October 2020



By Bronwyn Adcock

Lake Conjola. © Robert Oerlemans via AP / AAP Images

A NSW community questions whether last summer’s catastrophic bushfire was inevitable

All of us, if we stop and think about it, know that life can turn in an instant. That what we value can suddenly be shattered. But truthfully, who really expects it to happen to us? Let alone our entire community.

On the last morning of 2019, a Tuesday, people in the small coastal hamlet of Conjola Park, on the New South Wales South Coast, could be forgiven for thinking there was little to worry about. For five weeks, the out-of-control Currowan bushfire had been burning its way up the coast towards them; it came menacingly close before Christmas, but by year’s end, the danger seemed to have passed.

The massive 250,000-hectare fire was still out to their west, and the forecast for New Year’s Eve was for dangerous fire weather. But the Rural Fire Service (RFS) had released a “Fire Spread Prediction” map to the public the day before, showing the fire moving towards places further north and to the south. It showed a possibility of ember attack on the eastern side of the fire, but nothing crossing the highway and coming into Conjola Park.

That morning, washing was hung on lines and boxes of photo albums unloaded from cars where they’d been packed for previous evacuations. People headed into the nearby larger towns for coffee and work, leaving wedding rings on dressers and family pets at home. Closer to the coast, continuing just down the narrow, tree-lined road from the highway, the caravan park at the twin hamlet of Lake Conjola heaved with thousands of holiday-makers, donning swimmers and putting drinks on ice for the night ahead.

It was the first blue-sky, smoke-free morning in weeks: a beautiful day, until it wasn’t.

The fire came roaring in – most likely from two directions – late in the morning. Justine Donohoe, a local skin therapist, was home with her two children. Her fire plan was to leave – she’d already evacuated once earlier in the month – so she bundled the boys and the dog into the car as soon as she saw smoke. But it was already too late.

First, she drove the few minutes up to where the road met the highway, to try and escape to a larger town, but when she got there, she was told the way out was already blocked by fire both north and south – go back. She turned back to her street; neighbours now running around with hoses, smoke thick, flames leaping through treetops beyond. With the radiant heat building alarmingly, she considered sheltering in her house, but then she saw an ember land on the road and melt the bitumen. People started to yell “get out, get out” as everyone piled into cars. Moments after she drove off again, a neighbour saw Donohoe’s home quiver, then explode.

Donohoe joined a convoy of cars making a mad dash down the narrow road towards the safety of the coastal waters at Lake Conjola, but fire blocked their way again. It was bedlam: cars towing boats and caravans, cars full of families, no one knowing what was going on or where to go. Conjola is one-road-in, one-road-out, so with no access to the lake and the coast, the only option left for Donohoe’s group was to turn around and try to somehow get out via the highway. When they got to the intersection, an RFS volunteer appeared, saying he’d lead a convoy in an escape north up the highway.

The driving was intense. The smoke was black and disorientating – Donohoe nearly crashed into the car in front – fire was in the bush on both sides of the road. The boys were quiet, paralysed with fear she thought; her husband, who was in Sydney, was FaceTiming with them on her phone. After who knows how many kilometres she punched out of the black smoke and into a surreal moonscape of black tree stumps and white ash. The other cars were gone and there was no sound. It was such an other-worldly scene she thought, My God, I’ve died.

On a hill, just before the turn-off into Conjola, 80-year old Frank Condello was standing in his driveway, fire hose out, when the first fireball landed on his front gate. “It was like the breakers you see on the ocean, but fire,” he says, “great big monsters, rolling down on us, right up to the tops of trees,” Water from his hose just blew away into the air and Condello ran for the house to shelter with his wife and a friend.

“I sat down in the chair and looked up at the ceiling, and the ceiling was on fire. The whole house was burning. I said, ‘For Christ sake, get out and get out now.’ ”

The three of them plus one of their dogs piled into a small Toyota sedan and Condello drove into the middle of a just-blackened paddock. For 50 minutes they huddled in the car, watching the fire crowning through the trees around them, listening to the sound of their house, sheds, plant nursery and cafe exploding into flames. Their other dog came running through the flames and they pulled him into the car.

