When the Black Summer bushfires swept through Clifton Creek toward the end of 2019, the Hermans were probably the most prepared for the onslaught.
Robyn and John Hermans with their son, Ben, their daughter, Jill, and her partner, Gabe, who reside on 90 acres beside the Nicholson River, never thought for one moment of evacuating.
The family started building their idyllic sanctuary deep in the bush in the early 1980s, and have created a virtual safe haven from potential firestorms.
Mr Hermans, a forest ecologist, said, “There is no doubt fire will come again, but we’ve had 40 years of preparation starting with a house that is designed to be defensible against fire. We have also had the privilege of living in close proximity to nature”.
The Hermans built their earth home into the side of a north-facing hill and meticulously covered the roof with soil and vegetation so it blends into the natural landscape.
Critically, the Hermans’ house was built without any space between the roof and ceiling or the floor and ground level. Both played a role in guarding against embers entering the structure and igniting the house during the Black Summer bushfires.
They, like many people in East Gippsland, were given plenty of warning about the encroaching fires.
“We ramped up our fire preparation on November 21 (2019) as lightning strikes lit up the forests to our north,” Mr Hermans told the Advertiser.
“The critical things that matter to us are about stopping infrastructure being lost, so on the house it’s about shutters and sprinklers primarily, and wet-down sprinklers in vegetation close by.”
The shutters fitted to the house are able to withstand 600 degree Celsius heat while sprinklers attached under the eaves are effectively spraying them with a curtain of water.
“They’ve always been there, but it was making sure they were all functioning and we had plenty of time to do all that,” Mr Hermans said.
Crucially, the Hermans family had an excellent supply of water.
“It’s about having a plan and infrastructure in place to deal with individual circumstances. We choose to have vegetation and wildlife close by, and so consequently the tank on top of the hill has a capacity of nearly a quarter of million litres. Water had already been pumped and all we had to do was turn on a valve and out it came, so there was no reliance on motors and pumps during the fire,” Mr Hermans said.
Mr Hermans said on the night of the fires the water tank was full and the sprinkler system wasn’t activated until they saw flames in the bush.
Once they turned the sprinklers on, the family remained active for more than six hours.
Mr Hermans emphasised they weren’t inside the house during the fire but outside actively defending around the perimeter of the immediate house zone.
“We spent all of our efforts trying to save the vegetable garden, orchard, sawmill and outlying sheds as well as the ironbarks, box and stringybark close to home. We were outside the whole time, but knowing we could retreat to our house – our bunker and safe haven - gave us confidence in this fire,” he said.
“So, we had multiple levels of, I guess, fire quelling zones.”
Environmentally conscious, Mr Hermans believes there is a huge cost – environmentally, financially and emotionally – in the rebuild process.
“Extra attention, time and money spent on protecting homes from fire loss is something to seriously consider,” he said.
“We all are encouraged to have fire plans, to commit to the plan and to consider what our triggers will be in certain fire scenarios. East Gippslanders heard overarching advice from authorities for everyone to evacuate. “We had to go against the grain and say we’re not going anywhere. As a matter of fact this is the most sensible place to be. We’ll be here irrespective of what the circumstances are,” Mr
Hermans said. “We were prepared to stay and defend, but I think authorities don’t want to push that message too strongly”.
While their house and immediate surrounds escaped the inferno in 2019, the bush wasn’t so lucky.
Surrounded by forest, Mr Hermans said as a consequence of prolonged drought, there wasn’t a huge amount of fuel on the ground, “it was all just so damn dry”.
“The dryness was what created the devastation. It could have been more severe as far as the wind goes, but we didn’t have a high wind that night. The dryness led to large hollow-bearing tree loss, which was just way beyond what a fire would normally do to a forest.
“So we’ve lost some of the largest trees that had hollows in them which provided homes for birds and mammals, like possums and gliders, that’ s the biggest loss.”
The Hermans family said some birds came back quickly to their green oasis, but not so the mammal life.
“The presence of birdlife is probably unrepresentative of what is occurring across the burnt landscape, with such significant loss of wildlife over vast areas,” Mr Hermans said.
He believes the birds are drawn to the unburnt area around their house because as they fly past, “they see this green patch in an otherwise burnt bush so they stop”.
As if on cue, a male lyrebird dances across the lawn.
“Where lyrebirds sheltered during the fire is a matter of interest, we can only assume they went down wombat holes,” Mr Hermans said.
As part of a Landcare biodiversity project following the fires, Mr Hermans is establishing a six-hectare rainforest in a south-facing gully on the property, protected from feral deer and planted with local rainforest species.
For the Hermans, who are members of the East Gippsland Climate Action Network, it is their contribution toward creating a better environment for the future.
“I want to reproduce a rainforest similar to that at Fairy Dell, which is probably only five kilometres from here as the crow flies,” Mr Hermans said.
“During the fires, we were able to save things beyond the house, including as many trees as possible. Nature remains an important part of our existence and is a large part of why we enjoy living out here.”
Robyn and John Hermans outside their Clifton Creek pressed-earth brick home, which faces the forest. Preparations prior to the fires enabled them to successfully defend their home in the Black Summer bushfires. K19-9278