Hope: Last Stronghold As Batlow Burns

A non-political story about my mother, the apple-growing town she made a home in, and the the home she may not go back to.

Image credit: James R. Zimmerman

Spot the recurring word in an exchange of text messages between my mother and I as NSW fires rage into her home town.

‘I hope you’re ok — I’m worried about you, text me when you’ve left’

‘Hopefully we’ll be lucky again’

‘Fingers crossed for little Batlow’

The word is hope. The sentiment is luck and prayer. And here’s what I’ve not dared to say, to write: I hope you have a home to go back to.

A picturesque mountain town, Batlow is the place my mother — let’s call her Gail — has made her home for nearly 20 years. Deemed indefensible by the RFS, Batlow, the apple-growing heart of country NSW is surrounded by fire on three fronts.

In the early 2000’s Gail bought a small 1960’s home in Batlow overlooking the wooded hills of Bago Forest and the Snubba Trail. Recently separated from her husband after years of unhappy marriage, this house was Gail’s. It was hers alone. And she loved it: she loves it.

When Gail moved into her Batlow home, the house still relied on a labour-intensive wood fire oven, not just for cooking, but to heat the water too. With a sloping back yard, at first the house had a terrifying set of cement steps leading straight from the back door down to the ground — an accident waiting to happen.

After a few years of careful budgeting as an orchard worker, ‘the staircase from hell’ was replaced by a beautiful new back veranda and staircase safe enough for children to use. A new kitchen has replaced the 1960’s benches and cupboards.

Gail made the house her own by putting little bits of herself into it; repainting, fastidious house-keeping, lawn-mowing and gardening. The set of bullock horns from her grandfather’s North Queensland property, which to my kids’ delight come with their own chapter of Gail’s remote country childhood is set on the walls with her pictures.

Her photos. Her ornaments. I don’t know how many of these pieces of her will be there tomorrow. I’m just glad she’s not; for now, she’s safe.

While residents of Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and many other people around Australia spent New Year’s Eve reveling in huge firework displays by the water, Gail, like many fire-affected Australians, saw in the New Year differently.

Sat with her horses, 3 dogs, my niece’s budgie, and even the old rescued galah which mutters to itself and bites to draw blood, Gail camped out the Batlow showgrounds with other residents and visitors who were ready to leave when necessary.

Typical of Gail, she brought food for all the animals, and forgot food for herself. A kind couple she spoke to that evening gave her food and a cuppa. I don’t know them, but wanted to hug these strangers: I knew she’d never ask.

Instead of a sky full of starbursts and fireworks, visibility was low and smoke was in Gail’s nose, throat, and eyes. Ash rained down as a large fire front raged just 4km away. Gail filled the back of her ute with 100L of water and sat up till midnight not to get a new year’s kiss, but ready to fight spot fires if they came.

Then a few things happened. The damaging winds predicted did not come. A south-westerly change came instead, and just like that, Batlow was off the path of devastation. She was safe, unlike others who have not survived the fire. That’s a big thing — the biggest thing.

But relief was short lived.

Two days ago as she and my dad loaded the horses again, put all the dogs and birds and a few sentimental things in their cars and left. Gail said Batlow was eerily quiet, thick with smoke and mostly empty of people.

My heart breaks for little Batlow, the place my brave, outdoorsy, horse-riding, house-proud mother has made her home for nearly 20 years.

I worry about how Batlow will look by tomorrow: the beautiful mountain town full of orchards and natural bushland I remember, the smell of eucalyptus and the taste of orchard-gate apples — or a burned, dead wasteland? I am fretful for a friend of Gail’s, who chose to stay and defend his home.

Now, fire rages through Batlow, and too many other parts of Australia. For the most part, all I can do is hope. Hope that when the fire burns to ashes and the blame-games and political point-scoring which has punctuated the emergency so far is over, that real change and leadership will occur to minimise the risk next summer.

Hope for my mum’s town, the little house she made a home, and for all families affected by the fires.

Freelance Writer|Emerging Author|Shrews Untamed Podcast

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