Wollombi volunteer firefighters battle for their historic village on multiple fronts

THREAT: Bushfire smoke above brigade member Tony Thornton's historic home in the main street of Wollombi in December. Picture: Supplied
THREAT: Bushfire smoke above brigade member Tony Thornton's historic home in the main street of Wollombi in December. Picture: Supplied

AS they watched the pictures of towns on the New South Wales south coast and in Victoria being devastated by flames, members of the Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade felt compassion for those communities and wonder at how lucky their own village had been.

"If we'd had the fire conditions other places had, it would have been a disaster," said brigade captain Rob Tulloch.

"This town, and a lot of the surrounding houses, would have been severely impacted."

Usually, Wollombi enjoys a sense of seclusion. The historic village, about 30 kilometres south-west of Cessnock, is cradled in a valley between sandstone hills.

The setting and the atmosphere help attract tourists to Wollombi, which is sprinkled with beautiful heritage buildings.

Yet for the past five or so weeks, the steep, sandstone-lined valleys have been funnelling a sense of threat towards Wollombi.

As Rob Tulloch explained, there had been the massive Gospers Mountain blaze to the south, the Little L fire to the west, the Crumps Complex fire to the east, and the Owendale blaze to the north.

"I don't think many people would have considered we could have got fire from all sides of us," said Mr Tulloch, a volunteer firefighter since 1977. "It's not an event I thought would happen. I didn't think we'd get it from all sides at once."

On one day a few weeks ago, the threat grew and Wollombi seemed destined to be in the path of the flames.

Brigade member Tony Thornton recalled the smoke rolling over the ridges and above his historic home in the village's main street.

"The horizon disappeared and there was smoke everywhere," said Mr Thornton. "The village became quieter and quieter, and the tourists didn't come."

TEAM: The Wollombi brigade's Luca Hawkins, Rob Tulloch and Sue Lammert.

TEAM: The Wollombi brigade's Luca Hawkins, Rob Tulloch and Sue Lammert.

Down the street, fellow brigade member and the publican of the renowned Wollombi Tavern, Chris Books, saw three Fire and Rescue NSW pumper trucks, two on either side of his hotel and one across the road.

I don't think many people would have considered we could have got fire from all sides of us

Rob Tulloch, Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade

"They said, 'We're here to protect the pub. We realise it's the most important place in town'!," recalled Mr Books.

"There certainly was discussion among the most senior people in Fire and Rescue and RFS about saving the town," said Michael Fleming, a member of the Wollombi brigade for five years. "That was a great shock to me, and to many of my comrades here, it was a great shock.

"We didn't ever think that we would be in a situation where the town itself would be threatened."

Yet a lot of preparation and planning before the fire season, with community engagement days, then with brigade members staffing information kiosks for residents during the blazes, meant Wollombi pulled together.

"I don't think we had the panic we might have had if that work hadn't been put in," Rob Tulloch said.

The Wollombi brigade was bolstered by crews coming from far and wide.

At one stage, there were more than 20 tankers and 37 crews in the village. Among the visiting firefighters were Sydneysiders and Victorians, New Zealanders, even Americans.

UNITED: Members of the Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade outside their shed just off the village's main street. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

UNITED: Members of the Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade outside their shed just off the village's main street. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

The combination of human effort and an easing in weather conditions saved Wollombi from facing flames. In the end, Rob Tulloch said, "we were incredibly lucky".

But in the valley there have been losses. Rob Tulloch said while exact numbers weren't known yet, he estimated more than 10 buildings had been burnt in the outlying areas. And there had been some close shaves, including for himself.

On his 31-hectare property, "98 per cent is burnt, but that's not so bad, because the two per cent is my house," Mr Tulloch said. "But that's the story around here."

Annie Cossins, who is a law academic and criminologist when she is not driving heavy tankers to fires, saved her own home with the help of brigade colleagues, with a "tactical backburn" at four in the morning a couple of weeks ago.

