Bushfires threatening our vineyards - 9 January 2020

It is hard to imagine that just two weeks ago we were celebrating Christmas in Tumbarumba - Richard and Elvie with our daughters, Caitlin, Sigrid and Briony. The township was alive with people - locals, families and friends reuniting, tourists wanting a break from city life and backpackers from around the globe busy picking blueberries. All the cafes, pubs, shops and wine cellar doors were buzzing and the vibe in the town was upbeat. The town was also preparing for Tumbarumba’s 75th rodeo that was going to be held on New Year’s Day.


The weather was hot. Very hot for Tumbarumba. And the lush greenness that covered the district in early December had faded though not completely. Tumba had received more generous rainfall than many other parts of New South Wales. Smoke from far away fires loomed across the town but these fires were far away.


Christmas was good. We made the most of good food and good wine as well as drawing on our family resources to prepare for a new block of pinot meunière for a future sparkling wine. It was hot work but as a family it was great to progress this together. We decided to delay the actual planting until a cooler time given we follow typical french and italian practices and do not irrigate our vineyard.


For Caitlin’s birthday on the 29th of December, we decided to experience Tumbarumba as tourists and visited a couple of our friends’ cellar doors - lunching at one of them. We were delighted about what Tumbarumba had to offer and how alive it was over the holiday period. This made us even more excited about our plans for building our own cellar door and home on our property. We were only vaguely aware of a “small” fire somewhere well north of Tumbarumba that had been started by lightning the evening before and had no idea of how devastating it would eventually become.


The next day fires were creeping a bit closer to Tumbarumba. We still didn’t realise how close and didn’t know that the maps on the Fires Near Me app could not be updated reliably when smoke is thick. Things really turned to custard the next day - the morning of New Year’s Eve. The fires passed, with incredible speed and ferocity, through places we had visited just days before and caused a lot of devastation around many parts of Tumbarumba - many of our friends were impacted - houses were lost, sheds and equipment destroyed, vineyards damaged, livestock killed. Our vineyard was still OK but fires were blazing behind Mount Tumbarumba and in the forested country to the east of us. Miraculously we were spared in round one; however we were far from safe. The Dunns Road fire had left a trail of destruction from Adelong to the north, to Tooma in the south - covering almost 100km and leaving a string of active fires all the way along its length. Power was gone, communications were gone and it would not be long before the water would not be safe to drink.  On New Year’s Day, some of our family left Tumbarumba. Others stayed to protect our vineyard and family homes in town.


The spread of fire across the district grew at an incredible rate. One day there was talk of 23,000 hectares burning and next it was 131,000 hectares and growing (today it stands at 300,000 hectares). About this time we became aware of the Jingellic fire to the south of Tumbarumba. This fire would eventually become bigger than the Dunns Road fire. Everyone was under threat of attack no matter whether you were north, south, east or west of the township. It all depended on the direction of the wind. The weather kept getting hotter and winds blew harder and in changing directions. People worked around the clock to put out spot fires and to construct and strengthen containment lines. Others provided physical and emotional support to help people evacuate or support those staying behind to defend. Suffice to say a mammoth effort was put in by many to keep things as safe as possible.


But the mountains and the countryside kept burning. Predictions of horror conditions across the whole of the Snowy Valleys Council region and beyond for Saturday 4 January came to fruition. Again devastation was widespread, particularly for our friends to the north of us around Batlow and Kunama and particularly down Ardrossan Road where our first Cottam ancestors settled in Australia. Back at our vineyard, we learnt that the fire had been stopped at the containment line between our property and the bush. Again we were spared.


As of today (Thursday 9 January 2020) while most people have evacuated, work continues to protect Tumbarumba - amazing fire fighters including various RFS teams, Nigel Grant Contracting, Brennans Earthmoving, local volunteers who don’t belong to any particular organisation but who turn up when you need them and so many others that have come in from outside the area. And then there are the council staff, local businesses and so many others who are ensuring that people have food and water and are kept informed. Too many people to mention individually - so many people to thank.


But things are not safe yet.


The power was reinstated to the township yesterday after being off for much of the last 8 days. Phone coverage has returned though signals are not always strong. The water is still not considered safe to drink. Access to the town is limited and cut off in all but one direction and this may also be cut off depending on the direction of the fires. Many people have adhered to advice to stay away which is great, considering the circumstances.


There are two huge fires that are predicted to merge somewhere near Tumbarumba tomorrow (Friday 10 January). High temperatures and highly changeable winds are also predicted. We stand together as the residents of the Tumbarumba region have done so many times before when faced with adversity. This is a resilient, resourceful and caring community.


So many of us have so much of ourselves invested in Tumbarumba. We must live in hope - for lives, livelihoods and dreams.