By day’s end, three people in the area would be dead and 89 homes in Conjola Park burned down – well over a third of the town. Another 32 homes were destroyed in the nearby semirural communities of Little Forest and Yatte Yattah, as were countless numbers of farm sheds, cars and livestock, and many hundreds of kilometres of fencing. Thousands of people took shelter in the lake or on the beach – the fire having made it all the way to the coastline.

In early February 2020, the heaviest rain in 30 years extinguished all the bushfires across the state – finally putting an end to a fire season that seemed like it would go on forever. But in low-lying areas of Conjola, the rain brought flood. In the granny flat Frank Condello and his wife moved into after their house burned down, water came halfway up the walls.

In Conjola Park, those whose homes survived the fire found themselves living among the rubble of collapsed houses and burnt-out car wrecks. Kris Brennan went from living in a leafy street where she’d hear the neighbours laughing on their balconies at night and wake to birdsong in the morning, to living in an eerily quiet place that looked – depending on her outlook that day – like a warzone or a rubbish tip.

The steady procession of gawkers, usually either media or curious strangers, frayed her nerves. Outside her gate, the neighbour’s car was spectacularly melted onto the road and it became a photogenic attraction for news crews, and at one point, three young women taking selfies. She felt protective. “I didn’t want strangers to see my friends’ and neighbours’ homes in ashes,” she says.

Before the fire, Brennan regarded herself a calm person – she works in palliative care, volunteers with children and practises yoga – but now she was acting out of character. Storming out of the house to yell “Are you right?” at the stickybeaks, and standing on the street, hands on hips, giving death stares to slow-moving vehicles.

“I spoke to a counsellor,” Brennan says. “She explained that everyone’s home is usually their safe spot, their haven, but my home isn’t that anymore. It’s been shaken up. It has scars from the fire, and it has police and strangers constantly driving past. I feel exposed to any danger that is passing by, so that’s why I react. I’m really trying to save myself. I and many others are still living in a high state of angst.”

The NSW and federal governments shared the cost of the state’s bushfire clean-up – 2399 destroyed homes and 10,000 destroyed or damaged buildings. Heavy machinery started arriving in Conjola Park in March, and by May, it was looking like a new – albeit battered – estate, with empty blocks where houses once stood.

Then there was COVID. The vital tourist economy shut down, the local recovery centre had to close its doors, fundraising concerts were postponed, hugs were cancelled.

COVID did bring one benefit. The temporary shutdown of domestic tourism meant the local rental market – usually dominated by Airbnb and short-stay holiday rental – was now more open for bushfire victims seeking a place to live. But now the tourists are back, and the hustle to find a home is back on for some.

Justine Donohoe and her family are selling their block and have purchased a house in another town. She loved her home and community in Conjola Park, but after what she went through, she knew “it wouldn’t be the same” if she went back.

Every story of attempting to rebuild comes with its own individual agonies – the discovery of under-insurance, the navigation of new building codes, the additional building costs that come with BAL (bushfire attack level) ratings. Building a new house can be arduous at the best of times, let alone post-trauma in the middle of a pandemic.

On the now empty site of his former home of 30 years, Frank Condello asks: “How do you put it all together again?” He’s submitted new house plans to council and is hoping to start building later in the year, but says, only half-jokingly: “By the time we build this and pretty it up a bit, it’ll be a toss-up whether they let me come here or put me in a bloody nursing home.”

As the many thousands who lost their homes this past summer know, there is a grief in losing the irreplaceable. For Condello, what still keeps him up at night is the vision of his mother’s crucifix and his wedding ring hanging on the wardrobe in the bedroom and the two urns in the hallway containing the ashes of his brother and his granddaughter.

One of the most painful parts of recovery for this community has been the difficult process of trying to understand how and why this happened to them.

The questions started not long after the smoke cleared: Why was the RFS prediction map so wrong? Why were they given no warning until it was too late? Where were all the fire trucks? And what role did a back-burn, lit the day before, have in the fire that took out their village?

These questions have been vigorously discussed on social media and in homes and streets across the community. Some people have pursued their own investigations, tracking down witnesses, creating time lines, sending up drones.

In early June, Karen Lissa, a former deputy principal of the local high school, who successfully defended her Conjola home in harrowing circumstances, collated a list of dozens of questions on behalf of the community and sent them off to the RFS.

