A tour of the fire ground leaves you in awe of the devastation and at the same time totally amazed by the fire’s path and the loss of just one home.
The blackened stumps and all pervasive smell of smoke were expected; the dusty tracks, churned up by the dozers, which sent talcum powder-like dust flying into the air with each step, were not. It was an indication of how incredibly dry the ground was in places.
There are trees everywhere, or what was left of them. In some places almost white trunks stood out like the ghostly remains in a graveyard of blackened trees. These are the smooth-barked trees which didn’t catch as the fire moved through.
At various points red and white tape flutters highlighting a fallen or dangerous tree. During the height of the fires, firefighters have to deal with these trees, chain sawing them down or pushing them over to ensure crews can get through safely.
Some fallen trunks had their interiors completely burnt out looking for all the world like some giant grate with the ashes of last night’s fire still sitting there. Lying on the ground was a power cable, the china insulators still intact.
Far South Coast RFS superintendent and incident controller, John Cullen explained that trees with hollows at the side of the road can be a path for the fire. “Fire can get into them and then it’s the perfect opportunity for the fire to blow across the road.”
We passed a crew still dealing with the aftermath of the fire, pumping water onto a trouble spot down a steep embankment.
The area is criss-crossed with gullies but they are difficult areas in which to conduct hazard reduction burns as they are often too damp. When they do burn, they burn really hard.
A home’s aspect can make all the difference; properties sitting on top of a north facing gully may face more danger from the drier fuel rather than those on a south facing gully which could be damp.
I couldn’t help but be amazed by the path of the fire, stopping short of a home, despite having wrecked everything else. It was breath-taking to see a cedar home on Forest Lane surrounded by trees, totally blackened and bearing nothing but crisp brown leaves, the home untouched.
It looked as though the fire had come up to the fence, burnt everything around the home, including a small water tank, leaving the house in splendid isolation.
In another yard on Forest Lane, a large shed had come under attack, caved in and imploded.
“Sheds can be a problem,” I was told by superintendent Cullen, “you never know what’s in them, it could be fuel or chemicals or both.”
Despite the proximity of the house, it had remained untouched. There was speculation over the colour of the roof and whether the distinctive red had highlighted its presence to water bombing firefighters in the air.
Further down Forest Lane I met with Alan Benson. The fire had destroyed the flower beds in the front garden but had been stopped just short of the house by the efforts of firefighters. He had received a call to say there was a fire but believed it was travelling away from him that was until the wind changed.
Mr Benson said: “The fire crew came up and said you have to get out. We whacked the cat in the cage and threw a few things in the car and went.”
But it was an anxious time waiting in Merimbula. “I looked from Merimbula through the binoculars but I didn’t know whether we would come home to a house or not.”
Fear didn’t really describe what he felt, he said. “I was very, very worried and so panicked that I tried to come back through the road block and finally got through on the second attempt at about 5pm. The fire was still burning and it was very scary driving though. Once I got to the top of the hill and saw the fire truck I felt safe and then I saw a truck in the driveway putting out spot fires. Inside the house was full of smoke.”
He said that the crew from Bermagui, along with other crews and the helicopter crews, all did a magnificent job and was really thankful to them.
“I had cleaned up a lot really which helped. I had a bushfire plan but hadn’t completed all preparations for it. We really needed to have a generator and a longer fire hose and that would have helped a lot. We have huge water storage here but we had an electric pump and the power went out.”
That night it was difficult to sleep.
“I tried to sleep, I was absolutely stuffed but I kept getting up every half hour and every time I went out I saw another spot fire. In the end I did get two hours sleep. But it was really nice to hear the owl that night. It meant that there was still life out there.”
Despite the experience Alan and his wife Norma, love the location. He said: “It’s beautiful here, there’s a view of the lake and the ocean and if we had lost the house we would have rebuilt.”
The couple has already ordered plants to replace those lost in the garden.
Mr Benson advised those in rural properties who want to stay to ensure they have good water storage, a backup generator and firefighting pump.
At the other end of Forest Lane lies the entrance to ‘Sea View’ the home that was lost. A dense forest of completely blackened trunks and brown leaves cast a forbidding air over the road in and told their own story. The fire burnt particularly fiercely here.
Next to the sign for the house which somehow inexplicably survived unscathed, the Mallinson family had placed a notice of thanks to the fire crews. Another notice warned people to keep out. When a home is lost to fire it becomes a crime scene and a matter for the police who must ensure no one had perished in the blaze.
In the middle of some trees, a large uprooted eucalypt laid on its side, smoke still lazily escaping from a hot spot deep inside.
On Red Gum Road we saw homes that had escaped because there was clear space around them despite the fire coming perilously close and in one case burning out a car.
On the Friday afternoon of the fire attention had been directed to the chlorinator attached to Merimbula’s water supply and sitting close to Yellow Pinch Dam. Despite the flames coming within metres, the chlorination building and equipment was untouched, yet another tribute to the efforts of the firefighters that afternoon.