Two years after the bushfires my town is recovering, but the scars remain

An orphaned joey that was rescued during the bushfires in Wytaliba, New South Wales in 2019. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters
An orphaned joey that was rescued during the bushfires in Wytaliba, New South Wales in 2019. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

In November 2019 I wrote about the bushfires and burnoffs and calling for better political leadership. A few weeks ago we lit the first hazard reduction burn around our house since those fires. It brought up a few memories and feelings.

It’s two years now since the first fires came. They had been near Armidale and Tenterfield for a couple of weeks; then they were much closer. A hot day, a big wind and an ember from kilometres away landed high on the Leather Jacket Ridge that runs through the middle of Wytaliba, our 3,500-acre community. Over the next week, with calmer and cooler conditions that fire burned slowly downhill to our settlement areas. We had extensive help controlling the fire from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, with up to 20 firetrucks and 100 firefighters to augment our own brigade. No property lost, no one hurt. After a week the fire was out.

Then six weeks later the second fires came. That Friday afternoon an 80km/h wind, a temperature in the 40s, years of drought and a firestorm from the west combined to destroy our homes, our school, the bush, the wildlife and killed two of our friends. No help came that day, except from the Reddestone Brigade who crossed the burning bridge to get to us. So many heroes that day.

Two years on, the new bridge is nearly finished. Three floods have held up work and cut us off for periods of days and weeks. Some things have healed, some haven’t. We’ve played cricket and had markets at the oval that was an evacuation point in the fire. Burns have healed. Rebuilding is happening. The bush has a greenness about it. Lots of new growth, but everywhere, underneath it all, is the black, reminding us.

The Mann River is running well, but there are thousands of dead 20-year-old Casuarina trees, black skeletons standing tall in the riverbed, kilometre after kilometre. More blackened tree skeletons are everywhere, especially high up in the hills. Around our house was a haven for redneck and whiptail wallabies, wallaroos, and eastern grey kangaroos. Dozens would graze on the short grass around the house. Two years on we have just one family of rednecks. No snakes, no lizards. The magpies and currawongs are back and the blue-headed honeyeater, satin bowerbird and the noisy friarbird. Up in the gully behind the house, the huge gumtree where the wedge-tailed eagle nested burned down, but we’ve seen a pair of eagles close by so we hope they’ll be back.

Our house is liveable again. The roof is repaired, the water system fixed, the solar system replaced and improved. The damaged verandas still need replacing. The olive grove and orchard planted over 20 years have been bulldozed away. What is to come? Climate change isn’t going away, in fact just the opposite.

So now with Covid as well as climate change we exist in this liminal state. The state of being between what was and what will be. Covid has exacerbated that state and those feelings. What sort of future lies ahead for our three-year-old great-grandson? Carol, my wife and partner of 50 years, has been mayor of Glen Innes these past three years. What a burden of responsibility she has shouldered with such strength, all the time advocating for her community and the environment. If only we had such leadership nationally. When will our federal leaders have enough courage to have a perspective further than the next election? And the integrity to act as they expect others to act, but don’t themselves?

Badja Sparks is a longtime resident of Wytaliba.

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