'We will never forget': 12 months on from the Dunns Road fire

'Never forget': 12 months on from the Dunns Road blaze

It has been a year since the NSW Riverina's skies were blackened by smoke as residents and firefighters battled a bushfire that would ravage the region for 50 days.

The Dunns Road fire initially started near Oberne Creek, south of Tarcutta, when lightning struck days after Christmas.

About 1200 volunteers from the region helped out on least one 12-hour shift, 67 of the area's 69 RFS brigades committed resources and the aviation brigade lent assistance, including one mammoth operation that saw the aircraft refilled with fire retardant 98 times in one day.

The blaze destroyed more than 150 homes and structures.

It also claimed the life of Goulburn man David Harrison, who was helping a friend defend a property during catastrophic conditions in Batlow.

A year on and the towns continue their rebuild efforts while their resilience and fighting spirit continue to shine.

WALL OF FLAMES: Some 1200 volunteers from the region dedicated a combined effort of more than 14,000 hours in fighting the fire. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service

WALL OF FLAMES: Some 1200 volunteers from the region dedicated a combined effort of more than 14,000 hours in fighting the fire. Picture: NSW Rural Fire Service

But the memories of towns shrouded in smoke, dust stinging eyes and raging heat pricking skin will never fade for those struck by the devastation.

Linda and Matthew Rudd, the owners of the Batlow Hotel, which at the time of the fires was 99 years old, were determined it would see its centenary.

Mr Rudd helped his wife in packing up the car and organising the family's evacuation.

But then, he said, "I am staying behind".

STILL STANDING: Matthew and Linda Rudd say they are grateful for the support shown by Batlow as the town rebuilds. Picture: Les Smith

STILL STANDING: Matthew and Linda Rudd say they are grateful for the support shown by Batlow as the town rebuilds. Picture: Les Smith

"It was absolutely terrifying to leave him and one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make," Mrs Rudd said. "But we have children, and we had a grandchild on the way."

Mrs Rudd said her husband used their firefighting equipment to protect their pub and homes around their business.

"At one point he was assisting the very limited number of firies that were here dealing with a large woodpile that had caught fire," she said.

"It needed to be monitored because it was at the top of town. So should a blazing piece of wood rolled down it would have set the town alight. He helped to make sure that did not happen."

As the Rudds began rebuilding their business and helping the town recover, the pandemic hit.

"Trading safely has meant that we have had to change the way we do business, but the town has been really supportive," Mrs Rudd said.

"We found that most people are good at following the rules. Our business is starting to pick up again.

"But the impact of the fires is still very strong in our mind and in the minds of the town, but - like a lot of bushfire-affected towns - we feel that we have been forgotten.

"The pandemic has overrun it in the mind of some people. But our town is very supportive."

For Batlow apple grower Greg Mouat, he will never forget the ferocity of the heat or the thick smoke hanging in the skies.

The Batlow Hotel still had the beer flowing, thanks to a petrol powered generator and enjoyed by Trent Harvey, publican Matt Rudd, Jake Smith and Matt Flenley.

The Batlow Hotel still had the beer flowing, thanks to a petrol powered generator and enjoyed by Trent Harvey, publican Matt Rudd, Jake Smith and Matt Flenley.

Due to a warning from the Rural Fire Service, Mr Mouat managed to take some precautions, including clearing away potential accelerants.

But, at the end of the day, it was not enough.

"The eastern flank of Dunns Road became the new front, and that's when it blew through and belted us," Mr Mouat said.

"We evacuated in the end. We did not have any significant firefighting equipment or experience, and we thought it would have been folly to stay."

The exact economic damage to Mr Mouat's orchard is still unknown, but extensive work has already gone into recovery. He said they have started the replanting process and replaced most of the drip tubing and netting that was damaged.

NEW GROWTH: Greg Mouat says his orchards are beginning to get back to normal, but it will take years for the full impact of the fires to be known. Picture: Les Smith

NEW GROWTH: Greg Mouat says his orchards are beginning to get back to normal, but it will take years for the full impact of the fires to be known. Picture: Les Smith

"We are building back better," Mr Mouat said. "For example, one block that had 1500 trees in it over 1.5 hectares will now have over 3000 in 1.1 hectares."

Mr Mouat said he continues to be amazed by the resilience of his community. He added that for all the destruction the fires brought, it also brought the town closer together.

Rural Fire Service Riverina zone operational officer Bradley Stewart said the efforts by the volunteers show how crucial they are to the region.

"Someone has to be there in order to do the job, and if it's not our volunteers then who else will?" he said.

Mr Stewart urged residents to be prepared by maintaining fire breaks, updating escape plans and knowing when total fire bans are in place.

"I also cannot stress this enough - call triple zero if there is a fire because this is the most efficient means to draw the appropriate resources to you," he said.

This story 'Never forget': 12 months on from the Dunns Road blaze first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.