Years of drought had primed the bush surrounding the township or Orbost for a bad fire season. And as the hotter weather of December began to take hold, the town started its anxious wait. The devastation of the bushfires in East Gippsland and the northeast of Victoria made the summer of 2019/2020 a historic emergency response challenge for Victoria Police. This story documents Orbost’s experience of the bushfire and the ongoing relief and recovery that followed.
Sergent Jo Geddes:
Tradition says it comes from Buchan it will get that hot the ground will catch on fire, the bare dirt, and it really did. Big trees are down to tiny little sticks is all that’s left of them. Orbost itself has three fires approaching it. It had the Tostaree fire, we had the Buchan fire which was coming down the Snowy River towards us, and had burnt in be Bete Bolong North, and we had the Yalmy fire coming down from Goongerah way which was quite wide. So we probably had a 270 degree surround of fire.
Basically, the map was saying they were all going to impact Orbost at the same time, and this was the bullseye. The town was effectively the bullseye amongst the three fires. It had gone dark and we’d lost power really early in the day, like mid-afternoon. I didn’t actually work on the 30th, I’d worked previously on the Saturday,so I’d been at home at the dairy farm and at about midnight, one o’clock, we decided it was time to evacuate the kids, it was no longer safe there for them. So three kids, a rabbit, two dogs, and six guinea pigs into the car. In to town to my parents-in-law’s and they’re on the edge of town. Then I could see all the flames pretty much surrounding me and all the ridges on fire. My parents-in-law live just down the end of the street.
I stood and watched the entire ridgeline as far around as I could see was on fire, and watched little fire trucks go out, they just looked like ants headed out here. The spot fires were starting coming to these houses just here. It had actually spotted into town and thankfully like we would have had minutes to spare, like under ten, this wind change come through and pushed it back on itself. The flames just went, they were huge when the wind hit because obviously its fanned it up and it was crazy scary that it was just there, like probably four kilometres away.
Driving up past the relief centre and the ICC there was just, it felt like hundreds of cars and boats and caravans, the majority of which were tourist. We’d spent that Saturday before the Monday emptying out our camp parks and what not because it was the weekend between Christmas and New Years and there was thousands of people here and you go back now and those places were burnt to the ground like they would have perished. The Conran fire happened on the 30th of January I believe.
We obviously emptied it and when the fire comes through it's just desolate, it's just back, the tea trees still are just starting to grow back eleven months later. It burnt to the beach, there was ash on the beach. So this is Wairewa Road and were going to head into the little farming valley, and this is were Orbost patch starts, so O’Grady’s Bridge, it’s one of the historical railway bridges that burnt during the fires. And this is probably where we had our biggest stock loss, I think we lost seventy head and eleven houses.
Orbost response zone is quite a significant parcel of land. The only pockets that didn’t burn were the Orbost township, the little suburb of Newmerella and the Marlo township. So everything else effectively was on fire. We lost thousands and thousands and thousands of kilometres of fencing like I would hate to add it up, and there was stock lost and fodder.
They lost so much fodder and because we were in a drought and it hadn’t rained for the five years, fodder was so expensive and so hard to source. You had grown men that were beside themselves and quite upset about how they were going to feed the stock. And we were cut off, we were stuck in Orbost essentially and we couldn’t get out here, so it was probably pretty hard, like we couldn’t get out to our people for days, to weeks depending on how much the road was impacted and where they were. We had a lot of dealing with very emotional older men that normally would be stoic type people that wouldn’t normally be upset by much and they were absolutely destroyed.
They’re quite emotionally attached to there animals, they do want the best for them and to not be able to feed them was quite a stressor at the time. Sam McCaskill from Lake Bolac, he’s the one-manner over there, that’s obviously a grain belt, lots of fodder. He had farmers approach him wanting to donate so he popped up a post on Facebook thinking I’ll get one B double, I’ll get one B double of fodder and I’ll send it somewhere down there. Anyway he go sixteen B doubles of fodders, truck drivers donated there time and you know he rang and he goes “You’re the farm crime liaison officer, can you help me out to get this on-site because these farmers want to see this fodder go the people who need it”.
We had a depot Numerella and as the B doubles were pulling in to deliver it, the army dropping down with their choppers picking it up, in singles doubles, what they could fit in there little nets and flying it into Conbienbar where they lost all their houses and Club Terrace, and into Cann River and Mallacoota, and Bendoc, and Tubbut, and all these crazy places where these no way we could have got fodder in, and they’ve lost everything, and they’re on, you know burnt ground and feeding this stock.
This is only farmland to a lot of people and probably doesn’t look special to other people that don’t live here, but its pretty special to the people that are here. So when I moved here 12 years ago I was young constable and I met my husband who’s a dairy farmer and now we lease a couple of dairy farms and have children, and I work part-time at the police station, so I have this really great balance where I get to go home and play with poddy calves on a couple of thousand acres and then I get to come to work and be a policeman and I love them both equally.
And also it probably gives me a really good position as a stakeholder within the community, like I garner a lot of trust from people because they know me from both roles and I’m approachable. So on the night of the 30th of December we weren’t on duty but we were still running operations through the IPOC and making a phone call because people reach out to you with “I’ve got this problem, can you help me?”.
I suppose it’s the craziness that we as local policemen had to deal with. We were really lucky we had a couple of PORT units initially before that main fire front and the Nunawading Highway Patrol came in and they were here that night where it was craziness and they were just amazing. They manned our TMPs and supported us like no tomorrow because we’re such a small unit it was just awesome to have another small unit have our back. We’ve got quite a great a little community so everyone did help each other out and if people needed things we made sure that happened. People from Colac and Melbourne were ringing going “I’ve got stuff, a truck will be there at this time and dropping it off”.
So our locals here were donating their time to sort it out and get it distributed and you know just making sure everyone was OK. Five to ten minutes, Orbost would be a very, very different looking place, because they couldn’t have saved it all. We were just lucky. There’s no other way to explain it, you can’t say anything other than sheer luck. When that wind change came it meant our little town still reminds as it is today and we can help the rest of our outskirts recover.
Reviewed 13 January 2021