The heartbreak of a bushfire

Bendigo Advertiser news director JESSICA GRIMBLE grew up with the Grampians at her front door. Last week disaster struck her family’s home and 2500-acre sheep property at Brimpaen, south of Horsham, as the Grampians Northern Complex fire burnt out of control.

"Hello, love. I’m just ringing to give you an update on the fire."

As if the 6.30am phone call wasn’t unnerving enough, the tone of my mum’s voice made my heart sink.

“We’ve managed to save our house … but we’ve lost two-thirds of our farm.”

The last I’d heard from Mum was a text message at 1am. I was winding down from an evening shift at work and she’d just arrived home from driving the fire ground with Dad. He’d picked her up a few hours earlier, worried she would be scared at home alone. They’d both returned for a sleep – Dad, particularly, needed rest before his stint in divisional command for the CFA the following day. He’d survived on just a few hours’ rest in the days since the fire started.

“Home now. It wasn’t a very nice experience. Very scary!!! Fire had jumped the road from Blacks and was heading into property on the corner of our road. The poor horses were stirred up. It is burning back on itself with wind change. Thank god. Will speak to you tomorrow with more detail. Love you.”

WE WON’T GET A FIRE FROM THE EAST

It was 1.15am on Friday, January 17 when my brother Josh made the urgent phone call to home.

He was on the fire ground with dad’s mate Robert Kelm. They were at our neighbour’s place on the Northern Grampians Road at Wartook when they watched the fire front jump from the eastern to the western side of the road.

It was headed towards our family home of 29 years on Brimpaen-Laharum Road – the only home Dad’s lived bar three years of his life – and it was heading there fast.

Mum and Dad were getting ready for bed – Mum already in her pyjamas – and without much time to think they sprung into action.

Dad retraced his fire break on the eastern side – only created this year – hooked our private unit to his ute and made the appropriate preparations to fight. Mum, still in her pyjama top and tracksuit pants, had sprinklers running on our back lawn during the night but she worked to poke another in the hedge along our pool fence and, unsuccessfully, into the shade cloth above the fernery.

Dean Winfield and his son Sam and Cameron McDonald, both from neighbouring properties and in the line of the fire, suddenly arrived with their private units – and with my brother and the fire, which came from the north and the east and wrapped around the house.

THE SCARIEST NIGHT OF OUR LIVES

I’m not sure how they did it, but our weatherboard soldier settlement home is still standing.

The fire has burned a ring around our home – it rolled through the trees and through the dry grasses and a portion of that hedge. It scorched a beautiful blackwood tree only three metres from my bedroom window.

The plantation of Cyprus trees Grandpa put in, along with a plantation along the southern fence when I was one, is gone. Shedding, petrol tanks, sheep yards and the dog kennel were all untouched.

And it was all saved with the three private units, garden hoses, sprinklers and buckets.

I had watched my parents on the news and I'd heard their stories. I'd heard the emotion, and the strength, in their voices. But nothing could prepare me for the enormity of seeing the aftermath of this horrible night - it literally took my breath away. 

After more than two hours of calm behind the wheel, I drove the final kilometres towards home feeling a strange mix of heartbreak, fear, sadness and relief.  My heart was pounding. 

The sheep drinking at an unburnt dam bank brought a smile to my face, but the sight of our beautiful trees in broken, blackened pieces and the proximity of black to our home turn me to a panicked, blubbering mess. 

STICKING TO THE FIRE PLAN

We’d always had a fire plan – and that was to stay and defend. My family’s safety was never in jeopardy.

Mum’s said many times over the weekend that a concern for their welfare never entered her mind. You just got in and did what you had to do, she said. Though she’s admitted once the blackwood tree caught, she feared the house would go, too.

It was a living nightmare.

The Laharum Fire Brigade captain, Mark Francisco, told my parents later – once the fire trucks could actually make it down our road – he was going to keep driving past our house. He thought there would be little purpose as he believed nothing would be left standing.

A SECOND GO, THEN A THIRD

Late morning, after the power pole in the next paddock fell, an investigation in the roof found smouldering insulation and charred electrical wires and fittings.

Embers had found their way into the roof – and with the help of the Laharum brigade and an infrared camera the threat was doused.

But people waited with bated breath later as forecast wild wind threatened the unburnt country surrounding our castle.

A FIRE KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES

Bushfires are ruthless beasts and often nothing can stand in their way.

We’re not the only ones affected by this disaster – many of our neighbours have lost as much, if not more, of their farms and an estimated total 7000 stock have died.

School friends have shared their stories on Facebook – most have tales of luck, but one lost his family home in the bush of Wartook and little more than a skeleton is left behind.

