region Farmers Markets.

“We were five days without power and the amount of people offering help, and helping, bringing food, hay and drinking water is just so heartwarming,” he said.

Clear Range fire

Wooden boxes being loaded with garlic for transport to Canberra for safekeeping two days before the Clear Range fire descended on Beatrice and Tobias Koenig’s Michelago biodynamic farm.

“We are very thankful for all the help we received,” Ms Koenig said.

That extends to the government. Assistance sought through the NSW Rural Assistance Authority via application on Friday was approved on Monday.

Rural Aid also stepped up.

“They just called and asked if we had enough water. I said, ‘Our tank is very low,’ and she said, ‘Well, we’re going to send a tank of rainwater.’ It was just amazing,” Mr Koenig said.

A heartening 56 mm of rain to the 12000 hectare fireground bodes well for their recovery with the Clear Range fire now under control.

Dry conditions, and heat damaged and smoke-impacted cash crops have made the season a difficult one for the Koenigs but they are not fazed.

According to the pair, they are simply going to replant.

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marie curbison1:44 pm 16 Feb 20

I am amazed at how wonderful people can be. So many doing what needs to be done to help. Shame on our government. Their performance is abysmal.

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