Still living rough on the eve of bushfire season

Still living rough on the  eve of bushfire season

Buchan residents, Bronwyn and Donald Graham, don’t fear the forthcoming fire season. 
The couple lived through the horrific bushfires of last summer, watching as their historic house, perched high up in the Buchan hills, with splendiferous views over the Snowy River, went up in flames.
From their hilltop view in Buchan East, the Grahams had been watching the fire for six weeks burn through thick forest.
They could see the fire burning at Timbarra and also up towards Gelantipy.
Obstensibly a bush block, the Grahams bought their sprawling property of 400 acres, surrounded in the distance by state and national forest, in 2015, and lived completely off the grid.
On the night of the fires, December 30, the fire was spotting around Buchan and in nearby paddocks.
Just after 10.30pm, the Grahams watched as the hillside lit up and the fire began racing up the paddocks from the west.
The pair had rehearsed their fire escape plan in their minds many weeks before, as they watched the fires dance and menace their way around, but always avoiding, the Buchan township.
When they saw the nearby hill aglow, the couple retreated to their two bunkers, built into the hilltop and a few metres from the house.
Mr Graham said he was probably in his bunker a mere 10 minutes when he saw, through the peephole, the house catch fire.
He had already activated a sprinkler system on the roof of the house and had a fire pump running.
After seeing the house ignite, Mr Graham climbed out of the airtight bunker and ran into house to retrieve a treasured 150-year-old painting of the Buchan property.
“I didn’t think the house would burn,” he said nonchalantly.
“We were unlucky to lose it.”
Unbeknown to Mr Graham at the time, flaming embers had embedded themselves in the roof cavity.
Mrs Graham attempted to come out of her bunker but was forced back down after “wind, smoke and embers flying horizontally everywhere” made it too dangerous.
Instead they were forced to watch their cherished home burn.
After the fire passed through, Mr Graham went to inspect his shedding, which house two dozen batteries and solar panels that run the solar grid on the shed roof.
He noticed parts of the shed on fire and immediately sprang into action fighting the hot spots with an 800- litre slip-on fire unit and a 300-litre spray unit.
Mrs Graham hovered close by, directing her husband to new flare ups and ensuring he survived.
By 3am the following morning the Grahams managed to get a message out to their three daughters, two of whom reside in Australia, the other in the United States.
“We said the house was gone, but we were fine,” Mrs Graham said.
Five hours later the telecommunications were cut to Buchan and remained so for the following 10 days, rendering phone communication obsolete.
About a week after the fires, the Grahams opened one of their shipping containers on the property, which had stored all of their good furniture from King Island, where they lived for 40 years prior to moving to Buchan.
Mr Graham noticed it smelt a bit smoky, so decided to leave the container door open for fresh air to circulate.
He turned his back and walked away.
A short time later the couple was stunned to see black smoke rising into the air from behind the sheds.
Running back to the shipping container, Mr Graham was gobsmacked to the see it totally alight and everything inside burning.
“We lost the lot,” he said.
He surmises a small flame had made its way under the container floor during the fires and was quietly simmering away.
“Opening the container door gave it the oxygen it needed to take off,” he said.
Despite the ordeal they endured and the losses they suffered, the Grahams are resilient.
“On the night of the fire we had a plan, we knew what we had to do and we had the bunkers to escape to,” Mrs Graham said.
“The fire didn’t catch us by surprise because we were watching it for weeks,” she said.
“We weren’t running around in shorts and t-shirts, we had goggles, masks and overalls on, so we had all we needed to survive, we weren’t naïve.”
Mr Graham also had experience in fighting fires on King Island.
“Could it happen again? Yes it could, but it wouldn’t have the same fuel loads, not this summer anyhow,” Mrs Graham said.
Mr Graham said many of the trees will take years to regenerate.
“It was a hot fire, many of them are dead and won’t come back again,” he said.
“That was a yellowbox forest over there,” he says pointing into the yonder.
“It won’t come back.”
The biggest setback the Grahams have suffered is dealing with the bureaucratic red tape in attempting to rebuild.
They were first told they couldn’t rebuild before being recently presented with a Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) rating of 40, one of the highest on the chart, and which Mr Graham says has been accepted by the CFA in principle.
Their destroyed home was built in 2000 but the core of the house came from the former Bellevue Guest House in Lakes Entrance and was 100 years old.
“It had historical significance, but what we build now will be entirely different, we couldn’t replicate what we had and it wouldn’t pass the BAL sniff test in any case,” Mr Graham said.
“It had a complicated roofline.
“If we do decide to rebuild here, we’d like to do an earth shelter house if it doesn’t break the bank, but it is an expensive option.”
Mr Graham said prior to the fires he had had an extension to the existing house approved and the BAL rating determined then was 29.
This time the well meaning, but ill-informed authorities, had tried to persuade him to resituate the house.
"The first interaction we had they said it was all too difficult and we couldn’t rebuild and then they said, okay, but you can build it further down the hill, about 300 odd metres down the slope,” a bemused Mr Graham said.

“We informed them that it was limestone country down there and it was full of sinkholes, so they agreed it was not a good idea.
“But now they want us to remove more vegetation, it wasn’t particularly dense anyway and blah, blah, blah......
“I think they’d just prefer people not to build in this situation.”
In the meantime, while the slow wheels of bureaucracy turn, the Grahams have been living on and off in an abandoned caravan they inherited from the previous property owners.
“I used to say we need to take this caravan to the tip,” Mrs Graham said.
“And now we’re camping in it on our regular returns.”
Realising that the rebuilding process was going to take an inordinate amount of time, the Grahams decided to buy a bolthole in Nungurner to maintain their sanity.
“We did this, as we knew, contrary to promises by politicians and bureaucrats, that the rebuilding process would involve a lot of our time staring into an abyss,” Mr Graham said.
“Our heads tells us not to rebuild, but our hearts indicate otherwise. Let’s see which one wins,” he smiles.


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