South Arm residents speak about the worst fire they've ever seen

Photo taken by Jamie Bruce
Photo taken by Jamie Bruce

SHELL-SHOCKED is how many residents in the Nambucca Valley's west are feeling.

The trauma was writ large on people's faces as they nervously wait to hear whether their house was one of the lucky ones that survived Friday night.

The number of properties razed by the fierce inferno is being tallied by a Building Impact Assessment Team.

But word from crews on the ground is the number is more than a dozen, and could be as many as 20.

McHughes Creek, Williams Hill Rd, South Arm Rd and Taylors Arm Rd are said to have been the worst hit.

But it could have been much worse.

The indefatigable local firefighters - along with 18 reinforcements from Victoria's CFA - persevered through the conditions to protect countless properties from the blaze.

"A lot of our locals were out all day and until 3 or 4am, after the wind died down. And they're all back out there again today," RFS Lower North Coast Superintendent Lachlann Ison said.

He said that by midday the fire danger rating in the Nambucca reached 82 - classified as 'extreme' - which resulted in erratic fire behaviour.

Thankfully the pyrocumulus clouds which we were warned could form in the Nambucca and create their own intense weather patterns never materialised.

If they had, the fire danger could have reached 'catastrophic' levels.

And the southerly change at midnight which brought with it milder and moister wind was the reprieve firefighters needed, and enabled the alert to be downgraded from Emergency Warning to Watch and Act.

If we didn't get that cool change, half of Bowraville would be gone right now.

local RFS volunteer

Anama Tesser has lived in South Arm for over 30 years and said she's never felt threatened before like she has over the past couple of weeks.

"Suddenly the fire was just there - there was no warning," she said.

"The paddocks were on fire, and that's when I decided to high-tail it out of there."

That was about 2.30pm, before the wind increased its fury. Her husband, Alf, stayed to fight.

"As I was leaving I looked around, and it was honestly like deliverance. It was like something out of a movie. It was so surreal," she said.

She managed to convey a spare pump to Alf Saturday morning - the one he was using had failed. And she was relieved to hear that both he and the property had survived.

But many of her friends and neighbours were not so lucky.

Our beautiful Valley has been burnt - it's just devastating. But we're strong. The people of the Nambucca Valley are resilient and always come together at times like this to support one another.

Jamie Bruce at the evacuation centre in Bowraville

Jamie Bruce at the evacuation centre in Bowraville

Jamie Bruce and Claire LeMay moved from Sydney to Menzies Rd in South Arm just two months ago.

"This was supposed to be a new start at going off the grid and getting out of the rat race," Jamie said.

The fires had been looming for the past three weeks just over the hill, but by 2pm Friday they knew they needed to go.

"We're on the top of a mountain surrounded by trees. Yesterday was very different from the last two weeks - the fire was definitely...there," he said.

The wind was ridiculous - it felt like a 60kph hair dryer on your face.

So they packed the dog in the car and drove into Bowraville with a tent and camped overnight beside Bowraville Central School.

"We were hoping to go back to get the cats, but at that point it was no longer an option," Jamie said.

They wish there had been more information available to people at the time.

"The Fires Near Me app wasn't working properly, the road block guy didn't know anything. No one in Bowraville knew anything. And people need to know," they said.

"It felt like we were on our own."

Supt Ison said human error had caused the system to "break" overnight which meant the map showing the affected areas in the Nambucca Valley disappeared for about six hours.

The glitch has since been corrected and the map is back online and operational again.

After a fretful night, they tried to return Saturday morning to assess the damage and see if their animals had made it through the night.

"We went and saw the neighbours' house and it was just destroyed - it's completely gone," Jamie said.

"We couldn't get up to see our place because of all the trees which had fallen all over the road - it just wasn't safe."

But they did find their 4WD - or what was left of it.

"It's a bit scary - it's not really sunk in yet," Claire said.

It was a beautiful Valley with palm trees and lush forest. Now it's just black - like something from an apocalypse.

There was one spark of hope, however, when they discovered the neighbours' peacocks alive and well.

After realising they couldn't get to their property they both headed down to the Bowraville Anglican Church where the state government has set up an evacuation centre and is finding people crisis accommodation.

Anglicare is also there supplying food and care packages to the 45 people who have come through the doors since yesterday.

"We'll just have to go into crisis accommodation for a couple of days, and then go up and see if what we have is still there. If not, I guess it's Plan B."

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