Not far from home, a woman at Roses Gap died.

More than 30 homes were lost and 53,000 hectares were burnt after the lightning strike on Wednesday, January 15. Firefighters brought the fire under control after six days.

The cost of pastures, trees and fences lost could be immeasurable.

One of the many remarkable stories to be told from our personal experience is that of a mob of sheep who, seeing the fire approaching their paddock, ran in circles around an old hay shed which housed an old header and other machinery. The sheep created a fire break, for themselves and the shed, and they survived.

Dad, the CFAs Grampians Group officer, had earlier predicted that should the fire reach Brimpaen-Laharum Road, it would come out further south and he was confident our home would never fall threat to a fire – and he was confident we’d never be hit from the east.

I guess this shows the unpredictability of the beast that is a bushfire.

BUSIER THAN BOURKE STREET

It shouldn’t surprise me – as Dad said only on Saturday night, Josh and I are privileged to come from such an amazing community as Brimpaen (and its surrounding districts).

Only hours after the fire, our driveway was inundated with neighbours lending a hand to check stock, delivering hay, food or a shoulder to lean on. I didn’t have Mum to myself for five minutes until late on Saturday, when the flow of visitors ceased for a time.

We’ve never seen so many men working in the sheep yards or so many utes and dogs at the back door. There are guys I’ve never seen at our place helping out and lending a hand.

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine also stopped by on his tour of the region with Dad, wearing his hat of Horsham's mayor.

People Mum and Dad haven’t heard from in years have heard our district name on the news – or Mum and Dad’s faces post fire – and have called with words of support and offering their assistance.

It’s quite overwhelming.

GENERATIONS OF MEMORIES

Dad’s parents were one of eight soldier settlement couples to Brimpaen and Laharum in the 1950s and they raised six children in our family home.

When Mum and Dad married they lived in a house not far away for three years. Before I was born the senior Grimbles moved into a second house relocated onto the property and my parents took the Grimble family home as their own. They’ve since raised Josh and I there.

The house is vastly different to the original 1950s build – but gee, if these walls could talk I’m sure they could tell some ripping stories.

LOOKING BACK ON PENNED THOUGHTS

"Like a scene off Mars, the blood-red sky loomed menacingly over the entire western Grampians region. Threatning. Intimidating. Horrifying.

"January 1999. A lightning strike has caused all residents of the area to lie awake worrying, guessing, contemplating how far the blaze could possibly advance.

"Husbands, fathers, grandfathers and brothers are playing hero, and have been sent out on trucks from hundreds of kilometres away to assist their fellow men in a desperate course of control and action."

I wrote these words as a 17-year-old high school student about the Mt Difficult fire – later winning the ABCs Heywire competition for my piece on Bushfires: a part of rural life.

Weeks before travelling to Canberra for the week-long Heywire youth conference, another big fire at Mt Lubra burnt a significant portion of the Grampians.

“… the annual threats of a serious bushfire is all too familiar and never very far away in the busy summer. This threat is not at all helped when teamed with the vicious cycle of the harsh drought and poor seasons in which the Horsham and district is currently trapped,” I wrote.

“During summer fires (no matter how small), I often contemplate how drastically lives would change if a fire was to wipe out a farmer’s home, and how the farmers and their families could go on after such a loss.

“It is their life, their love, their soul. It’s in their blood and in their bones.”

THE LONG ROAD AHEAD

Our beautiful farm and surroundings will never look the same in our lifetimes.

The stunning, big trees – well over 100 years old – have been burnt and crashed to the ground and plantations Grandpa or Dad planned over the years won’t reach the same level for a long, long time.

The outlook from our front decking has changed dramatically. We can see the red writing of our property name emblazoned across the side of our mailbox as clear as day; previously the mailbox was hidden behind the flowering gum at the start of our driveway.

We’ve only lost a few hundred head of stock – far better than the initial predictions of about 1500 – and the survivors will be shorn as normal next week before they are taken off the property on agistment.

Crops will be planted to help regenerate the paddocks burnt so hot the seeds of the grasses were fried. And eventually regular workings will resume.

The sight of our property blackened as far as the eye can see has broken our hearts. Arriving at home for the first time after the fire was incredibly overwhelming and emotions will run high for many weeks and months as we all process what has happened.

But residents of Brimpaen, Wartook and Laharum are bred tough. We’ll get through together. And we’ll probably be stronger and wiser for the experience.

“For all its harshness and unpredictability, it’s in my genes, too. A part of me will always remain here. No matter where I go or what I do, I will always be a country girl at heart.”

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