When the catastrophic New Year’s Eve fires closed in on Cobargo, Wayne Schaefer and his wife, at home on their farm on the Yowrie River, were as prepared as they could be.
Their yard was stripped bare and drenched with sprinklers, so too was their house; a ute and a trailer were set up with fire fighting units, and their water tanks high on the property – at 40,000 litres capacity – were full. A local fire captain was so impressed with their setup he told them, “if anyone survives this, you will”.
Yet nothing could have prepared them for the terrifying ordeal that was to come.
“We could see the smoke in the distance, and, knowing the terrain, I knew it was going to be big – but I just didn’t know how big,” Wayne told Hope 103.2.
“At about 11 o clock (at night), I’m looking out there in the distance and I’m thinking, ‘Why has the sky got this glow about it?’ I said, ‘This is not right… this is bigger than we think’.
“About midnight, the glow hit the top of the hill… there was this bright orange spot… Next minute the spot just went ‘whoomp’, right along the whole mountain – in, like, a minute. Then it was like a volcano. It was a hundred metres above the mountain, with all these fireballs and embers coming over.”
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A few hours later, the fire front had reached the Schaefer’s property. At around 3am, Wayne was outside checking on animals, when he realised the fire was upon him, and far too much to contend with. He had a terrifying race to get back to the house for shelter.
“We could hear it, like it was a jet engine, roaring,” Wayne recalls.
At some point in the struggle, his eyes were burnt and over several hours he would gradually lose his sight, not regaining it again for two days. He says he doesn’t know how he escaped further injury – except that God was looking after him.
“It’s an inferno, it’s in the top of the trees, embers are coming straight at us, at right angles – I think that’s when I burnt my eyes,” he said. “The sheep cooked… right in front of us. The heat was intense.”
Meanwhile, in the township of Cobargo, the Schaefer’s daughter Leah was staying at her aunty’s house – soon to be burnt to the ground. The blaze descended so fast and furiously, there was little time to think. Leah speaks of packing pets and belongings into the car in a terrifying flurry, joined by her Aunty Gail and Gail’s partner Murray, when it became clear this was no fire to contend with.
The trio were lucky to escape harm, and became refugees for the next two days, sheltered with their two dogs and two cats – and thousands of other locals – at Bermagui Surf Life Saving Club. There are holes in the shirt Leah was wearing on the night of the fire, burnt by embers as she fled.
Hundreds of Animals Lost
Back at the farm, Wayne and Helen had saved their home and a lot of their farm equipment – but other structures on the property were destroyed, along with hundreds of sheep and cattle.
When New Year’s Day finally dawned, the extent of the damage began to set in. Wayne and Helen had the grim task of going around the valley shooting countless burnt animals (so many that they ran out of bullets), and discovered that their waterholes and the Yowrie River – a vital water source for the farming community – were contaminated by dead fish and animals.
Before long they would also hear the heartbreaking news that father and son Robert and Patrick Salway – both relatives and friends of the Schaefers’ – had died.
A Catastrophe That Should Never Have Happened
In the aftermath of the devastation, many landowners like the Schaefers say the New Year’s Eve catastrophe should never have happened – and are pushing for changes to the way Australia manages bushfire risk.
And with the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements now underway, it’s hoped there will be changes for the better.
Wayne is a fifth-generation farmer, and a descendant of the Monaro region’s first white settlers. He carries with him the stories of those agricultural pioneers, handed down through the generations.
Among them is the story of his grandfather: an early conservationist and activist, who was instrumental in introducing safe, intentional methods of control burning. He lobbied the government until the system of fire wardens was introduced, and became one of the first wardens in the area. Their methods of cool-burning, much like indigenous fire management practices, were used effectively for decades, maintaining the land for grazing and keeping wildfires at bay. Wayne’s parents, too – no longer alive – were advocates for proper land management. Both served on the local council.
Carrying such a legacy in his family heritage, makes Wayne all the more frustrated over the devastation of what has been labelled the ‘Black Summer’. He believes it was preventable.
“We can’t control the ignition, because this started from a lightning strike; we can’t control the oxygen—but we can control the fuel,” he said. “That goes right back to the traditional owners. That’s what they speak about. It’s not new. It’s been known for thousands of years. We’ve lost that.
“Bureaucracy have really put a cap on it. I’m not allowed to burn off, but my father taught me how to do that. We’ve just neglected it.”
He said small burns here and there by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service have been token efforts – nowhere near the kind of burning required to keep the fuel load down.
“The fuel has become so massive… On the night of the fire I could hear my [late] mother telling me, ‘I told you this would happen’.”
“National Parks do burn off, they do aerial drops; but they do no maintenance, they have no money,” he said. “None of the fire trails are being maintained or cleaned up. They’re lacking funds. That kept repeating itself year after year… until you couldn’t burn, it’s too late.”
He and his neighbours have nervously watched and waited, each summer passing by with no adequate burning off, for around 60 years. He becomes emotional talking about it.
“The fuel has become so massive,” he said. “On the night of the [New Year’s Eve] fire I could hear my mother telling me… ‘I told you this would happen’.”
Wayne hopes the catastrophe will spark major changes in the way fire is managed in Australia; and that disparate voices can come together and find common ground.
“The politics has gotta disappear,” he said. “It’s got to go. This is about talking to people, about what their knowledge is, and how it could be different – but doing it in a respectful way… We’ve got to talk.”