Johns River residents reflect on the impact of ferocious fires which tore through their community in November

WHAT A DAY: 'Unprecedented' fire activity gripped parts of NSW on Friday, November 8 2019. Photo: Richscape Photography.
WHAT A DAY: 'Unprecedented' fire activity gripped parts of NSW on Friday, November 8 2019. Photo: Richscape Photography.

It has been two months since our communities were challenged by the most terrifying bushfires we've seen in 20 years. Lives were lost, homes destroyed and hectares of flora and fauna decimated. And Australia continues to burn.

In the aftermath of our own horrific experience - shared by individuals, communities and those amazing volunteers and emergency services personnel who bravely manned the frontline - we can reflect on the challenges we faced.

This special report looks at some of those challenges at Johns River where isolation, communication and awareness about just what to do, were met with dangerously erratic conditions and fire with a ferocity no-one could have predicted. A fire that took one of their own.

It's a story that continues to play out in the state's south.

In the aftermath of trauma, there are heightened emotions to navigate. There is no place for blame, but there are questions to be asked.

Our journalist Carla Mascarenhas returns to those communities most impacted.


NOT much fazes Bet Kay.

In her twenties she raised lions and antelope while developing a game farm in South Africa. She has been attacked by baboons.

But even Mrs Kay admits Friday, November 8, when the sky turned orange, was confronting.

The long-term resident of Johns River, a small rural community south of Port Macquarie, knew something "just wasn't right".

For weeks the Bills Crossing fire in the Crowdy Bay National Park had been burning in the distance.

But late on November 8 it tore through parts of Johns River with ferocity, wildly unpredictable, intense southerly winds refueling it.

The fire would claim the life of resident, 63-year-old Julie Fletcher. Ms Fletcher lived on the same road as Mrs Kay.

My horses were picking up the smell of smoke.

Bet Kay

Mrs Kay said Johns River was not mentioned in any emergency warning text messages that she received in the lead-up to the fire hitting the town. She received messages about other places - Laurieton, Coralville, Harrington - but not Johns River.

The failure of telecommunications amid the horror is once again being experienced by thousands of residents in the state's south as fires continue to ravage New South Wales.

Anyone impacted by this level of trauma will later need to navigate a range of emotions and part of that process is looking for answers, reflecting on how those frightful moments played out and whether any of them could have done anything differently.

Mrs Kay said she was not completely unprepared. There were signs.

"My horses were picking up the smell of smoke," she said.

Then her little pony started screaming her head off. Soon she bolted, along with her five horses.

"I've been with animals my whole life, wild animals, big animals, small animals," Mrs Kay said in a matter of fact manner.

"Knowing animals as I do, I know they have better instincts than we do."

Bet Kay with one of her beloved horses at her Johns River property.

Bet Kay with one of her beloved horses at her Johns River property.

Mrs Kay stayed to defend her property on Wharf Road, a road one Johns River resident starkly referred to as a "death trap" ("one gravelly way in, one gravelly way out").

At one point a "wall of fire" surrounded her.

She estimates fire trucks didn't enter the eastern end of Wharf Road until after the fire had come through. When they did come through she was sitting on her porch, with her light on. They didn't stop until much later.

The days that followed were hazy.

She had no power. When she rang Essential Energy she was told they were unaware there was an outage on the street and could she encourage other residents to ring up?

She was running out of water too and deeply concerned about her animals.

When the Port News arrived at her gate almost a week later she asked desperately, "How can I get help?".

We passed on the NSW Office of Emergency Management Community Recovery newsletter which had been promptly emailed to journalists.

BlazeAid eventually came, as did representatives of the Department of Water, but Mrs Kay says there are lessons that need to be learned from November 8.

The government should be paying these people, we cannot rely on a volunteer effort..

Bet Kay

"I know they are not prepared, the coordination, where was it?" she said.

"Where was the advice?

"The would have known in the morning the Coralville fire was getting out of control.

"They should have been informing people, telling them if you feel you are not prepared, you should be packing your bags in the morning.

"Not everybody can leave in an hour. Moving animals takes time."

She believes the Rural Fire Service needs to be better resourced and funded.

"The government should be paying these people, we cannot rely on a volunteer effort.

Bruce Shaw in front of Johns River State Forest.

Bruce Shaw in front of Johns River State Forest.

"Those people who are going out in the field and are prepared to save the community, their lives are at risk, it needs to have a wallet behind it."

"This country is prone to bushfires, there are not even any information sessions that are being conducted before we got to summer."

