Bushfires, which have stalked our farms for weeks, attacked with fury on 31 December 2019 and again on 4 January 2020. These photographs, taken by Robert and Carey-Ann, document our growing disquiet, morphing into anxiety, and then horror, as fire arrived on New Year's Eve and returned, four days later, on 4 January. Flare-ups and spot fires are back on 10 January and a major fire erupts on 23 January, a day of wild winds and searing heat, threatening to consume Rob's mother's house and all of the southern side of the farm.
10 November 2019, 6.57pm: The view from the farmhouse verandah, looking north towards the swamp on Narrawilly's northern edge, while, in the foreground, young sunflowers emerge from beneath the farm's rich soil. This is as close to normal as the farm can be after nearly 3 years of green drought. The NSW Department of Primary Industries tells us we've been in severe drought for 31 months. We don't qualify for drought funding. In November, Rob is already hand-feeding cows and heifers.
In mid to late November, more frequent news reports tell of bushfires burning in the forests of the NSW South Coast. We learn the name -- the Currowan fire -- and keep an eye on the evening news, but we carry on, (falsely) assuming that the fire is a long way away from us.
2 December 2019, 2.59pm: Clouds of smoke from the Currowan fire regularly fill the skies to the south and south-west of the farm. We watch enormous plumes towering over distant communities and forests, still believing that we face no direct risk. Meanwhile, without rain, the farm gets drier and drier. Pasture turns from green to brown, and crumbles beneath our boots.
2 December 2019, 3pm: Smoke over Mollymook beach. The fires are creeping closer.
3 December 2019, 5.47pm: Ash begins to fall from the sky for hours on end. We find blackened leaves across the farm, along with burnt patches on the lawn and in the paddocks where something -- a smouldering leaf, a resilient ember -- has been carried on the wind. The smoke overhead becomes darker, thicker, more sinister.
3 December 2019, 8.36pm: Eerie red and orange glows bully the skies while the air, thick with smoke and ash, is difficult to breath. The smell, taste and sight of distant fires is inescapable. Our throats and lungs ache. Humidity levels drop lower and lower.
5 December 2019, 10.20am: Huge plumes of smoke loiter on the southern edges of the farm constantly.
19 December 2019, 9,18am: The land is dying . Farm memorabilia and old farming equipment, used by generations of Millers, are housed in the the farm museum (built by Robert's father). The building is constructed from timber. If an ember strikes it, Rob will lose more than an outbuilding.
19 December 2019, 10.38am: Oppressive red and black smoke hangs low overhead. Ash rains down. We speak openly to each other of our sense of dread: the fire will be coming north, towards us, some time soon.
21 December 2019, 3.36pm: The skies over Narrawilly are dark grey. To our west, to our north and south, fires are burning without end. At night, every night, we see the red glow of fires to the west and north. We check our Fires Near Me app constantly.
25 December 2019, 9.16pm: From the verandah on Christmas night we watch an entire ridge of fire burn out of control to the farm's north-west. Sleep is impossible. There is nothing festive that night, or the next, or in any of the rest that follow.
31 December 2019, 12.04pm onwards: Narrawilly is on fire. From the west, racing out of Little Forest, fire crosses the highway (scorches the grounds of the Catholic Church) and heads straight onto bone dry paddocks. From the south-east, fire rages through Narrawallee Inlet, ignites the farm's swamp, and accelerates towards Conjola. As the fire that will obliterate Conjola heads north, the milking team keeps the herd away from the flames and burning grass, and sprays the animals constantly with water. Rob and the rest of the team, along with our neighbours, race to the farm's fences and edges to put out flames and fight the fire in the swamp.
31 December 2019, 10.02pm: It's night. Rob is still in the swamp putting out fires. He will do this throughout the night of the New Year, and again the following night, and the night after that. Our neighbours, the Andersons, arrive to help. Together, they douse the worst of the flames but we can hear burning trees collapsing to the ground or onto each other.
1 January 2020: Pasture, fencing and water pipes have been incinerated by the fire of 31 December 2019.
Three days later, both farms will be in flames yet again.
