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Defending the ‘undefendable’: How Batlow was saved

The fire surprised the small brigade last Saturday when it whipped through the surrounding valleys rather than coming over the hill to the south of the town, as expected.

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“The wind changed and it took the fire with it,” says Droscher. “It was frustrating because there was a lot of work done to contain it but it just took off.”

The fire charged through pine plantations and eucalypt forests, spreading to apple orchards and racing through grassy hills to incinerate sheep and cattle.

Droscher’s wife Diana was at work on the radio service at the SES control centre in Tumut, without any reliable mobile coverage to know how her husband was faring.

“There was a line of defence we had set up on Old Tumbarumba Road but it spotted over and joined up with another fire, and then the firewall walked through the town,” he says.

“Apart from Ash Wednesday it’s the worst fire I’ve been in.”

A sign thanking RFS firefighters on the road between Tumut and Batlow after bushfires impacted the Batlow region.

A sign thanking RFS firefighters on the road between Tumut and Batlow after bushfires impacted the Batlow region.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

With about one foot of debris and undergrowth on the ground, the fire had no shortage of fuel.

“They were monstrous flames – and it was like a jumbo jet going over, it was that noisy,” says Daryl Watkins, the captain of the Batlow RFS brigade.

Outside the town, orchardist Greg Mouat had chosen to leave. He and his wife took as much as possible to Tumut. Their house was saved, but they lost machinery, tractors, their shed and hundreds of apple trees scorched by the blaze.

“On the Friday there was an evacuation order in place and the last thing the RFS wants is 67-year-old blokes with a garden hose trying to save a house,” he says.

Batlow's iconic Big Apple in a scorched field after the bushfire.

Batlow’s iconic Big Apple in a scorched field after the bushfire.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“We arrived in Tumut with three cats, two chooks and two cars and we left the professionals to do what they do.

“There was never going to be any heroics – my son was with me, he’s got a young family and he would have stayed and fought. But there’s no point having two widows, one of them with young kids.”

The fire approached Adelong but spared the town. The RFS managers in the Riverina Highlands, Roger Orr and Jon Gregory, said the defence of Adelong was one of the most significant “wins” in the past few days.

An aerial water tanker dropped retardant in a V shape on the edge of Adelong, guiding the fire around the town rather than through it.

Property damage in Batlow.

Property damage in Batlow.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“If ever I’ve seen an example of being able to steer a fire, it was that,” says Gregory. “We steered the fire around the community.”

Things were different in Batlow. The brigade had to fight the fire with the help of local farmers and workers that deputy captain of the Batlow brigade Jeff Kynaston called the “slip-on brigade” – those who were not trained to hold a fire hose but helped in any way they could.

Did he think the town could be saved? “I didn’t think we could be saved,” he says. Yet the brigade and their helpers not only saved themselves but also prevented far greater damage to their town.

“Everyone thought it was gone,” says Kynaston. “I can’t believe the number of homes that were saved.”

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