For Michael Fleming, the flames came to within 100 metres of his home.

"Some of us, including myself, were working for weeks in one area, but our own house was somewhere else, and we didn't know during the day what was happening to our own house," Mr Fleming said.

Just as thousands of volunteer firefighters have been doing, the members of the Wollombi brigade have been putting their lives on hold to battle the blazes.

Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members and local publicans Cathie and Chris Books. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members and local publicans Cathie and Chris Books. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

For husband and wife Tim and Sue Lammert, the effects of the big dry are constantly on their doorstep.

They are beef cattle farmers. The Lammerts are hand-feeding their herd, which has been reduced to just 12 breeders because of the drought.

Despite the challenges at home, the Lammerts have been leaving their farm to fight fires.

"Never seen anything like this before," said Tim Lammert, who has been in the brigade with his wife for about 30 years.

"Normally we get a call, we get a fire, we go and put it out, we'll come back and go down the pub. But not anymore.

"We go out, we come back, get some sleep, then we go out again."

Annie Cossins said in the midst of 12-hour shifts, night after night, the toll of fatigue and a lack of sleep could stoke a feeling of, "'This is never going to end'. It did feel horrible."

Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade captain Rob Tulloch. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade captain Rob Tulloch. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Wollombi brigade has almost 50 active members, ranging in age from 20 to over 70. Some of the members are self-employed. For them, giving so much time to fighting fires has added up to little or no income.

The Federal Government's announcement of compensation of up to $6000 for NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers who were self-employed or worked for smaller businesses was welcomed by members of the Wollombi brigade.

"I was glad the government made that announcement because how can you expect anyone in the community to take off a week, two or three weeks, without income?," said Annie Cossins.

"No one would ask you to work for free for three or four weeks."

Rob Tulloch believed as a one-off to help volunteer firefighters who had been financially disadvantaged, the compensation was "a good idea". But he wouldn't want it to create an expectation for regular payment.

"I think a lot of members feel we are volunteers, and that's how we like to be," he said.

Wollombi brigade member and beef cattle farmer Tim Lammert. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Wollombi brigade member and beef cattle farmer Tim Lammert. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Brad Hayes has a tree lopping business, and he is a brigade member, along with his wife and their youngest son. He said the relentless fight against the fires had impacted on his livelihood. But Mr Hayes wasn't seeking compensation, asserting others needed help more than he did.

"I was talking to some young fellas in the middle of the night when we all came back here to have a coffee," he said. "And they were young people with mortgages and car payments and all the rest of it. One's got a baby on the way, one's got a brand new baby. And they're hurting. They work for small people. The boss said, 'You can have as much time off as you like, but I can't pay you'.

"And so they should get it. They need it."

As for himself, My Hayes replied, "You just do stuff. That's all you do. And you keep doing it until hopefully it rains."

While the fires had physically and mentally tested many of the volunteers, and it had hurt the village's tourist trade as roads were closed, Wollombi's volunteers believed the community spirit had been fuelled by this extraordinary summer.

Married couple and Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members Paul and Wendy Spiteri. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Married couple and Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members Paul and Wendy Spiteri. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The brigade is yet to have its Christmas party. It has been postponed until late January. But the members know this is no time for celebration. The fire threat remains around them.

"There is a lot of unburnt area here, and we're really only one dry lightning storm away from another fire," the brigade captain said.

"I'm very conscious of the demands on the crew, the demands on all of us, to be honest. I know these guys will stand up, if it happens again, but it will put a lot of strain on them, a lot of stress."

Yet they keep going, the volunteer firefighters of Wollombi.

At 20, Luca Hawkins is the brigade's youngest member and the son of volunteer firefighters. When asked why he did this, when, as a young man, he could be doing so many other things, the university student replied, "If you see something like this you can do and you don't, it's almost harder not to do it."

Members of the Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Members of the Wollombi Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

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This story Firies' fight for historic Wollombi first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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