April 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Slow work

By Fiona McGregor
Neighbours and friends rebuilding communities after the bushfires

The village of Balmoral, 110 kilometres south-west of Sydney, was overrun twice by fire. It came from the Nattai National Park in the west on the Thursday and Saturday before Christmas Day, then winds from the east and south forced the fire back on itself. Julie Vulcan and Ash Scott were as prepared as possible, evacuating before much of the area was destroyed.

Two months later, driving down the Hume Highway, I am shocked at how green the country is after a few weeks of rain. From roadside to paddock, grass is growing thick and tall. Finally, after an hour, the devastation appears. Past the village of Hill Top are forests of burnt matchsticks and bare ground, the warped iron and blackened bricks of ruined houses. Yet cladding the charred trees is regrowth that from a distance resembles furry moss. In the drizzle the effect is beautiful.

Vulcan and Scott’s house survived, but their storage sheds and studio were burnt to the ground, as were the six acres of dry sclerophyll forest that make up their property. “But I don’t like that word property,” Vulcan tells me. “Instead, I say, ‘This is where we live.’ ”

We are walking along a sandy trail that was once the only path, such was the thickness of the scrub. Now, through the skeletal black, the neighbours are visible. A market gardener who lost a shed full of tractors and his weatherboard house; a pastoral property whose house survived, situated as it is in the middle of a large paddock. An apiarist whose bees all died. At the bottom of the hill is a creek that feeds Bargo River, now in rare flow. The rain was so heavy at one point Vulcan and Scott had to dig a trench around the house to prevent flooding.

All the species endemic to the area lived here. Gang-gang cockatoos, crimson rosellas, spinebills, honeyeaters. Stringybark, silvertop ash, bloodwood, grey and scribbly gums. Mountain devils, acacias, geebungs. Now the place is quiet. Ants have been busy – little mounds of ochre-coloured soil are everywhere underfoot – and there are new shoots of native grass and fungi, which digest carbon from the ash. The last time fire came through was the late 1960s. The fuel load was massive, the bush due for a burn. A log that smoked for weeks afterwards was a tree Scott remembers falling in the 1980s.

I have hired a ute to help take loads of burnt wood to the tip. The local disaster recovery centre is supplying tools, and another friend, John Barrett, has come to operate the chainsaw. The Bargo tip is about 20 kilometres away. You need to produce a letter from the council and ID in order to enter. It smells like rotting flesh. On the left, a crater of rubbish. On the right, where we head, a mountain of organic waste. It is striking how much is green. I see lantana, but also hakea, Christmas bush, banksia.

Buxton, which was defended by the Rural Fire Service, is less damaged. We drive past the spot where a tree fell on a fire truck, killing two firefighters. People pull up to leave a wreath. Here and there, banners declaring “THANK YOU” to the RFS are hung on fences.

More friends arrive from Sydney. Lunch appears. One friend’s van and my ute are loaded. It’s satisfying to shrink the burnt woodpiles. Another friend tells us his brother, the fire captain in Bilpin, north-west of Sydney, lost his orchard. He and his wife have been helping there most weekends.

I am late to these working bees. They started in January. Vulcan has decades of experience as a collaborating artist, director and administrator to manage what could be a logistical nightmare. She and Scott are lucky to have friends with skills, such as Barrett, who is an arborist. He brings over a piece of wood with a whitetail spider on it to warn us. Nods to a huge old stringybark. “That’s not stable above the fungus in the fork.”

A new rock garden has been built with donations of succulents. The birdbaths are full. We see sulphur-crested cockatoos and hear black ones, and a flock of choughs alights to peck the ground. Along the driveway, unstable trees are marked with ribbon. Even with a team and a chainsaw the amount of work is overwhelming. The free waste disposal will end soon and there is no way everything will be done. Scott has taken off as much time as possible from his job in the city. Vulcan hasn’t been able to work for two months.

The barrenness is the hardest thing to get used to. “My formative memories of this place are that it was in the back of the woods,” Scott says. “The neighbours came later. That house is 1998, that one 2011. There was no one over there.”

The remains of the storage shed had to be fenced off due to asbestos. Lost were the couple’s winter clothes, Vulcan’s performance costumes, building materials, tools. She had a set of volcanic basalt rocks she used for kahuna massages. The heat of the fire was so intense, they all cracked, rendering them useless. It was six weeks before Hazmat Services could come. The house, a prefab dwelling of galvanised steel built by Scott’s parents in the 1970s, withstood the onslaught.

The vegetable garden and orchard were torched. A peach tree is sprouting from the base, but the loquat and nectarines are dead. “The animals may have taken refuge in old termite mounds or wombat burrows,” says Vulcan. “We saw an echidna within a week. Wallabies and wombats. A little ringtail. But a lot of the mammals are nocturnal or crepuscular so it’s hard to know how they’re going. I think the biggest loss is birds. We found a dead brushtail, but you won’t find pardalotes or thornbills because they’re so small. It’s harder for them to get away because they’re shrub-dwellers and very territorial.”

We get a load in before the tip shuts at 4.15pm and see more freshly cut vegetation. I think of the urge to cull sharks after so-called shark attacks. Although it has been scientifically proven that the fires were fiercer due to excessive land clearing, trees are now seen by many as too risky. Each trip to the tip takes us past a paddock strewn with giant eucalyptus, bulldozed despite being thick with regrowth, their massive roots exposed. It’s like a battlefield.  

“A lot of people here are on day jobs,” says Scott. “They’ve taken a big hit that insurance and government subsidies can’t cover. Under policies like mine, you can’t insure materials. Carpenters with stockpiles of timber, the useful little nuts and bolts you accumulate over years. The toll on sheds and outbuildings around Sydney is huge. That’s where a lot of accumulated wealth is.”

We are all covered in soot by the end of the day. “It’s been like this for two months,” Scott says, and shrugs.

“How long before you feel you’ll be on top of it?”

For Scott, there is more of an insistence not to forget. “We need to understand how to manage and protect in an ongoing way.”

For Vulcan, it is day by day. “There will always be something to do – it’s the nature of living with the bush. The fire has changed this place – it will never be like it was in our lifetime. It’s our teacher now. It’s slow work.”

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Cover image of The Monthly, April 2020

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