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The road to recovery: a year on from the bushfires on Australia's Sapphire Coast

The devastating bushfires that raged between September 2019 and February 2020 scorched vast swathes of land, killing or displacing billons of animals. In the aftermath, communities turned to each other for help rebuilding their lives. 

By Justin Meneguzzi
Published 17 Feb 2021, 09:46 GMT
Broulee woodlands on the edge of the Illawong Nature Reserve has recovered remarkably well, the trees emerald ...

Broulee woodlands on the edge of the Illawong Nature Reserve has recovered remarkably well, the trees emerald green once more. 

Photograph by Justin Meneguzzi

“We’re basically sitting on a bomb,” says Karen Touchie, nervously laughing into her gin and tonic.

Behind us, in a wooden shed Karen and her partner, Gavin Hughes, have converted into a boutique gin distillery, thousands of litres of pure alcohol are stored in a tank. The three of us are seated on the verandah at the North of Eden distillery, in New South Wales’ lush Bega Valley, sipping their award-winning artisan gins while looking out over freshly cut green grass. The scents of oranges and lemons, which are just coming into season, linger in the air and Highland cows low gently nearby. Karen and Gavin’s three-legged border collie, Jim, hobbles closer for a pat. 

It’s hard to fathom that this is the same spot where, on 30 December 2019, Karen and Gavin watched as a fiery noose closed in from the surrounding mountains and tightened around their hilltop farm, the alcohol essential to their thriving gin business now threatening to burn it down. With routes north and south blocked by fires, and the road west to Canberra — the closest city — closed by authorities, the couple had few options but to stay and fight.

Although Karen and Gavin’s predicament may sound extraordinary, it was anything but. On my drive along the Sapphire Coast, 300 miles south of Sydney, I meet dozens of locals who recount their own tales of that day, vividly recalling when the sun disappeared for 40 hours and magpies fell from the sky, dead.

From August 2019 to February 2020, Australia experienced the worst bushfire season in the nation’s history, affecting large sections of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. By the time quenching rains arrived in late February, the Black Summer fires had destroyed more than 3,000 houses, killed 33 people and torched enough terrain to cover Portugal more than twice over. 

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While the frequency and intensity of bushfires in Australia have been increasing over the past decade, aided by increasing temperatures and prolonged dry seasons caused by climate change, the Black Summer fires were unique in their severity. In the lead-up to summer, the country had weathered its warmest and driest year on record, resulting in a tinderbox landscape waiting to ignite. 

On the Sapphire Coast, the match was a bolt of lightning. The terrain caused the flames to spread at terrifying speeds and scorching winds belched embers miles ahead of the fire front, causing new blazes to flare up at random. Smaller fires joined up to create mega-blazes. The resulting smoke haze was so dense it tinted New Zealand’s glaciers brown and shrouded beaches in Brazil. Filtered face masks were selling out well before Covid-19 made global headlines. 

Residents found themselves squeezed between bushfires closing in from Mount Kosciuszko to the south and Nowra to the north. With firefighters stretched to their limits, Karen and Gavin were told they were on their own as only public assets, such as national parks, could be defended.

“One of the most difficult things was preparing and then just waiting,” says Karen, recalling how the couple spent an exhausting 65 days continually wetting down their property, always with one eye on the burning horizon. “The adrenalin was just constantly building. I don’t think you understand what it’s like until you’ve been through a bushfire yourself.”

The flames came within a mile of their property before they were finally extinguished. While the distillery itself was saved, the shops that stocked their gin had burned down and the roads were closed to visitors and deliveries. The new gin school they had built the month before, fitted with a dozen miniature copper stills for guests to create their own personalised gin, saw months of cancelled bookings. 

Late one night, while sitting at the dinner table, Karen made a last-minute decision to join the #SpendWithThem Instagram initiative. Launched by Turia Pitt, an athlete-turned-motivational speaker who survived horrific burns after being trapped by a grassfire in 2011, the campaign encouraged Australians to support small businesses in bushfire-affected towns. 

The resulting wave of community support was like a tsunami. The phone rang with new orders every few minutes and North of Eden’s Instagram account saw its follower numbers soar from 108 to 3,800. 

At one point, PayPal froze the couple’s account on suspicion of money laundering. “It basically funded the year for us,” explains Gavin. 

“The people who bought our gin then started buying more, and they told their friends, too. It created a following for us and that’s what’s been building our business. Without that support, I don’t know what we’d have done.” 

Despite above-average rainfall recently, Bega Valley is on edge as it enters a new bushfire season. A warm wind blows over the deck and Karen grows tense. She describes how she plans to dig a concrete bunker into the side of the hill — a retreat for when the next fires come.

“It’s not going to go away,” she says. “This isn’t going to be the last time we see this.”

Gavin Hughes owns North of Eden gin distillery, producing award-winning artisan bottles. 

Photograph by Justin Meneguzzi

Rebuilding and adapting

You don’t need an alarm clock when you have a thousand cicadas. At least that’s what the persistent thrum outside sounds like as my eyes begin to adjust to the morning light. Through tall A-frame windows, I see blackened trees wearing their promising fluffy green turtlenecks of foliage regrowth. Rouge-plumed rosellas pick at seeds scattered on the back deck while I brew a coffee. 

I’ve driven nearly two hours up the coast from Bega Valley to The Bower at Broulee, a secluded woodland retreat whose architecture is inspired by bowerbird nests. Here it’s just me and the birds (and the cicadas), soaking up the serene views from our perch overlooking a small lake. 