In her third follow-up email in August, still having received no answers, she wrote: “We understand that the state and federal inquiries will present their findings but feel, out of courtesy to the Conjola community, many of who are still under incredible physical and emotional stress, the RFS needs to respond personally to our questions.”

Both the federal government’s Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements and the state government’s NSW Bushfire Inquiry have recently handed down their findings into the devastating bushfire season that impacted upon the entire east coast of Australia. But inquiries of such scope don’t necessarily meet the more granular needs of an individual community trying to figure out what on earth had happened to them.

Making sense of a tragedy is an innately human instinct. It’s also protective: How can we be safe in the future if we don’t understand exactly what happened last time? The lack of clarity has only enhanced the already widespread trauma and distress, among survivors and first responders alike.

One of the enduring memories many in this area have of New Year’s Eve is the sight of convoys of fire trucks heading away from them, south down the highway.

While there were some fire trucks in the area, the majority of people who fought the fire in and around Conjola – either because they planned to stay and defend, or because they were trapped and had no choice – did so without assistance from emergency services.

In a little cluster of 25 houses on the edge of Lake Conjola, company director Alan Broome and around 10 men – “only two of them under 65” – went house to house, putting out fires where they could. When Broome’s deck caught fire, his mate got inside the house and presciently started hacking into the gyprock in the living room with a hammer: the fire was inside the walls. Five men climbed onto the roof of another smoking house and pulled the tin back, so they could get water into the roof cavity.

In Conjola Park, Kris and Scott Brennan started hosing down spot fires all around their house. Scott is a firefighter for the urban Fire and Rescue NSW, but was off duty that day, and when the heat delaminated his professional goggles and his hat blew off and exploded into flames, he told Kris to get to the lake. He fled when the town-water supply cut out (the pumping station had been damaged).

Scott says that later that night, hours after the fire front had passed, help still hadn’t arrived, and one house that had survived the initial fire went up in flames, igniting the house next to it too. It was possibly caused by something like smouldering garden mulch.

In nearby Yatte Yattah, Fiona and Ian Stewart were helping a neighbour defend his property when their own place, about 500 metres away, was overrun by fire with their adult son trapped inside. Fiona called triple-zero twice, and says she was told they were too busy. Ian tried for the third time, warning that “someone is going to die here unless you do something”, but he was told “there is nothing we can do”. Their son escaped with the help of neighbours; the house burned down.

John Ashton is one of the most experienced and well-respected RFS volunteers on the South Coast. At 78 years old, he’s been with the RFS more than half his life, including in leadership positions for decades. He – like most RFS volunteers in the area – is aware that many around Conjola felt they were forgotten. In late August, he sat down with The Monthly to talk about a day that still causes him distress.

“It’s upsetting for me,” he says. “I was DivCom [Divisional Commander] when that [fire] went through there. I had no trucks, nothing left on the shelf, and I had people screaming on the radio for help.”

In the structure of the RFS, it’s the professional staff who plan, strategise and allocate resources to a fire, working from a Fire Control Centre – in this case, situated to the north in the large town of Nowra. It’s the volunteers, such as Ashton, who implement these decisions on the fire ground.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Ashton was working out of an RFS van, set up as a temporary office, parked at a showground south of Conjola. He was serving as divisional commander for the eastern division – a stretch of coastline more than 90 kilometres long, with more than a dozen towns and smaller hamlets, and countless rural and semirural properties, to protect.

RFS planners had predicted the eastern flank of the fire would stay behind containment lines, west of the highway. But sometime around mid-morning, “that line blew, and it didn’t just blow in one spot, it blew the whole length of the line,” says Ashton.

By the time this happened, there was already another emergency well under way further south in the state. Before dawn, the southern flank of the Currowan fire had started running, and was hitting the towns of Batemans Bay, Malua Bay and Mogo. Further south still, a new fire, the Badja Forest Road fire, was blasting through Cobargo and Quaama. The convoys of fire trucks that people around Conjola had seen travelling south down the highway that morning were responding to these fires.

