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The Tiny Aussie Community Forced To Fight Its Own Fires

Residents of a historical valley nestled in NSW’s Hunter region have resorted to defending their area's heritage buildings and properties as bushfires threaten to wipe out the pieces of Australian history.

Tourist village Wollombi sits at the southern gateway to the Hunter Valley and has been sandwiched by bushfires on three sides. The village is about 20km from Cessnock.

Prior to European settlement, the land Wollombi sits on was considered a significant Aboriginal meeting place. There are currently more than 300 Aboriginal sites that date back thousands of years in the area.

In addition to this, the village is also home to well-preserved examples of Australian colonial and convict history such as the Great North Road which was built in the 1820s to provide access between Sydney, Newcastle and the Hunter.

Grays Inn is located at the centre of Wollombi. Image: Visit Wollombi

A one-kilometre walk around Wollombi takes in the village's historic buildings including the gothic-style St John's Anglican Church built in 1859, the Endeavour Museum which dates back to 1866 when it was a police station, the Wollombi Cottage which is traced to 1840 and The Old Barn, which was constructed in 1860.

So far the largest blaze to the west of the village, known as the Little L Complex fire, has burnt through 67,200 hectares of land. It's also threatening nearby Paynes Crossing and Laguna.

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The historic village of Wollombi is under threat of three bushfires in NSW. Image: AAP

The tiny, yet thriving community of Wollombi is also under threat of the Gospers Mountain fire, which is burning in the areas of Borree and Wallabadah, and the Crumps Rd fire is also burning to the east of Yengo National Park.

For the residents whose homes are surrounded by mountain ranges, it means they are caught in the middle of the fire ground.

Wollombi locals say they have resorted to defending their own properties with the hope that their fight will protect the historic village and its surrounds and see it through the summer.

Wollombi's local museum, the Wollombi Endeavour Museum. Image: Visit Wollombi

With already stretched volunteer firefighters unable to reach parts of the valley, they say they've had to step in and help fight the blazes themselves.

Neale Mutton is a group captain of the NSW RFS' Lower Hunter Zone. He and other volunteers have been working around the clock to fight the fires and defend homes.

He told 10 daily their efforts have been hampered by radio black spots throughout the valley.

"We have brought in repeaters to try and boost signals, and have tried to have vehicles situated so we can relay messages, but it hasn't been ideal," he said.

Mutton said some locals in the Wollombi area strapped 1,000-litre water tanks onto utes and joined them on the fire ground.

"They have been giving us a hand," he said.

We wouldn't have been able to get to all the places without them.
Locals have joined volunteer firefighters on the fire front in Wollombi. Image: Supplied

Alex, whose family has a property on the outskirts of the Yengo National Park,  is one of the locals who have stepped in to help.

Earlier this week, he said he drove up from Sydney to check on the property, which is he and his partner Sam's primary residence, but they spend time in the city during the week.

"My intention was to grab some stuff from the house and put some buckets of water around to help the firies," he told 10 daily.

"But when we were there, we drove to the front of the fire. We made an assessment we could stay and fight it."

Alex said he defended his property from three sides as the fire came through -- and he wasn't alone.

Locals who I didn't even know turned up at my property to help.
Locals stayed to defend their homes in Wollombi due to stretched fire resources. Image: Supplied

As conditions eased, Alex said he was able to return to Sydney feeling "fairly positive".

"I've learnt a lot in the past week and feel a lot more prepared to fight again if it comes from the south," he said. 

While Mutton said he was concerned that many of the locals are untrained in fire fighting, he said a trained person has been working alongside them to guide them in their fight.

"They're an organised group who have pulled together," he said.

The local Wollombi community has come together to help the firefighting effort. Image: Supplied

A Community United By Fire

The community effort in the valley has extended well beyond the fire front.

Dozens of people, from within the valley and afar, have helped to coordinate fundraising and organise much-needed supplies such as face masks, fire blankets, leather gloves and headlights for local fire trucks.

The coordinated effort has been working out of the Wollombi Tavern, a local pub set up as a meeting point for locals and the RFS.

"We have folk here all the time," pub manager Petrina Walsh told 10 daily. 

"Everyone here has put their lives on hold, to defend their homes. They are standing by each other." 

The Wollombi Tavern has become a meeting point for locals and firefighters. Image: Wollombi Tavern

Long-term resident Nancy Downs has been helping to buy groceries and equipment from nearby Cessnock for the locals. She told 10 daily the community response has been "amazing".

"People have taken whatever their area of expertise or skill is, and jumped on board. It's an incredible community effort," she said.

It's a silver lining in an apocalyptic disaster zone, but the brilliant people have risen to the top.
The Wollombi community has come together to help the firefighting effort. Image: Supplied

Downs said she and her husband have been visiting the area on the weekends for about 16 years.

For the last three years, they've lived on the outskirts of Yengo National Park in Laguna, a township south of Wollombi. 

Downs' husband is a volunteer with the Laguna Rural Fire Service.

After putting in long shifts with the brigade, he has also spent additional hours defending their own property.

"The fire came right up to our driveway, where the RFS had cleared around our property. Then it continued on behind us. But we are not out of danger," she said.

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At one point, the flames became dangerously close, stopping metres from Downs' beloved painting studio. Image: Supplied

Britt, from Victoria, said she is also helping from afar.

After visiting the region for some 25 years, she said she was recently looking to buy a property. But that property is now ablaze.

Britt said she has started to help source and coordinate supplies from companies who might be in a position to donate items or offer substantial discounts. This week, her focus has been on personal safety gear and equipment.

"Over the years I have come to love this community. It breaks my heart I can't be there," she told 10 daily.

These people are exhausted, unpaid and overwhelmed. They only have so much they can give before they drop.
Wollombi locals have been cooking and providing basic necessities for those on the fire ground. Image: Supplied

'No Mr Morrison, They Don't Want To Be There'

Downs rejected Prime Minister Scott Morrison's claims earlier this week that volunteer firefighters "want to be out there" on the fire ground.

The PM rejected calls for more help for volunteer firefighters, as the state's bushfire crisis continues.

When he was asked about concerns as to how long the firies were expected to go on without pay, Morrison said they "want to be there".

A cardboard box containing an emergency resuscitation unit. Image: Supplied

“These fires have been going on for some months now and when I was speaking with the commissioner on the weekend out where we have the mega fire at the moment we were talking through the crew rotations,” he said.

“And the fact is these crews, yes, they’re tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities."

Downs said while volunteer crews have stepped up to the plate, they would rather be somewhere else.

Despite what Scott Morrison thinks, no, this is not where they want to be. These people would rather be with their families, at their jobs, looking after their properties and their animals. They would rather be somewhere else, but they're just damn good at it.

Morrison has since acknowledged the start to the bushfire season and the smoke haze that has engulfed Sydney in recent days as a "national disaster", adding he understood people found the severity of the fires "deeply troubling".

He has also announced an additional $11 million in funding for aerial firefighting efforts.

But while parts of the valley have been left devastated, some locals are hopeful.

Back in Sydney, Alex said their story is not all "doom and destruction".

"I think we often hear there will be nothing left after all this," he said.

"But when you're driving through the valley, 50 per cent is a charred mess and 50 per cent is green." 

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One local, Alex, said not all of the valley has been destroyed. Image. Supplied

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au