Owners Mark and Sue Berry casually tell me over breakfast at The Mossy Cafe how they watched their home — just a hundred metres from the lodge I stayed in overnight — burn to the ground in a firestorm. “It was like a war zone,” says Mark. “There was no power, no fuel, no food and no mobile service in most areas.” 

With many residents in a state of shock, Sue says the cafe where we’re sitting became the unofficial meeting place for people to decompress, collect supplies and share news. Stories of community heroes began to trickle in: the nurse who saved burning horses from paddocks; the farmers handing free food to evacuating motorists trapped on freeways. Cooking in a dark, smoky kitchen, with only head torches for light, the staff at The Mossy Cafe cooked and gave away over £5,000 in food during the first days following the fires.

Belinda Dorset, its owner and head chef, tells me that, in the chaos after the fires, when government assistance could be slow to arrive, the community was forced to dig deep and use the disaster as an opportunity to improve what had been lost.  

A crowdfunding campaign led by the Rural Fire Service helped Mark and Sue raise nearly £6,000 for their lodge, which they put towards reforesting the woodlands around their property and building bird boxes. With their insurance money, meanwhile, they rebuilt using fire-resistant materials and installed better sprinklers systems and self-check-in technology — a move that has proven fortuitous in this new, socially distant world. 

A similarly ironic twist befell Belinda, who explains the bushfires helped her business adapt before the arrival of Covid-19. She was ready with an expanded takeaway service when the state-mandated lockdown was introduced and, once Sydney residents were allowed to travel again, the Sapphire Coast was flooded with travellers eager to escape and support regional communities. 

Read more: No, koalas aren't 'functionally extinct' — yet

At Mogo Zoo, just a stone’s throw north of The Mossy Cafe, giraffes stoop to nibble from managing director Chad Staples’ palm. In between handfuls of feed, he tells me the zoo is just as busy now as it was before the fires. “Our team was already pretty close, but the fires brought us even closer together,” he adds. 

With the inferno bearing down like a freight train, Chad and a team of 15 zookeepers chose to stay and defend the zoo rather than abandon their animals, which include rhinos, orangutans and lions. Unaided and without firefighting experience, they successfully held back the fire as it surged around the property, without any loss of life. In the aftermath, the zoo grounds became a tent city for people whose homes had burned down. “The support from the community was magic,” Chad recalls. “We had people moving roadblocks to help deliver hay for our animals.” 

The zoo received over £56,000 in donations, which was spent on buying an improved water pump and building an animal hospital, in part designed to treat wildlife caught in future bushfires. Chad’s voice quietens when he tells me his team weren’t inundated with injured animals after the Black Summer blaze. It was so fast and intense, few survived their injuries. More than 800 million animals are thought to have perished in New South Wales alone. 

As we circle the zoo, a teenage lion with a mohawk mane lopes towards us and begins huffing affectionately, calling Chad for a pat through the fence. Born just a week before the fires, the big cat was front of the zookeeper’s mind throughout the ordeal. There’s always a risk with newborns that stress might cause mothers to stop caring for their cubs, but Chad says the pair pulled through beautifully.

“You never name a new animal straight away, but with him I knew immediately: it had to be Phoenix.”

In New South Wales, a bud blooms from a blue gum tree in the aftermath of the flames.

Photograph by Justin Meneguzzi

A country shaped by fire

Goannas scatter as our four-wheel-drive bounces over a dirt road in Ben Boyd National Park, a sprawling coastal wilderness popular for its Light-to-Light trail, a self-guided multi-day hike between two lighthouses. On both sides of the road, once-skeletal trees sport new growth, and a cluster of black cockatoos briefly wheels into view before disappearing just as quickly. 

“Australia has evolved through fire,” says Sarah Ferguson, a park ranger who’s driving me on a tour of the park. As we bump along, she explains how many people don’t understand the role fire plays in bush health and that many trees here have adapted to need the flames. Banksias and eucalyptus trees, for instance, release their seeds in response to fire. Sarah points to the presence of lizards and birds as proof of the park’s recovery and the landscape’s resilience — it’s a remarkable achievement considering 70% of the park was burned. 

“The problem is we’re having more frequent, more intense fires, and the bush can’t recover in time,” Sarah tells me. “Climate change may be changing the course of what our forests look like.” 

This growing threat means authorities have had to seek help from ancient sources of knowledge. For at least 65,000 years, Australia’s Indigenous people have used cultural fire-burning practices to care for the land, but until recently, their voices had been ignored by the government. The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements urged authorities to include Indigenous practices as part of a holistic approach to land management. 

Peter Dixon, an Indigenous ranger employed by Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council, explains Western-style hazard-reduction burns are led by a fear of fire and a misunderstanding of the bush. They create an area of intense flame that traps wildlife, resulting in scorched earth that can be as damaging as a bushfire. By contrast, traditional burning involves smaller, low-intensity fires intended to shape vegetation while protecting habitats and culturally significant landmarks. Australian scientists have found this preparatory practice can reduce the destructiveness of bushfires by as much as 30%.  

“Fire is your friend and we’re there to help the fire,” says Peter. “The country tells us when it’s the right time to burn — things like moisture in the soil, animals coming back into the area or certain grasses appearing. The fire ultimately tells us what’s meant to be in the country.

“For a long time, we weren’t allowed to practice our culture. It feels good to be actually out and implementing our cultural knowledge, knowing this will one day be fed down the lines through our kids and then their kids.”

As we walk through the bush, a burst of red and green catches my eye. It’s a new bud — given life by the flames — reaching up from beneath the blackened bark of a blue gum tree.  

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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