This meant that when the area under Ashton’s watch blew up, he had almost no chance of getting any extra resources beyond what he was already allocated. “You’ve only got so many eggs in a basket after a while,” he says, “and if some eggs are rotten or broken, you won’t go very far.”

Ashton says a number of trucks were broken down, waiting for repairs. He had access to some Fire and Rescue NSW trucks, but they can’t go off bitumen road. For safety reasons, the “strike teams” he had – a group of fire trucks brought together as a unit – couldn’t be split up, limiting their reach.

A flood of triple-zero calls started pouring in. “There was no one incident going on, there was a multitude of incidents going on, all over the place,” Ashton says. Emergency calls went first to Fire Control Centre in Nowra, which passed them on to Ashton, who was supposed to dispatch help in response. But very quickly, he was overwhelmed.

“I had no trucks, no nothing. We were actually sending PCs [personnel carriers, with no water resources] out to someone who was just about to be overrun by a fire … saying, ‘Just go and see what you can do’.”

Before long, he had nothing to offer anyone. “I called [Fire Control] and said I can’t accept any more triple-zero calls – I have no assets left.”

One call in particular nearly broke him. It was a colleague, an off-duty RFS member, who along with his wife was trapped on a property, both suffering horrendous burns.

“He’s calling in saying he couldn’t hang on to his radio because the skin had fallen off his hands,” says Ashton. “His daughter was there with him, and he was telling her to drag them and put them in the swimming pool and she was on the radio saying, ‘I can’t, they’re too heavy’.

“I nearly walked out of the [van],” said Ashton. “It made me feel shithouse. Because I had nothing to help any people with. And that’s my job.”

(By pure chance, moments after this call, a crew from the nearby Bawley Point brigade turned up at Ashton’s door. They’d started the day not rostered on and without
any trucks – one was broken down, the other missing, seconded elsewhere. But when they’d heard the fire was running, they’d called around and found a truck sitting idle in a nearby village and borrowed it. Ashton dispatched them to successfully rescue the couple – witnesses believe the woman may not have survived the burns to 50 per cent of her body without this rescue.)

Ashton says communications were terrible. “The radio system was overwhelmed. The phone towers were down so there was no bloody phone service. It was just a kerfuffle … I got no indication about any calls from Conjola until half the place had burned down”.

In some respects, the lack of emergency response to Conjola can be explained as the collateral damage of an overwhelming fire day: when Conjola was hit, extra fire trucks had already been sent further south. However, the paucity of resources was also due to the RFS’s mistaken assumption that the eastern containment lines of the Currowan fire would hold, and therefore there would be less need for fire trucks in this area.

The Monthly has seen the RFS Incident Action Plan for December 31 – this is the internal planning document Fire Control Centre created ahead of the day. The plan shows what resources were allocated to various parts of the Currowan fire, including what was available to Ashton (who was not our source for the document). 

It shows significantly more resources were allocated to the north of the fire, compared to the east.

For the night shift, no fire trucks at all were allocated for the eastern division.

Throughout the 2019–20 fire season, the Australian public was warned resources were stretched. “Don’t expect a fire truck,” was the message from the RFS as early as November. On New Year’s Eve, people in Conjola experienced the brutal reality of what this means.

A firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW expressed his frustration with the squandering of these scarce resources on December 31 in a written submission to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

James Diamond said he had started his shift that morning waiting at a fire station in the Blue Mountains, and then one nearer to Sydney, before finally being briefed at 2.30 in the afternoon about the deteriorating fire situation on the South Coast. The time-stamped weather report, upon which the briefing was based, was from seven in the morning.

When his strike team finally got to the South Coast in response, it was after 5pm. The sky was black with smoke and evacuated residents were milling around. The team was told to go to the McDonald’s in Nowra for a meal. For Diamond, it was mortifying.

“There we are, 17 firefighters sitting down eating Macca’s … Extremely embarrassing. Civilians were approaching us – some thanking us, others asking why we weren’t doing anything (which is what I was thinking) … It looked absolutely terrible, really shameful.”

After McDonald’s, they went to Nowra’s Fire Control Centre, where they were offered refreshments – “which none of us needed because we hadn’t been doing anything” – before finally being sent back to Sydney, without getting the hose off the truck once.

