A year on from devastating bushfires, home owners are prioritising having the right measures in place to reduce risk and minimise damage. (Image source: Amber Hammersmith)

By Taylor Siemelink

With the dawn of each decade comes the promise of a fresh start, renewed hope and the potential for change. But what happens when this new beginning is tainted with tragedy?

Just as Australians prepared to ring in 2020, the threat of nationwide bushfires saw celebrations cancelled, as the highly anticipated ‘festive season’ proved anything but.

With the bushfires having ravaged 17 million hectares across the country, not one state was exempt from the impact. While NSW and ACT were some of the worst affected areas, the damages within South Australia alone were overwhelming. Between the wildfires in Kangaroo Island and bushfires in the Adelaide Hills over 208,000 hectares were lost, and in the sweltering summer heat, the smell of smoke could be detected as far as Adelaide’s west; a solemn reminder of nationwide heartache.

Situated just 36 kilometres east of the city in the idyllic Adelaide Hills, the township of Cudlee Creek found itself at the fire’s mercy for the second time in five years. For town resident Amber Hammersmith, the image of the fire coming over the hill and onto her property is something she will never forget.

“Being in Cudlee Creek, we were right in the middle of the initial fire ground, so we got a front row seat to the oncoming flames,” she said.

“Our shed was partially burnt, I lost my office building, our fences are no longer and all grass was burnt away; we also lost a lot of trees and a shipping container full of essential farm equipment.

“Thankfully our house was okay, just full of smoke, ash and dirt.

But despite having lost possessions in the blaze, Amber’s primary concern was the wellbeing of her neighbours who had stayed behind to protect their properties.

“We tried to go back the night the fires started and it was just a wall of flame, but we tried anyway because we wanted to see what had happened to our place and if anyone had heard from our neighbours.

“We thought [they] died in the fire”.

After discovering her neighbours were safe, the reality of all she had lost began to kick in; but Amber credits her resilience and strength to the generosity of her local community.

“We received a lot of support through the town recovery centre, Food Bank donations and locals who donated time and energy to helping their neighbours,” she said.

“My flower business was even part of a special Gathered SA Market weekend that was hosted by the owner – she wanted to highlight Hills creatives and small businesses that had been impacted by the fires.

“Entry donations went to the CFS as did raffle prizes and such – things like that are the good that I see coming out of events like the fire.”

As time goes by the events of the recent past become but a memory, be it one of pain and anguish; but this year, as the fire season approaches, the main priority is ensuring the right measures are in place to reduce risk and minimise damage.

“Obviously we don’t want another major bushfire this year, we’d like a break thanks!” Amber said.

“So it’s about keeping on top of clearing forestry regrowth around our property, and encouraging others to do the same.

“We also have water hoses setup near the house, one of which we put in the house gutters and left running – it created a waterfall of water around out house which I believe saved it.”

Less than one kilometre away in the town of Woodside, the fires reached multiple wineries, with Barristers Block being one of the hardest hit. Sadly, the inferno affected a large percentage of their vineyard, resulting in severe implications for the business. Ten months on, and despite efforts to return to normality, the fear of uncertainty remains for owners Evert and Jan Allen.

Vineyards at Barristers Block after the fires. (Image source: Jan Allen)

“Our entire 20-acre vineyard was razed,” Evert said.

“We have already pulled out 25-30 percent of the affected vines and are waiting to see which of the remaining vines will come back to life this spring, and which will also need to be pulled out.

Unfortunately this means the winery’s signature Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo crops will need to be sourced elsewhere or regrown, a venture that will prove both costly and time consuming.

“We will have to make the decision on what to replace the destroyed vines with, and whether what we want is actually available, given there will be plenty of others also looking for new stock,” Evert said.

While these trying times have proven nothing short of devastating, the fervent outpouring of support from locals has been a silver lining. With social media campaigns such as #emptyesky and #buyfromthebush encouraging nomads to travel lightly in favour of supporting bushfire affected businesses, the recovery process has been made much easier.

“We received support from friends as well as some financial support from state and federal governments,” Evert said.

“Attendance at the cellar door increased, as well as online sales, with many people keen to help affected businesses.”

Such support saw business boom over the Christmas period, which aside from its financial benefit proved to be a welcome distraction for the winery’s owners.

“The support from SA locals and interstate visitors meant the next two to three months were extremely busy, giving us little time to dwell on the negatives, which was probably a good thing,” Evert said.

Despite the Australian climate lending itself to bushfires, he is hopeful they’ll remain in the clear this summer.

“One of the reasons the buildings on the property weren’t affected was that we placed sprinklers on roofs, in the carpark, behind buildings, inside our animal enclosure and around the property in general, but sadly we did not have the facility to do this throughout the vineyard,” Evert said.

“For the fires to have reached us on the outskirts of Woodside was rather unusual as it was, but should such an event occur again, we will likely try to find a way to spray the vines and keep them wet, which should mean they are far less likely to ignite.

“That said, it would be madness to assume it was a ‘once in a century’ event that we won’t see the like of again.”

These sentiments were echoed by CFS volunteer Rory Marks, who fought against the fires in Kangaroo Island and Cudlee Creek. He urges those in areas of extreme fire risk to remain diligent and prioritise their safety over all else.

“Please, please, please listen to CFS warnings,” he said.

“Do proper back burnings and preparing of the land around you before summer.

“While property owners know their land better than we do, it becomes incredibly difficult to help them if they don’t prepare for the summer properly.

“Follow CFS warnings, prepare properly, and don’t take unnecessary risks.”

Originally published in The Junction.