ON NOVEMBER 8, 2019, dry and windy conditions produced the perfect storm for the Carrai East Bushfire to pick up speed and ferocity as it moved towards the upriver communities of Bellbrook and Willawarrin.
Other fires were already burning across the Mid North Coast and local firefighters had battled to bring a 850 hectare blaze under control near Crescent Head in August.
Rural Fire Service (RFS) Lower North Coast Zone Superintendent Lachlann Ison said the weather leading up to November 8 last year created the perfect storm for dangerous fire conditions.
"2019 was the driest year on record for Kempsey and the alarm bells started going off for fires we already had in the area back in August," he said.
"In the absence of any rain, the lightning storms started rolling in across the Macleay at the end of October with a lot of lightning and no rain."
A lightning storm on October 16 started both the Jacobs Spur fire and the Carrai East fire.
Conditions across the Mid North Coast continued to deteriorate and a Section 44 under the Rural Fires Act was declared on October 26.
"We just kept trying to contain the fires we already had. We were experiencing very high fire danger periods at least twice a week," Supt Ison told the Argus.
A worsening of conditions was forecast for November 7 last year and crews worked to contain the fires west of Kempsey.
"On November 7 the fires once again broke out of their containment lines and in particular the Carrai East fire," Supt Ison said.
These warm and dry conditions continued into the following day. November 8 was forecast to be a day of severe fire danger, however it was upgraded to extreme before lunchtime when conditions worsened.
RFS crews rolled into the upriver communities of Bellbrook and Willawarrin and were in place for property protection.
The RFS predicted the Jacobs Spur fire and the Andersons Rd fire to be the ones to watch, however it was the Carrai East mega fire that broke containment and bore down on the upriver communities.
"The Carrai East fire ran and went south of Bellbrook and punched fair into the back of Willawarrin in the mid to late afternoon," Supt Ison said.
"We hadn't forecast the Carrai East fire to run that far on that day and we pulled crews from Bellbrook and brought them to Willawarrin as well as our coastal crews."
Erratic fire behaviour kicked in and strong winds continued to blow the wall of flames towards Willawarrin.
In the following months, many residents of Willawarrin recalled the ferocity and speed of the fire that bore down on the village on November 8.
Locals Terry and Jutta Flynn were lucky to have escaped the blaze as it engulfed their property and destroyed their home.
The couple were given less than five minutes warning before flames torched their home to the ground on Kyuna Track.
"It was all so fast, the fire was just suddenly here," Terry said.
Terry and Jutta were ahead of the blaze by only minutes and while driving out of their driveway, flames were licking the ground on either side of their cars.
"We just bolted. We had to drive through the flames to get out of here. The fire was up near Toorooka Rd and it just came straight down here, it was so fast," Terry said.
"We went to the village and then had to evacuate to Kempsey because the fire was heading our way, but at the time nobody seemed to know what was going on."
This was a similar story for many upriver residents. Jamie Zaia and his family were also lucky to escape the blaze as they fled their home.
"It was the scariest thing I have ever seen. I have dealt with heaps of fires throughout my life but I have never seen a fire like that," Jamie told the Argus at the time.
"The wind was so strong that there was spot fires starting kilometres ahead of the fire front.
"I first spotted fire coming over the hill at the back of my property and then the fire spread across the 900m paddock in about 30 seconds."
The speed and intense brutality of the flames was also something local RFS crews hadn't seen before.
"Some of our senior RFS guys said the way the fire reversed on the ridge lines and the intensity and speed of which it travelled was unprecedented," Supt Ison said.
"It was spotting so far in front of the main fire front and travelled 35 kilometres in six or seven hours, which doesn't seem fast unless you're standing in the line of the flames."
Locals quickly fled into Willawarrin before the danger threatened the village and then moved further east to Kempsey to escape the fire.
"We focused our efforts on communication and warning people and then moved into property protection to try and save as many houses as we could," Supt Ison said.