“The lack of leadership, communication and tasking was absolutely terrible … There were 4 strike teams there that evening (16 trucks total) from FRNSW and I can hands down say that that was the most frustrating and mortifying day I have had in the 11 years I’ve been a firefighter.”

By far the most contentious and painful question the Conjola community has grappled with is what role, if any, a back-burn had in the disaster that hit them.

Until speculation started appearing on social media in the immediate days after the fire, most people within Conjola were not aware that the day before December 31 – in the face of forecast extreme fire weather conditions – a high-risk back-burning operation was undertaken to their west.

Eyewitnesses from rural properties had seen the back-burn lit – indeed, some had remonstrated with the emergency services as it was happening, saying weather conditions were too dangerous – and over the following months, in the absence of any official information, it became a widely discussed topic across the community. Not surprisingly, it was a source of anger and distress.

While some were cautious about drawing a connection between the back-burns and the fires, the allegation that “a back-burn took out Conjola” became a widely repeated truism within the local area.

In early May, four months after the fire, the RFS announced it would hold a community meeting to address these concerns. By now the state was in COVID lockdown, so this highly anticipated event was managed via the videoconferencing app Zoom.

At the meeting, residents were surprised to learn that an internal investigation had taken place without anyone travelling to the area or speaking to locals. The RFS manager tasked with the investigation, Matthew O’Donnell, is from another region. O’Donnell told the meeting: “We were not on the ground, having a look at the physical evidence. It was a review of the incident records, the mapping, the line scans, interviewing the staff and volunteers.”

He said that fire-behaviour analysts had conducted post-fire modelling, concluding that “on the balance of probabilities” the spot fire that started the fire run into Conjola “is likely to have originated from the main fire front”.

While O’Donnell conceded that “a spot fire from the back-burn, once the weather conditions had deteriorated, can’t be ruled out”, it is “most likely it came from the fire front as it approached the back-burn and met in that area”. The back-burn lit on the afternoon of the 30th “was not believed to have exacerbated the situation”.

O’Donnell said the fire weather that day was far more extreme than had been forecast, and modelling showed that under such horrendous conditions, the fire was always going to hit the coast, with or without a back-burn in place.

Determining the role of a back-burn in a fire can be difficult. One experienced fire investigator, not involved in the Conjola investigation, likened it to trying to unscramble an egg.

The extreme fire behaviour of the 2019–20 season makes it even harder. One of the features of this season was fires throwing embers many kilometres ahead of the fire front – known as “spotting”. In a landscape where there is both a back-burn and a distant fire throwing countless spots in the back-burn’s direction, it can be hard to untangle the two to determine the precise source of a runaway bushfire.

A group of 12 mostly retired Australian bushfire experts undertook a reconstruction of the Conjola fire and submitted their findings to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry. Their submission said: “it is difficult to work out from the information available whether the main fire or the back-burns contributed to the spot fires that occurred”.

The inquiry received many submissions related to Conjola, but stated: “Noting that this fire is the subject of a Coronial Inquiry, it is not appropriate for the Inquiry to make any findings as to the cause of this fire.”

Many residents reacted to the RFS findings with scepticism, primarily because some directly contradicted eyewitness accounts.

O’Donnell told the community meeting that, the night before the fire, “crews were focused on mopping up and blacking out that back-burn so it was secured for the following day”, and that by 3.16am on the morning of December 31, the back-burn was “reported to be blacked out [extinguished] along its entire length and secure with no known threats in the area”.

The implication of this – that the back-burn was out – is that it was less likely to be the source of the final fire.

Ian and Fiona Stewart’s property in Yatte Yattah is in a semirural area, edged by forest, to the west of Conjola. Part of the back-burn was lit adjacent to them, and they say it was never out or under control. On the night of December 30, they could see the back-burn flames from their bedroom window; Ian took photos showing flames well up into the trunks of trees. (A controlled back-burn aims to keep the fire on the ground.) By 4am, they say embers were hitting their house from the direction of the back-burn.

