Green shoots after game-changing fires

Michael Hughes, a teacher at McAuley Catholic Central School at Tumut, lost his home in the Dunns Road fire that roared through Batlow on 4 January . Trina McCallum is a teacher at St Peter’s Anglican College, Broulee, which was damaged in the massive Currowan fire. Yet they speak of good fortune, and one heroic Year 5 student, writes journalist Monica Crouch.

Michael lives on a farm in Batlow, about 32 kilometres from Tumut, where fire destroyed his home and machinery shed. But his 100 or so cows and calves survived and, thanks to a sudden change of wind direction, so did his full hayshed, so he could still feed them. “I saved my cattle and I regard myself as very fortunate,” Michael said.

The fire took out 37 properties in Batlow, a small village of just 1300 people, and several of the children at McAuley also lost their homes. In the week before the fire, reports became “gloomier and gloomier”, Michael said, and the Rural Fire Service warned that Batlow would not be defendable. “There was a sense of helplessness,” he said. When the fire finally came, Michael had evacuated to Tumut.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Michael, who grew up in the area, returning in 1983. “It was a game changer – it was very, very bad.”

Michael, who has been an IEU member for 37 years, says the support he has received since the fire has been extraordinary. “I felt gutted initially,” he said. “But the staff at McAuley have been exceptional, I’ve had massive support from them. Catholic Education in Canberra gave five days’ relief due to the bushfires and that’s been invaluable for getting through hours in the queue to the insurance companies.”

Other teachers at McAuley worked tirelessly throughout January in the local food centre, cooking and baking to make sure everyone was fed.

McAuley has about 350 students, and those who lost their homes are proving remarkably resilient. “Believe it or not, they’re pretty good,” Michael said. “They’ve been telling me about the new houses their mums and dads have picked out.” Counselling has been available to the entire school community, including parents.

The community held a recovery get-together at Batlow RSL club on Australia Day to thank the local fireys, the RFS and all the emergency services. “It was huge – everybody was there,” said Michael. “The trees are even beginning to rejuvenate after recent rains.”

Trina McCallum says St Peter’s Anglican College, in Broulee on the NSW south coast, was under threat from the enormous Currowan fire from late November to early March. “Our school year ended and began in similar fashion – on high alert,” Trina said.

“On new year’s eve alone, 13 families lost homes and businesses and sometimes both. Six children in myYear 6 class alone lost homes or partially lost their properties.”

The college lost its administration building, 500 metres of fencing, maintenance sheds and water tanks. Verandahs on one building collapsed. The school’s bush tucker garden, fruit trees and most of its native gardens were lost, as were most trees on the property. Ramps into buildings were burnt and six classrooms had to be stripped and refurbished due to smoke damage.

The school was saved with help from the community. “Neighbours came over their fences and fought the fire with our Principal, Darren McPartland,” Trina said. “People climbed on roofs and crawled under buildings to put out spot fires.”

Thanks to one brave student, the school’s chickens were saved. “One of our Year 5 students led the chickens out onto the middle of the oval and watched them while others saved their coop,” Trina said. “Scary stuff for a 10 year old – and heroic.” The chicken coop was funded by an IEU/TMB environment grant.

The college’s principal has been organising the clean up and rebuild, showing politicians around and doing media interviews. “Our administration staff have been amazing,” Trina said. “They’re working tirelessly in a cramped computer lab as a makeshift front office.”

The school has also had generous support from its families and local small businesses, as well as donations coming in from as far as Perth and the UK and fellow Anglican schools. “Gifts from school shoes and school bags filled with stationery to furniture and even ice creams have put smiles on the faces of staff and students alike,” Trina said.

Most of the students are faring well now, and Trina says the focus has been on settling back into routines. “Our counsellor and school psychologist are working hard, and we are all focusing on mindfulness and resilience with our classes,” she said.

“The college is looking fresh after the rains and new buildings and classrooms are causing excitement among the children. But for many families, the process of rebuilding will take years and we’re supporting them in any way we can.”

Heavy rains finally extinguished the Currowan fire on February 9, and regrowth is already under way. “It’s symbolic of just how resilient nature and humans can be,” Trina said.