Snowy Valleys Council mayor James Hayes describes the last weeks as some of the most traumatic weeks of his life, as towns, properties and infrastructure in his local government area were either razed by fire or faced a very similar fate.
South and north, not one but two towering infernos led to the evacuation of thousands of residents and visitors while inbound legions of firefighters – most of them volunteers – formed the first line of defence alongside emergency services, with defence force personnel soon swelling the ranks.
But in stark contrast to the maelstrom that heralded the start to 2020, was the positive spirit that prevailed in each of the shire’s small communities.
The mayor last week toured fire-affected communities and was struck by the enormity of the losses in a shire well known – indeed reliant – on its forests, fresh fruit, wines, ski resorts and livestock farming industries. By Friday council confirmed 151 homes and 442 outbuildings had been listed as destroyed so far, with 33 other homes damaged.
Hardest hit has been the 147-year-old town of Batlow – knee-deep in Australian fruit-growing nostalgia – which lost 17 homes, the old Mountain Maid cannery, the former Batlow District Hospital (once a former Women’s Land Army Hostel) and the only service station for the population of 1300.
Amid stock and infrastructure losses, blueberry farmers forced by fire to abandon crops mid-harvest have returned to losses due to lack of water and bird infestation. Some, like the Costa Group’s Tumbarumba operation, lost several vehicles and a packing shed.
Around 25 per cent of apple orchardists were also affected by fire, the mayor said. This is set to impact fresh apple supplies as well as the region’s burgeoning cider industry. Montague Fresh – one of Australia’s largest apple growers – sustained damage to 5000 of their 75-acre orchard of 200,000 apple trees outside Batlow.