Martin Lee, a volunteer with the Conjola RFS, was also on the scene that night. He turned up in the evening, tasked with mopping up the back-burn that had been lit hours earlier, and he found “furious, rabid” local property owners (including the Stewarts) and a fire burning into the treetops. “We were pretty shocked,” he says, about the state of the fire, which was heading into inaccessible gullies. “We didn’t put it out – we couldn’t put it out.” When he finished his shift at 3am on the morning of New Year’s Eve, it was not blacked out or contained.

Lee, whose home and business were destroyed by the same fire that hit Conjola, is not alleging the back-burn caused the fire – he says he doesn’t know.

Around the same time the fire was about to explode upon the Stewarts’ house, at 11am on New Year’s Eve, a satellite operated by the European Space Agency captured a heat image from above. At this moment in time, the part of the fire moving into Conjola Park looks like two enormous shapeless blobs of yellow – it’s hard to distinguish its exact source. But the part of the fire coming specifically towards the Stewarts’ place is a line that matches the shape of the road from which the back-burn was lit. (In the May meeting, the RFS said they were unaware of this image, which is publicly accessible online.)

Ian Stewart is personally convinced this shows “regardless of Conjola, our own fire was definitely created by that back-burn”.

“It was out of control and then they were gone, and the next morning nothing was done to contain it. They were completely reckless in lighting that fire and not having the resources to deal with it and then the extra resources in case it got out of control.”

Nine months on, Stewart’s grief at losing his family home is complicated and enhanced by what he sees as a lack of accountability. He says the denials “make my blood boil”.

“We are having to deal with rebuild and clean-up at our stage of life. We have lost so much of what we value. We can’t see an end; we can’t see a horizon here. It will be a very long time before we settle into a normal life again … We expect them to acknowledge what they did.”

Back-burning is a traditional firefighting strategy. Unlike a hazard-reduction burn, which is undertaken in the best possible conditions and delayed if the weather is not right, back-burning is always a calculated risk, often in an emergency situation.

“It is a tool that we use to actually take out the fire and take out the fuel in front of the fire. It’s not done on perfect conditions,” says Superintendent Mark Williams, who was the RFS incident controller for the Currowan fire. “But the risk of not doing something is usually higher and that’s why we choose to do that.”

Williams says the decision was taken to back-burn west of Conjola on December 30, despite inclement weather conditions, because it represented a gap in the containment line running down the eastern flank of the fire. If that “gate” was not closed by a back-burn, then “that’s a particular avenue that the fire can escape”.

Over the 74 days that the Currowan fire ran, it would have been impossible for Williams to do his job without taking many calculated risks involving back-burning. On January 1, for example, the entire South Coast was declared a “tourist leave zone” ahead of another catastrophic fire day, and Williams had to find a way to get some 10,000 people north on a heavily forested highway that was still an active fire zone. Of particular concern was an 8-kilometre stretch that hadn’t burned but could do so at any time – a potentially deadly risk for slow-moving traffic.

There weren’t enough resources, there wasn’t enough time, and the wind was poor, but Williams blocked the highway and sent in crews to back-burn the stretch of highway. “I said, ‘You know what? We’ve got no choice. Light it up.’ I said, ‘If you need to, get in the truck with the drip torches either side of the highway and just light it up.’ ”

The gamble paid off. By the time the next firestorm descended upon the South Coast on January 4, everyone who wanted to had left safely.

Still, the decision to back-burn west of Conjola on December 30 is open to question.

A key part of the RFS explanation for why things went wrong on the eastern edge of the fire is that the weather was worse than expected. “The conditions we saw on that day were so extreme, and so far away from the forecast,” said the RFS investigator, Matthew O’Donnell.

Conditions may have been worse, but the forecast in place on the afternoon the back-burn was lit was still extremely dire. The Monthly has seen a copy of an internal Fire Weather Advisory, issued by the RFS at 2pm on December 30, warning that the fire danger rating for the South Coast the next day was “extreme”.

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry found that back-burning was one of the most controversial firefighting strategies of the 2019–20 bushfire season. While some back-burns worked, others failed, causing more damage. The inquiry discovered an opaque system of accountability, with “currently no requirement to record back-burns and their outcomes”. The RFS was unable to provide the inquiry with a complete dataset of all back-burns undertaken over the 2019–20 season.

