Bushfire survivors cling to signs of life as farmers bury their livestock

Unprecedented devastation across the farms, mountains and towns of New South Wales


“Two more just died in the last few minutes,” Tom Grant said as he inspected a lamb that had fallen to its haunches. “When they’re like this they give up. They just give up.”

Grant and a crew of helpers spent Tuesday carrying out the grisly task of burying about 200 sheep killed on his property near Cobargo near the New South Wales coast when fires tore through the area in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

As he spoke to the Guardian, more of the lambs who survived the blaze dropped to the ground.

“The only water I’ve got for the ones who are left is what’s in the troughs, and we’ve got very little feed,” he explained. “There are about 10 cattle we still haven’t found. If they do show up I don’t know what I’m going to feed them.”

“A lot of them were our breeding stock for next season. We lost all four rams, too. It’s roughly $36,000 to $40,000. We’re insured though, so don’t feel too sorry for us.”

A white pony which Grant had dressed as a unicorn for his grandchildren recently was also among the dead animals collected on Tuesday.

Grant was one of dozens who lost his home in the blaze. As he used a tractor to lift sheep carcasses into a truck that then dumped them into graves dug with an excavator, his son Paul explained that Grant and his wife had built the home together as part of their retirement.

“I think this will be it for them now,” Paul Grant said. “They’d talked about downsizing in the future and I think this will just speed that up. It’s pretty heartbreaking, though. Mum’s really gutted but I suppose at the end of the day it’s just things. Funny how life has a way of changing your plans for you, though.”

Dead sheep were collected using earth-moving equipment, moved by a truck and then buried in a mass grave on Tom Grant’s property.
Dead sheep were collected using earth-moving equipment, moved by a truck and then buried in a mass grave on Tom Grant’s property. Photograph: Andrew Quilty/The Guardian

All across the southern part of NSW, similar scenes are playing out as the clean-up continues.

More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed in the state since the start of the unprecedented fire season, and a record-breaking area of land – 4.9m hectares (12.1m acres), an area larger than Denmark – has been burned, according to the latest figures released by the Rural Fire Service. Almost 118 fires continue to burn across NSW with 50 uncontained.

About 100km north, in the beachside suburb of North Rosedale, Dafydd Gwynn-Jones and his daughter Caitlin had driven down from their home in Canberra to find the ruins of the holiday house his parents built 41 years ago.

As they dug through the rubble – “that was the door, that was the fridge” – searching for mementos that might have survived the fierce blaze that has levelled about 75% of this holiday suburb near Batemans Bay, they reflected on something that had always been there but now was not.

“For my sister and I this house was pretty much the one constant,” Caitlin said. “We’ve lived in different cities, Sydney and Canberra, and different houses, but this was the one place that was constant. We tried to come here every year in the summer. Tried not to take it for granted.”

Dafydd Gwynn-Jones and his daughter Caitlin by their family’s destroyed property in North Rosedale.
Dafydd Gwynn-Jones and his daughter Caitlin by their family’s destroyed property in North Rosedale. Photograph: Andrew Quilty/The Guardian

The damage here is almost surreal. This small, out-of-the-way suburb was almost entirely levelled in the early hours of New Year’s Day. The panoramic views across the Pacific Ocean that drew holidaymakers are now offset by a brutal carnage. “It will take a long time to rebuild this place, a long time,” Dafydd Gwynn-Jones said. “But we absolutely will.”

The bushfire emergency gripping the east coast of Australia did not begin with the New Year’s Day fires, and with more dangerous conditions expected this week it probably will not end with them either.

But across hundreds of kilometres, the first week of 2020 has seen a trail of destruction.

On Saturday, as thousands of Rural Fire Service volunteers battled an onslaught of emergencies sparked by blazing heat and relentless winds, the Guardian watched as the sky in the Snowy Mountains town of Adaminaby turned black by 3pm.

As the fire peaked over a ridge near the town and headed towards properties defended by thinly stretched fire crews, the RFS group captain, Scott Lonard, simply did not have the resources to protect all of them.

“We’ll do our best but five trucks for this much space isn’t going to be enough,” he said.

