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Morton Fire: Bundanoon History Group

A compilation of images and extracts from oral history interviews that present the impact of the 2020 Morton bushfire on the community of Bundanoon, Southern Highlands of NSW.

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Audio transcript

For Bundanoon and other villages in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, the start of 2020 was traumatic due to the Morton fire, which started when the Currowan fire jumped the Shoalhaven River on the 4th of January 2020. The fire was declared out on the 10th of February 2020.

Members of the Bundanoon History Group conducted oral history interviews with a cross-section of community members. This presentation uses some of their words, and photographs provided by Bundanoon RFS members and other locals.

In December 2019 the community was warned the fire would reach Bundanoon. Packing, cleaning gutters, leaving and returning became routine.

For the southern villages of the Southern Highlands, the night of the 4th to 5th of January was the most disastrous, although several threats came throughout the months. That night in Bundanoon the fire turned north, claiming houses on the outskirts of the village. Residents fled until late in the night escorted by police to evacuation centers.

It was a long month for the RFS and its auxiliary. They worked very hard and tirelessly to save many properties and avoid loss of life. The hazardous work of building containment lines was crucial. The district was covered in smoke and ash all month. Helicopters flying overhead were a constant reminder the fires were not out.

The Bundanoon community spirit is strong. People rallied to call for donations for the RFS and those who lost property. They came together to thank the firies, to keep the community informed and later to raise funds.

Local knowledge is essential for the effective management of bushfires. That’s why we have submitted this video to the National Museum of Australia. We want to contribute a local voice to the story of Black Summer 2020. The residents of Bundanoon are surrounded by the magnificent bushland of the Morton National Park. To see it destroyed added to the trauma. Then the rains came and brought heartwarming signs that the bush had started to recover.

Led by Wombat John, the community has worked hard to care for the native fauna affected by the fires. The lyrebirds are back. If you would like more information please contact the Bundanoon History Group via their website.

Slide transcripts 

Slide 1: Homes destroyed

4–5 January 2020: 4 homes in Bundanoon, 2 in Exeter and 8 in Wingello
23 January 2020: one home on Teudts

Image: remains of a home on Teudts Rd, Bundanoon 25 January 2020, 3.34pm. Photo: Alan Fairbrother

Slide 2: Morton fire summer
Bundanoon History Group. Sources: extracts from oral histories and local photographers.

‘It is essential for our survival and our culture that Australians learn a fine-grained language of fire in all its different localities.’

Image: Burning house and fire truck, Highland Way, Wingellom, 5 January 2020, 5.10am. Photo: Tara Wydmuch

Slide 3: Drought

‘It was all too dry … the scale of what was happening, drought killing gumtrees, too dry, no water tanks, too long a drought.’

‘Rolling clouds of ash swept over us, peppering my face, implanting and embedding in my eyes.’

– Melissa Cady

Image 1: When the Tianjara fire was overwhelmed by Currowan fire, 21 December 2019. Photo: Melissa Cady
Image 2: Smoke shrouds a house in Bundanoon, 31 December 2019. Photo: Evan Smith

Slide 4: Evacuation – packing, unpacking, packing again

Catastrophic day
A waiting game: should we leave?
Nerves fray, we are mute

Papers in the car
Along with clothes, did I pick well?
Plus some precious things

Sky is grey, briefly
Teased that it might bring moisture
Now a sallow glow.

Extract, ‘Bushfire haiku’, Francesca Beddie, December 2019

Image: Peter Rodgers unpacks, February 2020. Photo: Francesca Beddie

Slide 5: Homes destroyed

4–5 January 2020: 4 homes in Bundanoon, 2 in Exeter and 8 in Wingello

23 January 2020: one home on Teudts Road

Image 1: Remains of a home on Teudts Rd, Bundanoon 25 January 2020, 3.34pm. Photo: Alan Fairbrother
Image 2: Rockleigh Road, Exeter, 18 March 2020. Photo: Joy Brown

Slide 6: Stay or go?

[After being turned back from an attempt to evacuate]

‘The sky to the east was glowing red and there was a noise like a hundred trains. We out on our CFY [Community Fire Unit] protective clothing and knew it was going to be a long night. Mum [93 year old] sat down to monitor the radio and TV for information … Turns out [the fire] was much closer and four fire trucks arrived and backed down driveways opposite. The embers were raining down.’
– Sally Berry, Bundanoon resident, Ben Nevis Circuit Community Fire Unit Team Coordinator

Image: ‘We are OK’ after a night of emergency, 11 January 2020, 2.10 am. Photo: Evan Smith

Slide 7: Bundanoon RFS

Image 1: Bundanoon RFS personnel off Coalmines Road. Photo: Ken Rooke

Image 2: Bundanoon Category 1 truck, 14 January 2020. Photo: John Everett

Image 3: NSW Governor Margaret Beazley’s visit to Bundanoon, 14 January 2020. Photo: John Everett

Image 4: An overrun on Teudts road caused damage to the truck, 23 January 2020. Photo: John Everett

Slide 8: Containment

Backburning by the RFS to contain the fires,  24–25 January 2020.

Image: Backburning, Coalmines Road. Photo: Dane McAndrew

Slide 9

‘I took the tablecloth photo on 19 January 2020 in the Bundanoon Memorial Hall. It was a public function to thank the southern village firies … there was food but no speeches … just large tablecloths covering those big Hall tables, a separate one for each of the southern villages, with two for Bundanoon. And a whole outpouring of thanks for the firies.’
– Trish Arbib

Slide 10

‘The Mosquitoes are an informal group of locals who know the Bundanoon area, its terrain, flora and fauna in detail. Members include families of early [1820s] Bundanoon settlers. They helped Fire and Rescue and the Rural Fire Service in the 2019–2020 summer, for example by making fire trails, and spotting and dealing with fires as they occurred.’
– Lyn Morehen (from an interview with John Hines)

Slide 11: Morton National Park

23,004 hectares burned.

Image: 9 March 2020. Photo: Meg Nurse

Slide 12: Regeneration

‘The first time I went to a burnt-out area, it was a scene of lifelessness and silence. Only two months later, did I begin hearing the birds again.’

– Caitlin Gallagher, Wingecarribee Shire’s Young Citizen of the Year 2020

Caitlin was recognised for her work as a wildlife rescuer for Wombat Care Bundanoon.

Photo: Lovely Bundanoon Facebook page, 17 January 2020

Slide 13: Acknowledgments

Bundanoon history
President: David Brennen
Bushfire archive project convenor: Francesca Beddie
Digital archivist: Beryl Seckington
Oral history interviewers: Marianne Ward, Lyn Morehen, Caroline Cosgrove, Ralph Clark, David Brennan, Francesca Beddie
Oral history convenor: Jim Rooney
Archive sub-committee convenor: Ian Smith
Ken Rooke, RFS
Bundanoon Photography Group
Lovely Bundanoon Facebook page
RFS Fires near me

With thanks for all who participated in the project.


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