As for the coordination post-fire, she believes it was deficient.

"There was a lack of coordination with information, that it gets to the right people...." she said. "They need to get their ducks in a row and organise it like an army."

Across the road from Mrs Kay another resident Bruce Shaw wants answers too.

At around 5pm on November 8 he noticed a "glow in the sky".

He called the RFS only to be told not to worry, the fire was apparently travelling in a different direction.

A short time later they called back and said there was a problem. Mr Shaw said an automated warning was given to his landline.

Mr Shaw also stayed back to defend his property. His property remains remarkably in tact.

But he said November 8 was a disaster just waiting to happen.

Toni Galati during the fires.

Toni Galati during the fires.

"For the last nine years I have continually been onto forestry and the RFS to backburn the forest opposite me," he said.

"It has 30-40 years of fuel on the floor. I was told they weren't able to burn in there because some of the trees were protected, namely the melaleuca.

"Look at it now."

Former Johns River fire captain Tony Galati raises concerns about the management of that fire and predicting what it might do next.

He believes the fire on November 8 was "missed" when he says, it ran to the back of the swamp.

Conditions on that day were highly volatile and changing by the minute.

When you lose a local person it hurts that little bit harder.

Fire captain Bruce Dudley

The Johns River fire brigade which used to have 20 members now only has around five or six active members, according to current fire captain Bruce Dudley.

He was protecting his own property on the night of November 8 and was not on duty but says the brigade did make it to Wharf Road. His crew, which before that day had been fighting fires around the clock, are still traumatised by what happened.

"When you lose a local person it hurts that little bit harder," he said.

He said the brigade needs more funding.

"Other than a Section 44 state of emergency we have to buy our own water, microwave, fridge, kitchen, bench, the racking," he said.

"A lot of the brigades don't have the chance to do much fundraising. Anything operational is looked after by the fire controls, anything that makes life easier we have to fundraise."

Johns River fire captain Bruce Dudley speaking to the Port News on November 9.

"We need appliances, vehicles and the equipment to do the job," she said.

"The problem in our district is that it has just gone on for so long. The Lindfield Park Fire started on July 17 and it is still going."

The Port News contacted the NSW RFS but it declined to comment for this article.

A spokesperson said management of the fire would feed into a coronial inquest into Ms Fletcher's death.

Firefighters the Port News spoke to say the unprecedented level of fire activity on Friday November 8 made fires difficult to manage on that day.

Rod Innes, Kerry West and Ray McInerney discuss the last couple of weeks.

Rod Innes, Kerry West and Ray McInerney discuss the last couple of weeks.

Communities rally - things need to change

A group of Upper Rollands Plains residents gathered for afternoon tea at the home of local personality Ray McInerney. They reflected on that horrific day.

A relaxed Mr McInerney was returning from an overseas holiday on November 8 when a bushfire hit the rural community.

There is not enough cleared land, there is 15 to 20 years of undergrowth. It is like a timebomb and it went off.

Ray McInherney

"I came back from a fantastic holiday to a fortnight of stress and worry," he said.

"When I landed I wanted to get on the next plane and get back to Japan."

Mr McInerney is full of praise for the firefighters.

"I was coughing and spluttering and I was thinking what a good job these guys were doing and I wish I was a bit younger so I could help them," he said.

While the fire danger appears to have finally eased Mr McInerney believes there are broader problems that need to be addressed by government.

"As far as I am concerned they need to do something about the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority)," Mr McInerney said.

"Let property owners manage their own property because they know how to look after it.

"Somebody in a suit who has never walked in the bush hasn't got the faintest idea.

"I've applied for permits to control burn this place and I've had it three times knocked back and each time they say there is enough cleared land around the house.

"There is not enough cleared land, there is 15 to 20 years of undergrowth. It is like a timebomb and it went off."

Rollands Plains fire captain Rod Innes concurs.

"If we are given the resources in our own community as a fire brigade we could pretty much make ourselves redundant, we could get a level of comfort and safety," Mr Innes said.

Rollands Plains Fire captain Rod Innes.

Rollands Plains Fire captain Rod Innes.

"Ten to 15 years ago we could go to a property owner and say do you need a hand to do your hazard reduction?

"We are now hamstrung by paperwork and bureaucracy.

"By the time you get your paperwork from some guy who is sitting in an office who gives you the authority you have lost the window, the weather window that you knew you had to do your burns."

He acknowledges it is a state government issue but said the federal government can't wash its hands off it either.