The sky turning black along the Yaouk Road north of Adaminaby as the fire front approached on Saturday.
The sky turning black along the Yaouk Road north of Adaminaby as the fire front approached on Saturday. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

While milder conditions on Sunday brought a reprieve for the mountains, a strong southerly wind only exacerbated things in the far south coast town of Eden.

When it was evacuated on Sunday many in the town fled about half an hour north to Merimbula or west to Bega. When the evacuation centres in those towns began to fill, people began camping along the waterfront or under overpasses, a flood of people left with nowhere to stay and nothing to do but wait.

“I don’t know when I’ll get back into Eden and to be honest I wouldn’t want to go back yet,” John Ironmonger said near the water at Merimbula on Sunday.

“Everyone here has just been shuffled around from place to place.”

When the Guardian spoke to Shelley Caban in her makeshift shelter on a bus on the Eden wharf, she had no idea whether the historic 150-year-old home she lived in with her husband and three daughters just south of the town had survived.

Shelley Caban and her daughter Pearl on their bus at the Eden wharf on Saturday.
Shelley Caban and her daughter Pearl on their bus at the Eden wharf on Saturday. Photograph: Andrew Quilty/The Guardian

By Tuesday it was still standing, but with conditions expected to deteriorate again the family are not out of the woods yet.

“It came to literally within a paddock of the house and then the rain started,” she said. “In a weird way I’m kind of at peace with whatever happens now. I just want it to be over one way or the other.”


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Encircled by flames: the sleepy New South Wales towns in the bushfire crisis
With fires out of control and more dangerous conditions due, most residents are fleeing their homes

Michael McGowan

12, Nov, 2019 @11:52 PM

Article image
Water-bombing helicopter crash-lands at bushfire west of Brisbane – as it happened
Catastrophic fire conditions in New South Wales ease, but dozens of Australian bushfires remain burning. In Queensland, 80 fires are burning, with strong winds and temperatures in mid-30s forecast to make for hazardous conditions on Australia’s east coast. This blog has now closed

Lisa Cox (now) and Naaman Zhou (earlier)

13, Nov, 2019 @8:50 AM

Article image
NSW and SA fires live: five million hectares burned in Australia's bushfires – latest updates
This blog is no closed

Luke Henriques-Gomes, Calla Wahlquist and Helen Davidson

24, Dec, 2019 @8:05 AM

Article image
'Closed due to bushfire': as blazes smoulder, a NSW town is in suspended animation
For the townsfolk of Braidwood the worst of the fires may have passed – but the danger of more remains

Jessica Friedmann

23, Dec, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
As the long bushfire battle goes on in northern NSW, a brief respite for Christmas lunch
Two hundred people gather in Wytaliba, where rain has brought relief, but also more concern for the long-term effects of the fires

Calla Wahlquist

25, Dec, 2019 @12:14 AM

Article image
Tens of thousands flee in mass bushfire evacuation – as it happened
This blog is now closed. Our coverage will resume tomorrow morning

Calla Wahlquist and Helen Davidson and Luke Henriques-Gomes

03, Jan, 2020 @9:36 AM

Article image
Explainer: what are the underlying causes of Australia's shocking bushfire season?
Despite the political smokescreen, scientists are in no doubt that global heating has contributed to Australia’s fire emergency

Graham Readfearn

12, Jan, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Bushfire crisis: more than half of all Australians found to have been directly affected
A quarter of those in Australia Institute survey reported illness or health effects

Sarah Martin

22, Jan, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
‘Next fire season is already upon us’: NSW to adopt all recommendations of bushfire inquiry report
Report finds climate change ‘clearly played a role’ in conditions that led up to Australia’s 2019-2020 fires, which were so extreme, traditional firefighting methods often failed

Lisa Cox

25, Aug, 2020 @4:02 AM

Article image
No vintage: Australian vineyards dump grape harvest as bushfire smoke takes its toll
The entire 2020 crop has been lost in some parts of Hunter Valley and Adelaide Hills wine regions, while many growers are picking only a fraction of their fruit

Royce Kurmelovs

07, Feb, 2020 @7:00 PM