Huon Valley’s bushfire recovery a long time in the making

23 January 2021

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AUSTRALIA – Dale Fullard sits atop his outdoor dining table, playing guitar and singing.

In the distance the sun, shimmering off the water of the Huon River that snakes along the banks of his property, paints an apparent idyllic setting.

But a closer inspection of the trees that are still black to the touch and of melted glass littered on the ground speaks of a tragic past.

Fullard, 50, is a poet and singer more commonly known by his moniker and stage name ‘Hairy Man’.

He’ll tell you he started shaving when he was 12.

Fire it came down and swept the valley clean,

Took away my home, took away my dreams.

Dale 'Hairy Man' Fullard with his dog Lawson in a bushland setting.

Fullard with his dog Lawson on his property situated between Judbury and Geeveston.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The fire Fullard’s ballad refers to is the Riveaux Road fire of January 2019, which along with the Gell River and Great Pine Tier bushfires burned more than 200,000 hectares including significant parts of Tasmania’s World Heritage Areas.

Six homes were lost, including Fullard’s located near Ta Ann’s Southwood veneer mill, which was also severely damaged and recently announced it would not reopen.

He now lives in his workshop that was thankfully spared by the flames.

Judbury below fire glow.

The glow from the Riveaux Road fire lights up the early morning sky over Judbury in 2019.(Supplied: Toby Schrapel)

His gravelly voice echoes around the hills, uninterrupted by any other sound — and that vacuum of noise is what upsets Fullard most.

Two weeks after the fire, Fullard was interviewed by local media and extolled the aid offered by his local Huon Valley community.

For Fullard, who lives a private life, “the intensity of help after the fire was very overwhelming”.

“I had so many people stepping up to the mark and helping me out,” he says.

That included strangers; one who slipped some money into Fullard’s pocket one day when he was in town and then casually walked away.

That particular interaction brought the bushman to tears.

But as winter approached, the blackened and scorched trees enveloped Fullard.

A stand of burnt trees in bushland.

Charred trees stand as a reminder on Dale Fullard’s property.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Fullard understands the trappings that come with living remotely but even trying to obtain a new birth certificate after it perished in the fire created a lot of anxiety.

“It became very frustrating to involve myself in the assistance … it took up so much time and you see the wheels of bureaucracy don’t seem to turn very well at all,” he says.

Bushfire in the Tasmanian landscape.

The Riveaux Road fire, along with fires further south and north, devasted large areas of bush in 2019.(Supplied: Claude Road Fire Brigade)

It takes more than 30 minutes to drive between Hairy Man’s property and that of Rita Helling in Glen Huon, although barely 5 kilometres separate them as the crow flies.

Dr Helling, 77, also lost her home in the 2019 fires. Like Fullard, she lives alone and has already rebuilt, doing “about 80 per cent of the work” herself.

Rita Helling standing in front of her kit home.

Rita Helling says she feels sad when she sees burnt trees, “but they are resilient, just like me”.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

A PhD in philosophy might explain Dr Helling’s optimism post fire.

“When I see trees that are burnt, I do still feel sad but they are resilient, just like me,” she says.

She is thankful for all the help she received immediately after the fire — but pays special tribute to the members of her local performing group, the Cygnet Singers.

“It’s like a family and there was so much support and that went on for a whole year,” she says.

Rita Helling picking vegetables in her garden.

Rita Helling picks vegetables in her garden in Glen Huon.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

South of Huonville, Tahune Adventures’ Ken Stronach has had a testing 24 months since the fires.

He is imbued with a social responsibility to other businesses in the region knowing that, “whether we like it or not, we’re the primary attractor for people to travel past Huonville”.

The tourism attraction was evacuated on January 21, 2019.

Remote area and volunteer firefighters embedded themselves at the visitors centre.

The iconic airwalk was saved but parts needed to be re-engineered.

Burnt Tahune airwalk picture next to rebuilt airwalk picture

The bushland around the Tahune Airwalk is coming back, slowly.(Supplied TFS/Katri Uibu)

Stronach and his landlord, Sustainable Timbers Tasmania (STT), worked for 13 months and reopened on February 29 last year.

“We traded for 3 weeks and a day until we had to close because of the pandemic,” he says.

Even with this second punch to the guts so soon after the bushfires, Stronach hasn’t been knocked down,

Tahune Adventures resumed seven-day trading on Boxing Day.

Stronach is in touch with other tourism operators statewide and agrees with their consensus that numbers are only at about 50 per cent this summer due to COVID travel restrictions, which concerns him heading into winter.

“Should we have to go back to operating only a couple days a week it won’t be sustainable, particularly if we lose JobKeeper,” he says.

“Even though it’s a private operation now, I still feel we have a social responsibility towards the Huon Valley and when I say we, I mean STT and the State Government.”

So two years on, what are the lessons to be learnt?

Bec Enders was sworn in as Huon Valley Mayor only eight weeks before the 2019 fires.

When Huon Valley residents were evacuated, the community set up an evacuation centre at the Huonville PCYC and adjacent football ground that looked after hundreds of residents.

Cr Enders understands “in a climate-changing world, of course the bushfires will be longer and they’ll be more fierce”.

With that knowledge, she posits one of the most important learnings for future bushfire disasters.

“People are recorded and then moving to a new safe location.”

Huon Valley mayor Bec Enders smiles at the camera.

Huon Valley mayor Bec Enders was only weeks in the job when catastrophe hit.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

An independent operational review of the management of the 2019 fires was prepared for the Tasmanian Government by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC).

They listed nine recommendations to improve Tasmania’s response to future bushfires.

A firefighter walks through a rainforest with a hose. It's smoky and fire is visible.

A volunteer firefighter from Huonville works to quell flames in 2019.(Supplied: TFS/Warren Frey)

In July of last year, Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management Mark Shelton announced expressions of interest for Tasmanian volunteers to be trained to join the specialist remote area firefighting capability, which was one of AFAC’s recommendations.

This recommendation “remains in progress, with the recruitment of volunteer remote area firefighters currently at 20 of the 80 required”, a government spokesperson said, with the other eight recommendations being implemented.

House destroyed in Tasmanian bushfire

Burnt trees surround a collapsed house in Tasmania’s Huon Valley after the 2019 bushfires.(Supplied: The Mercury)

Green shoots push out of the eucalypts surrounding Dale Fullard’s bush block.

They are recovering, but slowly, much like Fullard.

Being involved in his own recovery and empathising with all those affected by the devastating bushfires last summer has given him time to think.

“I do believe we live in a wealthy country and the wealth is not necessarily money, it’s also knowledge”.

One of the huge trees at the Tahune Airwalk in southern Tasmania that has been destroyed by fire.

Thousands of hectares of significant forest were destroyed in the 2019 bushfires.(ABC News: Ellen Coulter)
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