"Then the next day we worked on restoring access, especially out to Bellbrook as there were residents out there who had been cut off. The power and phones went down and it made it difficult to communicate with locals."
The threat wasn't over for RFS crews and residents, with November 12, 2019, forecast to be worse than November 8.
"The black day was forecast to be November 12 and we saw the fire push back through all of Bellbrook and Nulla on that day. But at the same time the north easterly wind held it around Macksville and saved the fire from jumping the highway into Stuarts Point which was a real fear on that day, that the fire would push further east and reach the coast," Supt Ison said.
In the days and weeks that followed, local residents, organisations and businesses rallied together to provide support for over 1000 people who had been displaced and were seeking refuge.
The Kempsey Showground became the main evacuation centre while the Kempsey Regional Saleyards was established as a livestock refuge.
The trying situation highlighted the compassion and generosity of the Macleay community with hundreds of food and household items being donated to the Kempsey Evacuation Centre and locals opening their homes to families.
Mayor Liz Campbell said what she remembers from this time was the days at the evacuation centre.
"The trauma in people's eyes, the physical exhaustion you could see them carrying, the incredible bravery I both witnessed and heard about, and the extraordinary generosity of the people of our valley," she said.
"These were days that were filled with people giving everything of themselves to help - firefighters leaving their homes to fight other fire fronts and neighbours and strangers opening their doors and their hearts."
Once the main threat to the township of Willawarrin had past, the Willawarrin Hall was set up by Kempsey Shire Council, in partnership with the Office of Emergency Management, as a Disaster Assistance Welfare Point and quickly became a refuge for upriver residents affected by the fires.
The Willawarrin Hotel and Bellbrook Hotel also became the heart of the community and provided accommodation and support for locals.
As the weeks wore on, more stories of community spirit emerged. A local veterinary clinic offered free treatment for pets injured in the fires, a resident of Willawarrin for 20 years, Maureen Reid took on the role as the coordinator of the hall during the bushfire emergency, and the generosity of four Muslim men who helped turn the tears of residents into smiles.
Not over yet
The main threat of the Carrai East bushfire subsided, however with no rain in sight, crews continued work to bring it under control.
"The fire continued to be problematic in the areas of Wittitrin, Nulla five day area and New England National Park," Supt Ison said.
The fire would also prove to be difficult in the Upper Taylors Arm and Thumb Creek and Hickeys Creek areas in the following weeks.
RFS crews, assisted by NSW Fire and Rescue, the State Emergency Service, National Parks and Wildlife and the Forestry Corporation gave it all they had on the ground.
They were assisted in the air by helicopters and the Large Air Tanker.
"For around three weeks we were facing difficult conditions which made it hard to control the fire," Supt Ison said.
In early January of this year the Macleay received some rain, allowing crews a reprieve from the difficult conditions.
"The Section 44 wasn't revoked until January 18 this year because we didn't get much rain, it was early January before we got some showery weather which aided crews in controlling the fire and eventually extinguishing it."
Clean-up efforts continued across the Macleay, with the NSW Government's state-wide bushfire clean-up program undertaken by Laing O'Rourke clearing the final eligible properties in the Kempsey Shire in September.
Kempsey Shire Council also established the Bushfire Recovery Hub as a one-stop-shop for people seeking assistance while also working to upgrade facilities in the upriver communities.
The toll of the Carrai East Bushfire
The Carrai East Bushfire had a devastating impact on the Macleay community. The blaze burnt through 150,000 hectares of land, destroyed over 60 homes and sadly claimed the life of local man Barry Parsons.
In the Kempsey LGA:
- 67 homes were destroyed
- 23 homes were damaged
- 70 outbuildings were lost
- RFS crews were successful in saving 442 homes
"The anniversary has really brought it back for a lot of people, for our crews and for the community. The reminder of what it was like this time last year and the conditions we were facing," Supt Ison said.
The road to recovery has been a long one, but the community has rallied to get through a very difficult and trying 12 months and has come out the other side as a united front.