4 January 2020, 3.55pm: The day is extremely hot. No matter how much preparation we've done, the fire that arrives is unstoppable without the help of water bombers and fire trucks. Seen from Narrawilly, we know what the smoke in the south-west means: Croobyar is burning. Andrew and the team struggle for hours to stop raging grass fires obliterating the farm, the dairy plant, the manager's house, its heavy equipment and vehicles, animal feed, silage and herd.
4 January 2020: Narrawilly is alight, too. Fire heads for the dairy, the farmhouse and the surrounding buildings. The rainforest catches fire. It's 47 degrees on the farm.
4 January 2020, 6.30pm: A southerly change arrives. Gusts are recorded in excess of 90km/hr. Our neighbours' garage is blown apart by a wind which also blows out one of Narrawily's hayshed's walls. The vicious southerly drives the flames northwards, out of the rainforest, directing them towards the remaining unburnt paddocks, the cottages, and the pump-house adjacent to Croobyar Creek bridge. On the northern perimeter, the swamp is alight. Fire is everywhere. The farmhouse is caught between a fire in the swamp on the north and a fire in the rainforest on the south. Fires keeping breaking out along the perimeter fences next to the highway.
It is Milton's dairy farmers along with their neighbours, friends and family members who keep this fire from raging out of the gully on 4 and 5 January 2020. One sudden change in wind direction, as everyone there this night knows, and that fire has the potential to go south, cross Stony Hill Lane, and obliterate Milton village.
5 January 2020, 4.02am: Superhuman effort is put in by a small mob of locals who are at the rainforest to help, and who struggle to curtail the ember attacks and flames. Young Dan Beasley -- armed with little more than a small pallecon of water, a few metres of hose and a fierce desperation to stop embers reaching pine trees on the eastern flank -- braves the flames to keep them from breaking out there. Between 4.00am and 5.24am, Dan directs as much water as he has available at the flames, and then races home to fill up the pallecon before coming back again and again.
5 January 2020, 10.01am: Exhausted and dehydrated, Rob inspects his farm: there is incinerated pasture across the south-western edge of the farm while trees smoulder in the rainforest. The fire is not out.
On Croobyar Farm, weirs, creeks and young trees have been turned to ash. Hundreds of acres of pasture have been scorched on both farms. Untold numbers of small mammals, reptiles, birds and insects are burnt (or will die without their essential habitats). News reports from across the eastern seaboard of Australia detail horrendous devastation and terror.
6 January 2020, 7.43pm: 36 hours after the fire, it is clear that Croobyar Farm is badly damaged. The team is safe and the herd uninjured. Somehow, unfathomably so, the old buildings on Croobyar Farm are still standing, as are some of its magnificent fig trees, untouched by flames, while all around the land is scorched or smouldering.
7 January 2020, 6.55pm: A fire truck arrives at the south-east edge of the rainforest. Someone in Stony Hill Lane has reported a fire in the rainforest, we are told. (You don't say.)
10 January 2020, 10.37pm: A day of preparation (ahead of the forecast southerly change) is repeatedly interrupted by new spot fires and persistent flare-ups across Narrawilly Farm. Between 11am and noon, spot fires break out on the farm's flats followed, in the mid-afternoon, by a flare-up in the swamp which manages to run into unburnt pasture. None of this helps ease the anxiety and stress which all of us experience ahead of the evening's unpredictable conditions. As a last resort, Rob opens the flood gates for tidal salt water (from the Pacific Ocean) to flood the paddocks and swamp. A few hours later, in the early evening, smouldering trees on the edge of the highway burst into flames. Fortunately, a crew of firefighters from Sydney manages to douse these quickly. Throughout the evening, local farmers are on hand, waiting for the big wind change. At 10.37pm, the southerly arrives. Gusting at 70km/hour, the wind sets the heart of rainforest alight once more. Rob and the team tackle the flames with quad bikes and mobile spray units. Given the challenging terrain, no ute or fire truck can reach where flames feed on trees. Eventually, the fire is brought under control. We spend the rest of the Friday night and the early hours of Saturday morning watching and waiting. The winds drop. The threat eases.
