FARM manager Darren Price was in a management meeting in Sydney, trying to ignore someone’s persistent efforts to reach him on his mobile phone. He should have answered it.
A couple of hours later, after a scramble to get on a flight to Canberra, a frantic car trip and a frustrating wait at a police road block, he arrived at his home on Carwoola station, south east of Bungendore. He didn’t expect his house to be standing.
“It was just amazing. It was incredible what they managed to do,” he said of the efforts of two staff members and a random collection of friends and neighbours who turned up in his absence to fight the frightening grass fire that had ripped through the Carwoola district on that hot Friday afternoon in February, 2017. In a district of predominantly small rural lifestyle blocks, about 20 homes were destroyed or damaged, along with 150km of fencing.
To Darren’s amazement, all but one of Carwoola’s eight houses and many outbuildings were spared, although the flames had licked the walls of some and had entered the gardens of all the houses.
While the relatively moderate material losses surprised and relieved him, deep feelings of emotion, humility and gratitude alerted him to the potential for more significant intangible loss and damage – that to the psychological and personal wellbeing of his staff, family and himself.
“We lost one old house that was used to store furniture belonging to my wife and me,” he said.
“There was a lot of valued family stuff and it is still a real personal loss but it was the lowest priority building in our fire plan. It could have been much worse, but still, there are strong feelings of loss.”
He puts the saving of the homes, including the 1850s-built Carwoola homestead, and all their “precious personal items” down to the “incredible” efforts of his overseer Andrew Sullivan and 17-year-old jackeroo Bailey Burke, and the volunteers who just turned up.
“Those mates just dropped tools and turned up. Without them, I don’t want to think what could have happened,” he said. Just as miraculously, there were no stock losses among the 3500 sheep and 800 cows and calves that run on “Carwoola” and nearby “Taliesin”, despite an average of about 60 per cent of the combined 3135ha being decimated. Darren cited luck, as much as management, for the sparing of livestock.
“We have a strong fire plan and keep the paddocks around the houses as short as we can so the men were able to move some stock onto these, but everything moved so quickly, most had to fend for themselves.
“We had by chance opened a gate to a fresh paddock a week before and that allowed 400 cows and calves to move to a safer area. On “Taliesin”, the cows and calves found their way into some green gullies and low lying areas and escaped unscathed,” he said.
Darren felt a nagging unease that there remained a risk to the business’s most valuable resource – its people.
“From a work health and safety perspective and from my own experiences and feelings after past fires, I was concerned about how the fire could play out personally and emotionally for the staff, myself and family,” he said.
“I could see there were things going on underneath. Fires are very frightening and deeply personal when your family, your belongings and your safety are threatened.”
“It was a very humbling experience to have people drop everything and turn up to help protect my property and belongings. So it makes sense that it is just as big a deal for others,” he said.
Darren contacted the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) Rural Resilience Program (RRP), which exists to support farmers’ personal, business and community wellbeing, particularly in times of adversity.
As NSW DPI rural resilience officer in Goulburn, I linked with RAMHP co-ordinator Jennie Keioskie and offered an informal debrief for Darren, his staff and family.
Over a drink and nibbles a few weeks after the fire, Darren, his staff
Carwoola station manager Darren Price, senior station hand Andrew Sullivan and jackeroo Bailey Burke, inspect winter wheat on a burnt area of the property.
and their families had a welcome moment of reflection and discussed issues and feelings that for the most part had been kept hidden under the veneer of stoic indifference and shoulder-shrugging humility.
Darren said Jennie’s ability to put people at ease and explain their feelings in the context of “normal” reactions to a disaster was invaluable for everyone. Defining these strong feelings and emotions as both normal and predictable in the context of an extraordinary event had allowed people to process and release what could become damaging preoccupations if left bottled up.
“It also opened up a line of communication at a deeper level between me and my staff that was not there before. It was an opportunity to bear our souls together,” he said.
Darren cited Jennie’s advice that while flashbacks and preoccupation with the fire were normal responses, if these persisted for more than around three weeks or other symptoms - such as disrupted sleep or excessive alcohol use – developed, then professional medical help should be sought.