Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories related to Staff Writer Dana Lynn McIntyre’s trip to Australia.
Glenn Locke has been through hell. Literally.
He was among the hundreds of volunteer firefighters who battled the massive bush fires that ripped through parts of New South Wales, Australia beginning in 2019.
Locke is currently Captain of the Nana Glen Rural Fire Brigade. When the fires began that summer, he was senior deputy.
The village of Nana Glen is located about 350 miles north of Sydney, near the coastal city of Coffs Harbour. In 2022, the area is green and peaceful.
It was not so in the Australian summer of 2019, which began in August and September.
“We had crown fire. It just went over the top of us here,” said Locke.
That was the battleground on Ellems Quarry Road.
Days earlier, the fire had reached Nymboida, roughly 20 miles northwest of Nana Glen. It was not immediately clear whether the fires would actually reach Nana Glen. So much of it depended on the winds.
Locke and then fire Captain John Larder began warning residents to get ready, should the fire shift direction.
“So, we had about two days’ notice where we were told by the RFS to clear out our gutters. You know, hose down everything, move everything away, things could get hairy,” said Alison Johnson, owner of the Idle In Cafe. “They didn’t know in which direction the fire would turn and if they’d be able to stop it. So, we had probably 48 hours to prepare and get ready. But nothing really prepares you for it.”
Johnson said an app, “Fires Near Me,” was invaluable in the early days but as the fire spread and moved it was not able to update fast enough on the location and in what direction the fire was headed.
Within a day a shift in the wind brought the flames toward Nana Glen. One of the first lines of defense was on Ellems Quarry Road.
“So, the fire come up through the paddock here, we could see it spotting. So, we defended the house, and the fire went clean over the top of us,” Locke said. “It got in the gully and went down and just vaporized Watto’s place, burned it to the ground.”
Watto is the nickname for Ian Watson, an artist and sculptor who lives on Ellems Quarry Road. Nothing remains of his home or work sheds.
“She went straight through, up the hill and over the glen into Russell’s,” said Watson, referring to actor Russell Crowe’s roughly 320 hectare farm. That translates to nearly 800 acres.
Back in the village, Johnson could see the shift in the fire’s direction.
“My memories of that night is that firies (firefighters) were coming and going. The trucks were coming and going. The sky was getting darker,” Johnson said. “And then late in that afternoon, over in that direction, the sky just whoosh and oh, here it comes. And that’s when it hit the trees back of Russell Crowe’s place. When Russell’s place went up, the sky went dark. A chopper flew over. It must have been one of the water drops. All the fire trucks disappeared. But those guys did an amazing job to stop it. Because after that, it was down into the village.”
These firefighters, or firies as they’re called in Australia, are all volunteers. They leave their jobs and their homes to fight fires, sometimes putting aside concerns for their own homes.
At one point, Locke was certain he had lost the home he shares with his partner, Anne, along with their animals. He heard repeated calls to “Morrows Road” on the radios. But a water drop from a chopper and crews assigned to the area protected homes along the road and the equestrian center, where many people had evacuated their horses.
Locke, Larder and the crew they were with on Ellems Quarry Road were thought to be lost themselves.
“We were in a bad spot, but we were safe,” Locke said. “In the meantime, group captains are over on Orara Way on the fire ground (radio channel) ‘Nana Glen 7 do you copy, Nana Glen 1?’ They’ve been trying to contact us for 10 minutes. We’re just busy. And they thought we were dead.”
Beyond battling the flames, communication became the second vital component.
That’s when Johnson at Idle In Cafe and the owner of the Golden Dog Hotel in Glenreagh joined forces. Each locations became a clearinghouse of information and donations collected.
Idle In’s location in the center of Nana Glen made it the ideal place for assistance organizations and telecommunication companies to set up to meet with people or reestablish communication links.
One thing that upset Johnson was who they didn’t hear from — council members.
“The council took some time to remember that we existed out here. They eventually came out a few days later to see if we were alive,” she said. “That’s something that burns, a very sore point.”
Johnson said the task of collecting and decimating information was handled locally. Books were started, one listing people who needed help, the other with people offering help. Johnson started going out to check on the homes of people who had evacuated and relaying the information to the homeowners.
Johnson was one of several individuals in the Coffs Coast region presented community service awards by then-NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“It was great to help your neighbors and really get to know your neighbors and really find out what’s important to yourself, to your family, to your community,” said Belinda Cameron with the Nana Glen Community Newsletter.
By January 2020, the world began hearing about a virus emerging from China. At first, attention in the Coffs Coast region stayed focused on fighting fires, followed by clean up, recovery and rebuilding.
But, inevitably, they had to deal with the arrival of SARS-CoV-2.
Details on the impact in the next installment, along with a look at brighter days for people living in Nana Glen.