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'Tsunami-like' floods destroy bushfire recovery steps leaving northern NSW coast reeling

By Bruce MacKenzie, Claudia Jambor, Michael Cavanagh and Luisa Rubbo, Thursday February 20, 2020 - 06:36 EDT
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Torrential rain washed away fences and caused a landslip closing Eastern Dorrigo Way at Coramba. - ABC

Communities on the north coast of New South Wales are struggling to recover from an extraordinary series of natural disasters.



Six months ago the drought was the major environmental issue on most people's minds, but since then the region has been hit by catastrophic bushfires, severe flooding, mass fish deaths, and landslides.

To make matters worse, some of the rural infrastructure that had just been repaired or replaced after the bushfires has been washed away.

"Unprecedented fires came from the Bees Nest fire and wiped out most of the fences," said Brett Tibbett, who has a property at Dalmorton, west of Grafton.

"It burnt with that much intensity it actually melted some of the wire in the posts.

"We're attempting to work with BlazeAid and all the recovery agencies to get the fences up and get everything sorted out … and we've ended up with a flood then.

"We've got landslides [which have] washed some of the fences down.

"Everything seems to be mounting up on us up here in the bush."

'Like a tsunami'

The tens of thousands of hectares of forest scorched by bushfires in the Clarence Valley were last week hit with rainfall topping 450 millimetres.



"I looked out there and it was like a tsunami," said Nana Glen resident Emily Campbell.

"It just poured through and everyone dropped everything and we sprinted out to get the horses.

"By the time we were in the paddock it was, like, chest deep.

"By the time we got the horses back it was in the house. We didn't have time to put anything up. We've got a mattress upstairs and that's about it."



Glenreagh man Daniel Hooklyn described the situation as "torturous".

"All the trees, look at them. They're all black sitting in flood water," he said.

"It's crazy."

Flood brings fish kills

Further north, there has been flooding in the Lismore, Byron, and Tweed areas.

Fish kills have been reported in the Tweed and Richmond Rivers.

"There were literally thousands of fish smaller than your finger and also little prawns as well," said the Tweed Council's Tom Alletson.

"There were also some bigger animals as well. I saw a stingray that would have been a metre across, several large mudcrabs, and other species like flathead, bream, mullet, whiting.

"When you've got water piling up and sitting in the baking heat on the floodplain like this, deoxygenation occurs.

"We have had fish kills like this in the Tweed, in a number of different waterways, in the past."

The situation has taken a toll on the region's volunteers.

Tom Reeve grows organic turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, and ginger at Dairyville, west of Coffs Harbour, and is also the captain of the Orara Rural Bushfire Service brigade.

"Time is the big difficulty. I just haven't been able to plant because I've had to go off and help other people," he said.



"I've been to nine different districts I suppose, right down south to Eden and right up north round Casino.

"It started in August and it just hasn't stopped. It just kept going and going, and by Christmas time when the rain finally came it was such a relief and the whole team was exhausted.

"So that's been quite a challenge, this year."

Inside landslide topples walls in home

Nurse Jemima Gold and her toddler were watching the film Frozen when a landslip crashed into their home in the Orara Valley, west of Coffs Harbour.

As heavy rains battered the region last Tuesday night, she recalled the moment she heard "a massive crack" and saw a palm frond crash through the window.

Within seconds, she realised dirt had spewed through the house.

"I just saw this massive piece of earth coming at me, it was absolutely horrific … the feeling that you're going to be buried alive," she said.



Ms Gold quickly grabbed her two-year-old son, her husband, and a few possessions to make a run for it.

"Mud was spewing down the side of the mountain, underneath our car port, and at that stage I saw how much damaged there was to the house," she said.

"I realised that we weren't going to take refuge in that house."

They ran out into the storm to a neighbours house to take refuge for the night and for the past week have lived in a motor inn.

Yesterday they temporarily relocated to the Central Coast for family support as they figure out if they will return to the Coffs Coast.

"We are very much in limbo at the moment," Ms Gold said.

The family are fundraising for support and are seeking government assistance.

Rolling disasters taking toll on responders

Mark Summers from the Northern Rivers State Emergency Service said many of the same people who fought the fires also turned out during the floods.

"Certainly those that are in the more rural communities are generally members of both organisations," he said.

"Not just members of RFS and SES, but generally involved in their local schools and surf lifesaving and a number of other organisations that help the community.

"Obviously that takes a toll. It can be quite taxing the amount of commitment people make, particularly if they're trying to hold down a job as well."



But the desire to help those in need runs deeper than flood water.

John Englehardt last week lost 99 per cent of the avocados and 50 per cent of the citrus at his family's Dairyville nursery.

"The support from the community has been overwhelming. We had over 100 volunteers here over the weekend just cleaning up rubble and mud," he said.

"We don't know how we will go on from here. My wife said should we go and work for Bunnings but I said 'no, I'd rather start all over again'."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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