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Woolooga survives two floods and a bushfire, now faces drought before year's end

Nicole Hegarty, Monday September 30, 2019 - 09:25 EST
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The old rail bridge at Woolooga remains in pieces a year after it was burnt during bushfires. - ABC

Residents in a small Queensland town are still counting their blessings 12 months after a bushfire destroyed more than 12,000 hectares of pasture, and now they are preparing to be in drought before the decade is out.



Livestock and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fencing were lost in Woolooga, north-west of Gympie, in a fast-moving and unpredictable fire in September 2018.

Remarkably only one shed was destroyed and no homes were significantly damaged — but it was touch and go.

Vince and Dianne Hollis will always remember September 20, 2018 as the day the fire came within 5 metres of the back door of their home on the edge of the Wide Bay town.

About 75 fire units were tasked to the blaze, three to the Hollises' property alone, swelling the 247-person town's population for about a week.

Mrs Hollis remembers watching the glow of the fire behind the mountain to the west in the days before conditions changed and the fire took hold of an old rail bridge beside the house.

"It looked really nice. Then all of a sudden, come Wednesday or Thursday, they advised that, 'You may need to evacuate'," she said.

"It was burning slowly but every now and then it would flare back up.

"Because it was so dry, the grass underneath it, that was our concern because it [the grass] goes into a gully underneath our place. That then leads through to the hotel, the hall and the shops.

"We thought, if it gets in through the gully, that would have been the township gone and that was a real worry."



Tough going for a tough bunch

Woolooga is no stranger to natural disasters.

It had already suffered through floods in 2011 and 2013 before last year's fire.

Decent rain after the fire had restored hope but that's been all but dashed as a result of the ongoing dry.

The Hollises have been impacted by all three events, with water covering their floorboards and damaging doors during the floods.



"We've had our three," Mrs Hollis said.

"We don't want anymore."

Mr Hollis said vegetation grew back very well after the fires with significant rainfall in the first few months, but the lack of rain meant there was now plenty of fuel in the event of another fire.

"The bridge missing is about the only sign of the fire. Farmers have had BlazeAid to help with constructing fences," he said.

"I think country people are pretty tough. You've got to get out and do it."



'A lot of bad lately'

Local councillor Hilary Smerdon's property was also in the path of the fire 12 months ago.

He said weather conditions had worsened again.

"I couldn't believe how ferocious the fire was but luckily we didn't lose any houses in that regard." Mr Smerdon said.

"It was a good outcome but the loss of feed, fences and that stuff was quite devastating.

"The only thing that saved me was the wind changed and it didn't get to my place but I was one of the lucky ones.

"Surface water is starting to run dry, feed is starting to run out. I've actually been trying to get this part drought-declared.

"It's farming, you take the good with the bad.

"We just seem to be getting a lot of bad lately."



Woolooga Hall vice-president Kayleen Moss said the dry conditions were causing nervousness in the community.

"All that grass that grew wonderfully in the rain is now dry and sitting on the ground and there's no moisture on the ground, so everyone is very nervous," she said.

Neighbours helping neighbours



Ms Moss was named Gympie Council's citizen of the year for 2019 in recognition of her work during the fires and for bringing a number of the region's rural communities together.

She said the community hall became a hub for information and recovery.

"It was fairly hectic. It was lucky for me that our property didn't have any animals on it, so we didn't have that stress that other people had," she said.

"Immediately they needed to get fences back up and protect their cattle, so then their focus wasn't getting food, it was just getting the cattle contained so that they don't lose any more.

"It was pivotal that the hall was there and functioned in that way to allow them to get on their feet."

She said one positive was that the event brought the community together.

"Neighbours were helping neighbours and when they were fighting the fire, there were neighbours just going from one property to the next to put the fire out," she said.

"Those strong community connections were the reason that a lot of people never lost their houses.

"Those connections have stayed now since the fires."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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