11 January 2020, 10.20am: Sunflowers along the farm's fence, adjacent to Princes Highway, with burnt pasture in the background. One day closer to rain.
12 January 2020, 6.05pm: 36 hours after the last flare-up on the farm, Rob closes the swamp's flood gates while, in the background, almost 3 dozen kangaroos -- large Eastern Greys which stand as tall as 2 metres -- saltate across the paddocks. After days of fire, wombats, echidna, roos and blue tongues, along with plenty of birds, a handful of tortoises, and a very agitated, very big red-belly snake, emerge to let us know they're still here, with us, on the farm.
14 January 2020, 6.58pm: Smoke rises from a cluster of smouldering gums on the farm's southern perimeter. A RFS team, dispatched to assess the threat, sees no risk of deflagration. (The rain gods can take care of this one.)
16 January 2020, 1.11am: Rain arrives. Finally.
16 January 2020, 8.04pm: 10mm in the farm's rain gauge. An amount not anywhere near the forecast 35mm the weather apps promised. Nor is it enough to quell this zombie fire, bringing to end recurrent spot fires and the combust among the trees. If hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, a lack of rain turns its song to rasping.
23 January 2020, 12.33pm: Smoke above the gully. The rainforest was damaged by fires on 4 January and again 10 January. Metres behind it is Stony Hill Lane where Rob's mother lives.
23 January 2020, 12.44pm: Flames visible in the trees. Frantic calls to 000. Miriam evacuates immediately.
23 January 2020, 2.02pm: First to arrive is the crew from RFS Manyana fortuitously driving into Milton to re-fuel at a petrol station. The Manyana team's quick response prevents a serious situation escalating into catastrophe. With limited equipment, Rob, his staff and a few locals are unable to contain the fire. Without the Manyana crew on hand to fight the fire -- joined later by other crews including one from Basin View -- the heat, dust, swirling winds, flames and smoke threaten to overwhelm Rob and the farm team.
23 January 2020, 2.07pm: Dust, smoke and smouldering land on Mount Pleasant and Stony Hill Lane and across the farm's southern paddocks. Terrain and conditions -- gusting winds and blistering heat -- make fighting this particular fire difficult and dangerous.
23 January 2020, 5.25pm: The after-effects.
24 January 2020, 3.08pm: On Twitter, an ominous warning: heat is building in the west. Its path eastwards is certain. We are in drought. Rain does not fall in the volumes needed. We have no choice: we have to prepare for the return of fires to the farms, Rob's business, and our home. This, all of this, is our new normal - -and it is hideous.
26 January 2020, 5.28pm: A neighbour spots smoke above the rainforest. Another flare-up near Robert's mother's house. A call to 000. On foot, with buckets of water in hand, scrambling through dense rainforest vegetation, we do what we can until the Milton RFS arrives. At 5.28pm it's still 35 degrees.
Ours is not their only call-out this long weekend Sunday. Their entire afternoon is spent racing from one spot fire to the next across the district. Visiting his children in Sydney, Rob can do nothing except wait for texts, photographs, reassurances.
Fire-fighters scramble down rocky, blackened slopes carrying hoses and rakehoes. None of this is easy terrain on which to fight fires. Vines and shrubs in the forest's understorey layer, as well as canopy overhead, forest floor below (usually sodden and slippery), are parched, dying or burnt. Drought plus fire are its mortal enemies.
An hour later, the crew departs. Overhead, a cloudless sky.
After sunset, Steve Jeske, on a quad bike, patrols the farm, scanning for glowing embers in the darkness. Too many tree stumps and fallen limbs are out there, charcoaling themselves, ready for communion with a willing wind.
28 January 2020, 6.48am: 0.5mm of rain in the rain gauge overnight. Dread is now measured in metric units.
8 February 2020: Rain.
9 February 2020, 4.46pm: More rain. The swamp on the farm's northern edge, devastated by bushfires in January 2020, floods with rain and sea water brought in on high tides from the Pacific Ocean. The farm's low-lying paddocks and flats disappear beneath the water.
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