One of the biggest lessons of this past summer is that, under a changing climate, fire is now behaving in ways we don’t yet fully understand. With fire seasons becoming more extreme, strategies that once worked may no longer be successful. The inquiry found that the tool of back-burning may need to be reconsidered and, at least, better understood. It recommended in future, if fire conditions are approaching severe or above, “an independent review must be undertaken at State Operations Level” before a back-burn is authorised.

Under this recommendation – and the government has accepted them all – the plan to back-burn near Conjola in extreme conditions would have been independently reviewed.

Karen Lissa has still not received a response to the community’s questions, sent to the RFS in June. Although most people are moving on with their lives, there is still a sense of unfinished business.

Conjola residents are still wondering why they weren’t notified earlier that the weather – and the fire – had taken an unexpected turn, especially as there were not enough fire trucks to defend them.

In the community meeting, Matthew O’Donnell revealed that the RFS knew there was a “significant escalation in fire activity from 0300 with some pressure on the lines even as early as 6am” on New Year’s Eve morning.

The RFS’s internal weather forecast for Conjola that day – seen by The Monthly – shows escalating poor weather conditions from early in the morning. Using the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index – which directs the fire danger rating – it forecast by 9am the danger would be “very high”, by 10am “severe”, 11am “extreme”, and midday, just short of “catastrophic”.

Yet an emergency text message wasn’t sent out to residents until 10.50am – by which time it was too late to leave.

The devastating events of New Year’s Eve, and the painful process of trying to understand them, have also caused serious repercussions for local first responders in this close-knit community.

During the bushfire emergency, local National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) rangers worked under the RFS structure. One of its teams was tasked with lighting part of the back-burn.

Because of this, some rangers have since faced verbal abuse as they’ve gone about their daily life – bailed up and yelled at in the supermarket and the street. To avoid this, many have stopped wearing their uniforms in public and removed NPWS logos from their vehicles. They’ve all heard the derogatory moniker “National Sparks and Wildfire” tossed around town. (This same phrase was used by Deputy Premier John Barilaro, in an interview with Sydney radio station 2GB in August. While he was using it to blame the management of national parks for the fires, falsely alleging the “approach is to let it burn”, it’s playing on the same theme: national parks rangers as fire-starters.)

Like most volunteers in the area, Ian Stevens, a volunteer with the Milton RFS (the next brigade closest to Conjola), has heard the speculation surrounding the cause of the fire and feels deeply wounded.

“It hurt us. It personally hurt me. I’ve had to seek mental health support,” he says. “I have more PTSD from the community reaction than the fire itself.”

Stevens was on the back-burn that night. He knows, rationally, that he simply did what he was tasked to do. And he says when he finished his shift that night, his section of the back-burn was well contained and under control. But still, “when people say, ‘it was the back-burn’, it feels like it is my fault”.

Like many, Stevens gave up two months of his life to fight the Currowan fire – forfeiting income, risking his life. He sometimes wonders if people realise his brigade had just two trucks to cover 400 square kilometres, and while they couldn’t be everywhere, a crew from Milton RFS was in Conjola on December 31, working a 19-hour shift, saving what they could.

For Stevens, the way forward is to better prepare for next time. He successfully defended his own home during the Currowan fire, and as soon as COVID restrictions lift, he plans to have all his neighbours over to pass on what he learnt: keep the woodchips away from your house, keep the grass short, make sure you’ve got protective clothing.

“We have to learn this is the new normal,” he says. “Everyone needs to get involved.”

Bronwyn Adcock

Bronwyn Adcock is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Griffith Review and The Saturday Paper and on the ABC. She is the author of Currowan.

From the front page

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

In This Issue

Fear of spending

So what is MMT and why should you care?

Soul music: Kev Carmody

The life of a great Australian songwriter

Body politic: ‘Boys State’

American democracy is documented in all its gangly, acne-mottled glory

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

More in The Monthly Essays

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The slow fade of music education

An elegy for music, learning and impoverished culture

Image of Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Teal and loathing: On the campaign trail

The seismic shift that saw voters around the country turn on the Coalition and deliver a Labor victory

Image of red-paint hands on Yuendumu Police Station

The death of Kumanjayi Walker

On the shooting in Yuendumu and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Morrison’s power without purpose

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Two sides of the same Shields?

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media