Award-winning Batlow author Sulari Gentill says her and her family have been left gratefully astounded after their home survived the Dunns Road bushfire, despite a garage just two metres away burning to the ground.
Ms Gentill lives at the 50-acre property on Old Tumbarumba Road with her husband Michael Blenkins, who is also principal of Tumbarumba High School, and two sons, Edmund, 18, and Atticus, 14.
Her husband and eldest son are also members of the Batlow RFS brigade.
Ms Gentill said she first heard about the Dunns Road fire when her husband was sent down to Ellerslie a few days after Christmas.
“He went down and he said to me at the time, because it fire that was getting out of control, that was little, a few hundred hectares, that the concern was that if it got into the state forest, they wouldn’t be able to stop it running,” Ms Gentill said.
“He warned me then that there was nothing between the state forest and us because we basically back on to hundreds and hundreds of hectares of eucalypt.
“I didn’t get seriously concerned because we have been here for a while and Batlow hasn’t felt the drought the way the rest of the state has so it didn’t feel like we were flammable.
“But of course that weekend following Christmas was one of really high temperatures, very drying winds.”
As conditions deteriorated, the family began taking steps to protect their property and on the night of January 30, they stayed up all night with pumps and small firefighting packs expecting ember attacks at any point.
“We knew the fire was coming. We could see it. We could see it glowing through the trees,” Ms Gentill said.
“At one point in the night I evacuated my dogs into Batlow, thinking Batlow would be safe and as I was driving back, I could see it.
“I could just see the size of the darn thing and it suddenly became very real and I suddenly began to understand the fact that it was like an atomic bomb.”
Fortunately for the family, winds took it past their house that night as the blaze headed out to Kunama.
“It’s one of those things, you want the winds to take it away from your place, but you don’t want it to take anyone else’s place so it was a feeling of regret and relief at the same time,” she said.
The morning after, Ms Gentill and her family began tidying things around the house to try and secure the property including cleaning up rubbish and cleaning out gutters.
They believed they were safe and in the clear, until a message from a neighbour made them think twice.
“The neighbour came across the road at about three in the afternoon and said ‘what the hell are you guys still doing here, get out, the fire is coming for us in two flanks. Old Tumbarumba Road is lost’,” Ms Gentill said.
“At first we just thought they were overreacting, and then he sat there and said ‘no look, this is where it is coming’. We made a couple of calls and found out that was indeed the case.
“We finished what we were doing with the preparations for the house and we packed a couple of clothes and we left on New Years Day.”
Ms Gentill and her family were lent a Tumut house by Albert Manning where they stayed along with two other Batlow families.
The fire front stayed away over the next couple of days, but after Ms Gentill returned to her home to collect some more things, she knew that the fire hitting her home was inevitable after receiving a phone call from her husband who was out with the RFS.
“Whilst I was at home getting some more things I got a call from Michael saying ‘we have lost it, get the hell out of there now’,” she said.
“So I got in the car, threw some carrots out for my ponies, who I couldn’t take with me, and just hoped they would be safe and I went back to Tumut.”
D-day for Batlow was Saturday, January 4, the day that Ms Gentill described, “it all went to hell”.
“I knew through Michael and Edmund that this was bad and this was likely going to result in our house going,” she said.
“I knew that as much as they were saying that Batlow was undefendable, Old Tumba Road was more undefendable and that they weren’t going to try and defend it because it was too dangerous.
“I also knew that the fire was going to come over Old Tumbarumba Road, right about where my house is, so I had kind of mourned the house and was starting to come to terms with the fact that there would be nothing left.
“All I was hoping for was that my ponies and my cats would survive.”
Ms Gentill spent the night listening to the communications and she, along with those she was staying with, all got told at various points that their respective homes had been destroyed.
“When the RFS was pulled off Old Tumbarumba Road and told to go back into town because the fire was so bad, Michael said look, there’s no chance and so I thought right, that’s it, my house is gone,” Ms Gentill said.
“But at the time, it was so dangerous I had stopped caring about the house; I just wanted people to come back alive.
“We stopped caring about houses and properties, all we cared about was getting the RFS back alive because it seemed insane that they were saying the town was undefendable, and yet the RFS was there defending it.”
Against all the odds, Ms Gentill received a phone call relaying a message she thought she would never hear – her house was still standing and had survived the whole onslaught despite everything around it burning to the ground.
