Ordinarily, Snowy Valleys Council mayor James Hayes wouldn’t be poring over the pages of Argentine daily newspaper La Nación. For one, he can’t speak or read Spanish.
But last week, there he was, in the national newspaper (headlining the news above a story about actor Joaquin Phoenix), after speaking with one of their reporters about the bushfires in his neck of the state.
“I think it’s one for the pool room wall,” he said, laughing.
It was a light moment in what he described as three of the most traumatic weeks of his life, as towns, properties and infrastructure in his local government area were either razed by fire or faced a very similar fate.
South and north, not one but two towering infernos led to the evacuation of thousands of residents and visitors while inbound legions of firefighters – most of them volunteers – formed the first line of defence alongside emergency services, with defence force personnel soon swelling the ranks.
But in stark contrast to the maelstrom that heralded the start to 2020, was the positive spirit that prevailed in each of the shire’s small communities.
“What stood out to me during this time – above all – was the resilience of the human spirit, the camaraderie and the willingness to lend a hand,” Cr Hayes said. “The utter selflessness of people has been incredible.”
The mayor last week toured fire-affected communities and was struck by the enormity of the losses in a shire well known – indeed reliant – on its forests, fresh fruit, wines, ski resorts and livestock farming industries.
By Friday council confirmed 151 homes and 442 outbuildings had been listed as destroyed so far, with 33 other homes damaged.
Hardest hit has been the 147-year-old town of Batlow – knee-deep in Australian fruit-growing nostalgia – which lost 17 homes, the old Mountain Maid cannery, the former Batlow District Hospital (once a former Women’s Land Army Hostel) and the only service station for the population of 1300.
Beyond the town’s fringe, the toll mounts throughout the shire.
Recovery for the timber industry could take up to 15 years or more, according to the mayor.
“It’s taken a huge hit and then there’s the ancillary stuff – like the loss of over 20 forest machines worth around $1 million each. It’s an incredible loss.”
Farming communities, Cr Hayes said, “copped it bad”, having to bury or shoot fire-affected stock amid challenging drought conditions.
“I know many [farmers] who are preg testing breeders to determine what they have left and the difficulty here is that these farmers – this is all they know – so there is nothing to diversify into, there’s no secondary employment for them.”
Amid stock and infrastructure losses, blueberry farmers forced by fire to abandon crops mid-harvest have returned to losses due to lack of water and bird infestation. Some, like the Costa Group’s Tumbarumba operation, lost several vehicles and a packing shed.
Around 25 per cent of apple orchardists were also affected by fire, the mayor said. This is set to impact fresh apple supplies as well as the region’s burgeoning cider industry.
Montague Fresh – one of Australia’s largest apple growers – sustained damage to 5000 of their 75-acre orchard of 200,000 apple trees outside Batlow.
Selwyn Snow Resort – once a winter playground for parka clad people – now lies in ruins.
The mayor also recognises the emotional toll the fires have taken.
“We have to look after the people affected – I am aware of the emotional strain and I think we all just need to be mindful of our neighbours and return to some sort of normality,” he said.
“Some kids have seen particularly horrific things – cows bellowing in pain, having to see animals put down, they have sat in evacuation centres, the smokes and, at times, the fires – so the sooner we can all go back to business and schools the better.”
Critical now to the primary industry recovery is water for the orchards, fodder for remaining livestock and for shoppers to buy produce grown in fire-affected areas, with Batlow Apples turning to social media to encourage just that.
“To help us, please buy some Batlow Apples. You will be helping the growers and all of us here at Batlow Apples,” a Facebook posting read.
And it’s people power the mayor is relying on to help Snowy Valleys Shire get back up its feet.
“We may have lost some big attractions but please come back and drink our cold climate wines, visit Blowering Dam, spend money in our towns,” Cr Hayes urged.
Snowy Valleys Council Bushfire Recovery Information is here or phone 1300 275 782
BlazeAid – a volunteer-based organisation that works with rural families and individuals after natural disasters – is at Adelong Showground. Call Coordinator Christine Male on 0418 745 994. A Jingellic BlazeAid camp will be opening soon, email [email protected].