When I headed down the Summerland Way last week, days after the Rappville bushfire, there was still a pall of smoke and strange light south of Casino.
The corner of Braemar State Forest remains miraculously unscathed, but then… miles of destruction. You can see where the fire leapt the highway. It’s hard to imagine how the firefighters stopped it. Saved houses are dotted here and there, surrounded by burned trees.
In what was to be the site of a major blockade to protect one of the North Coast’s last viable koala populations, the forest has turned orange, black, and silent.
The gale-driven inferno travelled so fast here that the trees look scorched rather than incinerated, but if any wildlife has survived, there’s nothing for them to eat. There are no living leaves and no birds.
Closer to Rappville, everything has burned except a few open paddocks. Even once marshy areas around the creek are black. While the initial media reports of the town being wiped off the map were exaggerated, a large number of houses and other structures have been lost.
The weird whims of the fire are evident. One house (of a man whose wife is in palliative care) has been utterly destroyed, while nearby houses appear untouched apart from a few scorched fenceposts.
The heritage hotel still stands, a tribute to the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who battled the blaze all around it. The community hall is gone.
On the road out of town, to Wyan and Busby’s Flat, there are saved houses with singed fruit trees and black paddocks metres from the walls. Nothing remains of other houses but ruined cars and twisted corrugated iron.
Away from the forest, you can see how the fire raced down the roadside verge with nothing but stubble and fence posts to sustain it, before finding more fuel beyond.
Flood warning signs are blackened.
With the landscape still smoking, men were hard at work restoring fences, power and railway lines. Other workers in orange were clearing roads and making trees safe.
At Wyan I spoke to a couple, Tiger and Sharon Moth-Duncan, who have lost almost everything they owned. They were married only weeks ago, but their wedding photos are now ash, along with their clothes, documents and pretty much everything else. Their historic rented house, which had been in the process of being restored, has burned completely, although it was far from the forest and had no fuel around it. Luckily the cows had been taken off the property some time ago for lack of feed.
A few weeks ago Tiger and Sharon had a lucky escape when a bushfire came within two kilometres of their property. This time the fire was bigger, faster, and coming from a different direction. It had linked up with another fire, possibly with human assistance.
Tiger and Sharon explained that on the day of the inferno, the firies raced up and told them to pack their things, then said it was too late and defended the house while the family stayed inside. With the danger apparently past, the firies left to defend Rappville.
Then the wind changed, and the roads in and out were blocked by fire. An ember got into the roof, and the couple and their children had to flee the house and take refuge on a nearby cleared area as the house burned and the gas bottles exploded.
With the power cut, they couldn’t use their electric pump to defend the house, although they had water. They managed to save most of their dogs, but couldn’t get two out of their kennels in time – the flames were too intense to reach them.
Terrified wallabies and kangaroos hopped over their feet, trying to outrun the fire. A cow escaping from somewhere ran into a fence and died there.
The nearby timber mill, where Tiger worked, was also burning, despite the efforts of the owner to save it.
After the crisis, the Prime Minister, Premier and local member were all soon on the scene looking concerned for the cameras, but Tiger and Sharon were scathing about the lack of real support. $250 emergency relief was barely enough to cover clothes for each of them, and promises to rebuild the community hall were useless to people who had lost everything.
The trampoline has melted, as have some of Tiger’s tools. Tins of paint bought to complete the restoration of the house have cooked in what remains of the shed.
After a couple of days in emergency accomodation, Tiger and Sharon are now back on their property in a caravan and tent, trying to pick up their lives. At least Sharon still has her job as a dementia nurse in Casino, when she’s emotionally ready to return to work.
The Rappville fire has left the front pages, and the media circus has moved on, but the climate emergency is steadily worsening. For all this blaze’s ferocity, and size, it is just one of a number of bushfires in recent times that have caught Australians by surprise, from the wet tropics of Queensland to the rainforests behind the Gold Coast, from Rappville to the highlands of Tasmania.
The enormous Bees Nest fire, between Glen Innes and Coffs Harbour, is still burning.
And it’s not yet summer.
Tiger and Sharon have a crowdfunder at: www.gofundme.com/f/sharon-and-terry-moth-duncan-fire-fundraiser.