Reporting the February 2017 Pappinbarra fires | video

This devastation of the Pappinbarra bushfires.
This devastation of the Pappinbarra bushfires.

I’ve been a journalist for 34 years, most in Northern Ireland, reporting on the Troubles and then the peace process for newspapers, the BBC and Ulster Television.

I’ve covered murders, bombings, shootings and funerals, been shot at, almost stood on a blast bomb and been caught up in riots.

I also worked on a documentary about widespread flooding in England, but I’ve never reported on a bushfire.

On Sunday February 12, during that massive heatwave, the 15 hottest places on the planet were in Australia.  The temperatures around the Hastings were in the high 40s.

Although I was off duty, I kept an eye on the Gazette website page, which was being updated by colleagues, and saw that bushfires had broken out in beautiful Pappinbarra.

As they spread, people were being moved out of their homes. Information was scarce and the electricity went off. I decided to go there.



The Wauchope Show Society had opened the Showground to people evacuated from Pappinbarra and Beechwood.  I spoke to the President, Neil Coombes, and Jacqui Parker who’d gone there with her two horses, one cat and three dogs.  

Jacqui had no idea whether her home had survived the ferocious bushfires. Happily she found out the next day that it had.

Then I went to the Timbertown Motel which had earlier offered free accommodation to anyone who needed it.  

The owner, Rob Hamilton, did a live interview on Facebook, saying the rooms were now full, some taken by volunteer firefighters who were exhausted after battling to save houses all day.  They'd come from far and wide.

Rob's two sons were among them, and one lives near the affected area, so while he protected other people's houses, his family protected his.

Just then, Sharlene Myles, a mum with three young daughters, who'd recently moved to the area drove up and asked if there were any rooms left.  

Sadly, there weren't. I did a live interview with her, and she gave out her mobile number, and said she would be at the Showground, where there was space but no bedding at that stage.

Within minutes of the interview appearing on Facebook, four local families had offered her accommodation and she and her girls had somewhere to stay.

The people of Wauchope are extraordinarily generous with their time and their money, constantly supporting good causes.

As soon as I used our Facebook page to put out a call for bedding, people began arriving at the Showground from all over the Hastings with mattresses, sheets and blankets, as well as food.

Photo: Peter Palmer

Photo: Peter Palmer

Businesses like the Hastings Co-op and Coppi’s Butchers brought groceries and bottled water, and volunteers from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter support group arrived to cook hot meals and make tea and coffee for anyone who needed it.  

Some people stayed at the Showground with their animals, others stopped for something to eat before going on to friends or family members.

At the Pappinbarra Road outside Beechwood, where the firefighters were gathered, coming on and off shift, the fire was blazing a kilometre away, and the sky was glowing ominously.

It was too dangerous to go near the flames. I interviewed a Pappinbarra resident, Sue Ashton, who'd fled her home and didn't know if it had survived. Luckily, it had.

But six of the community were not so fortunate.  

On Monday, I went back to Pappinbarra, and this time, I was allowed in, although a fire chief told me to be careful of burnt trees and branches falling on the winding road through the valley, and asked me not to take photos or video of any properties or animals.

The fire had spread across 1,200 hectares, and the once-green landscape was black and burning in places.

The houses which burned down were twisted wrecks, and people I spoke to were in a state of shock, some of them suffering survivors' guilt.

However, the good news was that no-one was killed or injured, despite it being the worst fire there in living memory, and that firefighters had saved 45 homes.

On the mend: One of Helen Riek's horses is recovering well after the Pappinbarra fires.

On the mend: One of Helen Riek's horses is recovering well after the Pappinbarra fires.

Dale Goldfinch described seeing the fire rage and spread two kilometres in just 15 minutes.

Helen Riek, who lost her home, had to flee without her horses, and four are being treated for burns, free of charge, by Wauchope Vets.

Her friend set up a crowdfunding appeal, and within two days, the target of $20,000 had been reached for medication.  

Helping hand: Pappinbarra resident Deidre Kerr assists​ FAWNA President Meredith Ryan t​o treat​ burnt feet on a wallaby bushfire victim​ on Febraury 15.

Helping hand: Pappinbarra resident Deidre Kerr assists​ FAWNA President Meredith Ryan t​o treat​ burnt feet on a wallaby bushfire victim​ on Febraury 15.

Meredith Ryan from the wildlife rescue charity FAWNA looked after animals in her home, and got feed for kangaroos and wallabies.

In the days that have followed, the wider community have continued to reach out to the people of Pappinbarra, raising money for them, getting fodder for cattle, and providing fencing for the many farms that needed it.

The catastrophic fires have brought the people of this area closer together, and through doing my job, it's been humbling and heartening to have been a small part of the huge effort to help people who have lost so much.


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