Whilst expressing her elation at hearing the message, the news also left her and her family confused.
“The fact that the house is standing is, well nobody can understand why,” she said.
“It’s a wooden house; the garage is incinerated and it’s only two metres away. We have lost sheds and outbuildings.
“All the tanks are melted. Everything else is charcoal, the downpipes have bubbled on the house, but the house is standing.
“Our horses are fine and cats have survived. The gardens are gone. That’s a little bit heartbreaking, but in the context of everything it’s nothing.”
Along with the family home that Ms Gentill has lived in since 1997, the property also includes a trufferie planted some 20 years ago.
Ms Gentill estimates that between 30% and 40% of the trufferie has been damaged by the fire, but said they won’t know for certain until winter.
“Because truffles grow underground, we won’t know until harvest in winter whether or not the trufferie is completely written off,” she said.
“It is probably the most productive trufferie on the mainland. Its been producing fantastic truffles and we have got to the stage where it was really reliable.
“It was our retirement plan in a way. It bubbles away quite nicely and then when we want to turn it into a real super business, then we can when we’re older and have more time.
“If damage is the worst-case scenario then it will be serious. If it’s gone it’s gone,” she said.
Despite suffering extensive damage of her own, Ms Gentill is hopeful some of the truffles survive as she hopes to donate the crop in aid of the RFS.
“We said that if the trufferie survived, we would donate the entire crop to do something in support of the RFS and so I am just waiting because I don’t know whether I have anything to donate,” she said.
“I have a couple of restaurants in Sydney who are willing to hold dinners in support of the RFS with us donating truffles, but I cant be sure of it until I know if the truffles have survived.
“Hopefully something will survive; there is one part of the trufferie that wasn’t touched at all and we’re hoping that that will be enough to pick it up.
“It’s the same with a lot of other people – you don’t know what the full effects will be for a while.”
Despite being relieved that her home is still in one piece, Ms Gentill said none of that compares to the value of life.
“None of this, the house, the trufferie, the farm, none of it is worth a life,” she said.
“I would have been content for all the houses in Batlow to burn, as long as everybody came out alive.
“It’s not a loss; we’re alive and the fact that the house is standing is a bonus and I would never have been able to live here if someone had died defending it.”
Along with the RFS, several Batlow residents stayed back to try and save their undefendable town.
Whilst Ms Gentill understood the urge for people to stay and protect their property, she did worry about the extra strain this would put on the RFS.
“I was in two minds because I have a husband and a son in the RFS and I knew that people deciding to brave it out and stay there, what it meant was that the RFS would have to go in and save them,” she said.
“I moved out because I did not want anyone to risk their lives trying to save me.
“I understand the impulse to stay home and defend what you own, but I also think that the reality is, even if you say I don’t expect anyone to protect me, the fact is the RFS has to protect you, and people have to put their lives on the line to get you out.
“In the process, on a minor scale they might have to let someone else’s house burn while they get you out. On the extreme scale, they may die trying to save you and I don’t think people actually think about that.
“Now that it’s all over I don’t want to sit in judgement of anybody, but at the time I was certainly in two minds about whether people who were staying were doing the right thing by the RFS and by their fellow citizens.”
Ms Gentill said she felt devastated for those who have lost everything.
“I have friends who have lost everything. It is heartbreaking,” she said.
“Batlow is a small town so you know the people who have lost everything and your heart breaks for them.
“I remind myself that you have to be really careful in your exuberance that you survived, because other people didn’t and you don’t want to rub their faces in it.
“I’m also really aware that so many animals lost their homes and died.”
Ms Gentill and her family moved back home earlier this week when the power was restored.
She paid credit to the wider communities for the support they have shown to families affected by the fires.
“Through all of this, Tumut has been amazing and if anything comes out of all this, I hope it’s a realisation between the towns that we do look out for each other,” she said.
“We were met with nothing but kindness and compassion. Every time I walked around Tumut, everybody seemed to be engaged in doing something for the bushfire victims and it’s just a magnificent thing about Australia as well.
“If anything comes out of this it should be that when things were bad, our sister towns rallied.”
Despite the family home now being surrounded by scorched land and constant reminders of the shattering Dunns Road fire, Ms Gentill said there is no place like home.
“Its one of those things; it doesn’t matter what a disaster zone this is, this is still home and it is still more comfortable than any place else in the world,” she said.