"Federal politicians need to say if you are not going to step up and manage this, we will," he said.

Mr Innes disputes the widely held notion that the fires have been "unprecedented" due to climate change.

"They have only been unprecedented because we haven't been able to get the reductions of fuel, it has nothing to do with climate."

INNOVATIVE: Pappinbarra dairy farmer Mary Reynolds left signs by the side of the road to alert authorities the power was off after November 8.

INNOVATIVE: Pappinbarra dairy farmer Mary Reynolds left signs by the side of the road to alert authorities the power was off after November 8.

Another resident Kerry West wants the government to improve telecommunications in the bush.

"A lot of urban people, they are used to having everything at their finger tips," she said.

"We cannot get those technological warnings because in some parts of Upper Rollands Plains you don't get a signal.

"Ninety per cent of this place doesn't have mobile coverage, some don't even get TV coverage while others have very limited choice of stations which is horrendous considering the distance we are from the coast."

"We lost all our milk for almost six days," she said.

"It was enough to make a deep impact on our income."

GRIM TIMES: RFS Incident controller Kam Baker briefing Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Lyne MP Dr David Gillespie, State Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Port Macquarie-Hastings Mayor Peta Pinson. Photo: Peter Daniels.

GRIM TIMES: RFS Incident controller Kam Baker briefing Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Lyne MP Dr David Gillespie, State Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Port Macquarie-Hastings Mayor Peta Pinson. Photo: Peter Daniels.

The political response to the bushfires has been fraught with problems.

When a sympathetic Prime Minister Scott Morrison, accompanied by the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, visited the RFS headquarters in Wauchope on November 9 it was a carefully managed affair.

The PM and Premier drove straight past Johns River that day - where residents on Wharf Road were struggling to get back on their feet - on their way to Taree.

A few days later federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese, in an ironed shirt and akubra hat, also visited fire-affected residents on the North Coast.

"Shame on you" Nimbin resident Ginger O'Brien yelled at Mr Albanese, clearly still in shock. "Your house is not burning. My house is burning down. What are you doing? Nothing. You're laughing, you're having a circus, you're playing with fire!"

The distressing scene was running on news bulletins across the country and on repeat on ABC News 24. The Port News' usually unflappable editor - who had been working by that stage around the clock on the paper's coverage - quietly got up and muted the TV in the afternoon.

Any state government should be open and willing to have a transparent process where we learn from these events and I don't think that passes aspersions on any agency or government.

Federal Emergency Management minister David Littleproud

The Prime Minister had his own misstep when he said firefighters "wanted to be out there" and then jetted off to Hawaii on holiday.

On December 29 he finally agreed to pay volunteer firefighters battling long-running NSW blazes up to $6000 in financial compensation for putting their lives at risk.

NSW Labor has asked the NSW Auditor General to urgently investigate whether firefighters have the resources they need.

"The message I have heard from my conversations with firies across the state is that NSW needs more permanent and retained firefighters on the frontline to keep our communities safe," Labor Shadow Minister for Emergency Services, Trish Doyle said.

"The Liberals and Nationals must also urgently fill all vacancies within the Rural Fire Service's professional, paid staff to adequately support and enable the work of our volunteer firefighters."

Red Hill resident Geoff Agnew.

Fire management comes under the state government but federal Emergency Management minister David Littleproud told the Port News the federal and state government would welcome feedback on how the bushfire response was coordinated in NSW.

"What we need to do is to make sure the state government provides the right environment for not only the firefighters on the front line but also those that have been impacted to give frank and fearless feedback," he said.

"Any state government should be open and willing to have a transparent process where we learn from these events and I don't think that passes aspersions on any agency or government."

Despite the sentiment, Mr Littleproud offers no avenue for how that feedback could be passed on.

On December 5 the Morrison Government does announce a parliamentary inquiry into "land management policy, practice and legislation and their effect on the intensity and frequency of bushfires".

And in the wake of the devastation across several states since Christmas, the prime minister has now flagged an overhaul of hazard reduction operations in national parks and laws dictating where land can be cleared and houses built.

We ask - what do you want the government, the Prime Minister and the NSW Premier - specifically to do in the aftermath?

"Can they fix my fence?" one resident asks quizzically.

Of all the fire-affected residents spoken to for this story only one - sprightly Red Hill resident Geoff Agnew - mentions climate change.

  • carla.mascarenhas@portnews.com.au


This story From the ashes: communities reflect on fire challenges first appeared on Port Macquarie News.