NSW fires: Deep in the Budgong burnt zone, a community counts the cost

SURVIVORS: Brigid and Andy Jordan on their property, Runfree, on Duffys Lane. They prepared well, physically and mentally, and stayed to fight the blaze. Photo: Robert Peet
SURVIVORS: Brigid and Andy Jordan on their property, Runfree, on Duffys Lane. They prepared well, physically and mentally, and stayed to fight the blaze. Photo: Robert Peet

On Duffys Lane west of Kangaroo Valley, the ground is still burning more than three weeks after the Currowan fire roared into the NSW Southern Highlands.

In the midst of a blackened landscape, smoke vents from a sinkhole formed where the ground is still burning.

Kangaroo Valley RFS brigade deputy captain Jamie Salkeld tells us it's similar to a peat fire.

"This happens where there's a thick layer of organic material under the surface. It can burn for months," he says.

It's a potentially deadly trap for the unwary. Through one of the vents, red hot coals glow like lava. It's like a window into hell. And it's just one of many perils facing anyone foolhardy enough to wander onto burnt ground.

CUT OFF: Jamie Salkeld at School Creek, where the bridge was destroyed on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

CUT OFF: Jamie Salkeld at School Creek, where the bridge was destroyed on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

There are trees which have burnt from the inside out and could topple at any time. There are areas deep with soft ash and snags waiting to break ankles. Powerlines are draped across blackened stumps. Where homes have been lost, there are signs warning of potential hazards, including asbestos.

Jamie is keen to get the message out: the burnt forest is no place to enter. He's particularly concerned about the wildlife volunteers who have walked into the burnt zone, leaving wreaths of fruit on trees, watering stations and bales of straw.

Their intentions are good but the risks they are taking are not. He points to a tree that has "piped" - burnt through the middle - and is marked to fall. Someone has placed straw around its burnt out base. An expert in hazardous tree removal, Jamie fears someone will die putting out food and water.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Food left in the burnt zone by wildlife volunteers. They are taking great risks entering the fire ground. Photo: Robert Peet

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Food left in the burnt zone by wildlife volunteers. They are taking great risks entering the fire ground. Photo: Robert Peet

Budgong bore the brunt of the fire on January 4. The district was cut in two when the bridge over School Creek was destroyed. If it was isolated and remote before the fire, the loss of the bridge has made it more so now.

"It is pretty important to the local community because it is the avenue to Nowra for a lot of people and it is the avenue to Kangaroo Valley for a lot of people that live on the Bugong Road side," Jamie Salkeld says.

He's worried about first responders getting to an emergency.

"It could be heart attack, a house fire, a structure fire. It will take us considerably longer to respond to a call."

It could be heart attack, a house fire, a structure fire. It will take us considerably longer to respond to a call.

Budgong resident Jamie Salkeld

There's a financial cost, too.

School Creek is only 11.2km from the intersection of Emerys Road and Illaroo Road, which is sealed all the way into Nowra.

With the bridge gone, reaching properties in this end of Budgong involves driving over Cambewarra Mountain, through Kangaroo Valley and up over the pass at Mt Scanzi. This adds about an hour to the journey.

PARADISE LOST: A property on Duffys Lane consumed by the fire on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

PARADISE LOST: A property on Duffys Lane consumed by the fire on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

That adds to fuel costs, says Jamie, who agists horses on his property and sources feed from a supplier in Nowra.

Paul Keech from Shoalhaven City Council said efforts were being made to acquire a prefabricated temporary bridge while a permanent solution was devised.

Some 20 families are affected by the bridge closure.

Among them are Andy and Brigid Jordan, who stayed to defend their property.

The fire front arrived at 6.30pm, sweeping over the property and up the escarpment behind it.

Brigid had two days earlier returned from a holiday in London.

"It was horrific," says Brigid. "We were worried but we were ready for it. We had been listening to that constant message from the RFS that besides having your property ready you've got to be physically and mentally prepared.

"Andy was trying to get me to leave.

"I had to think really hard that if I was going to stay I wasn't going to go loopy or lose my bottle at the last minute or be a liability.

If I was going to stay I wasn't going to go loopy or lose my bottle

Budgong resident Brigid Jordan

"It's okay to be scared but not to panic and that was it."

As the blaze roared up towards them the house next door exploded.

SAVED: Andy and Brigid Jordan in front of the home they defended on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

SAVED: Andy and Brigid Jordan in front of the home they defended on January 4. Photo: Robert Peet

"I saw a tree at the bottom of the field on fire and by the time I turned around the house next door was on fire. It was like a hurricane."

"It was unreal," says Andy, "the noise and the wind was awful."

As the neighbour's house went up, one of the pumps simply melted. Luckily, another one enabled them to keep attacking the flames with water.

They say they would stay to defend the home again should fire again threaten it.

"Most definitely," says Brigid. "I think that's the worse it could ever be. We know what it's about now."

The couple are still adjusting to life after the fire. Sleep is now returning to normal but they're still finding it strange talking to people who haven't been impacted.

For them, the threat has passed for now, simply because there is nothing left to burn.

But over Mt Scanzi towards Kangaroo Valley, it's a different story, says Brigid.

"There's so much left to burn in the Valley."

This story Welcome to the world where the ground still burns first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.