Alison Saunders and her husband Richard Moxham have been growing chestnuts, walnuts and waratahs for more than 24 years. At 4pm on 21 December 2019, two fires converged on a catastrophic fire day, forming a pyrocumulus cloud that created its own climate and burnt through their community at Sassafras in southern NSW. We spoke to Alison about how they responded when they knew the fires were heading their way and what their road to recovery looks like. Through it all, she has an optimistic outlook and passion for what she does.
What did you do when you knew the fires were heading your way?
With the impending threat of fire, we began undertaking those final tasks so that we could leave whilst it was still safe to do so – checking the irrigation, last minute pruning on our new walnut trial, putting the machinery away in the shed, leaving the fire-fighting pump ready to go. Nineteen years ago, we decided to stay and defend our property when fire passed through, but times have changed and with the wisdom of years, I know that life comes first, the trees second and infrastructure third.
Have you been able to assess what damage the fire caused?
The damage is stark and easy to see. We’ve suffered significant loss of essential equipment, fencing and irrigation infrastructure, but the most devastating for us of course is the loss of our 30-year-old walnut orchard and two nursery production areas. It’s gut-wrenching to see, and this is something we will take a long time to recover from.
After the initial shock had worn off, we had to get out there and assess that damage. Luckily, with support from our industry, local community and available resources, we are planning our road to recovery and salvaging what we can.
What do the next steps look like for you in recovering?
Our priority was getting irrigation back onto our new walnut planting, which is a real symbol of hope for us now. It’s the greenest patch in the whole region. After that, we focused on getting the power up and running, particularly our cool store, so we will be ready for whatever shape harvest will look like this year.
Telecommunications were restored five weeks after the fire, and that has made such a difference. It’s vital to keep in touch with our neighbours during times like these, and the loss has been difficult for all. I’m not sure what is bringing me the most joy right now, the return of the kookaburras laughing or the dial tone on my phone!
The next few months will involve monitoring tree recovery before making critical decisions on radical pruning or tree removal if necessary. We know that it took us three years to establish our new walnut planting, and then a further three to four years before it will come into production. This is where we feel the real magnitude of the loss.
What have you learnt through this experience?
We’ve been through fires before so not much new has been learnt, however what is really clear is that managed horticultural landscapes are resilient. We keep our orchard floor well mulched with the fuel load very low and the soil moist, so when the fire came through the damage was minimised. Although it doesn’t always feel like it, I think we are amongst the luckiest in our area.
Would you do anything differently looking back?
We will be building wider firebreaks around our orchard and nursery investments. Whatever your assets are – it’s important to manage the edges and where we had good breaks in place is where the damage has been minimised. Where we border with neighbours a more community approach to fire management will be required. One of the last things Richard did before the fire came through was mulch our neighbour’s paddock. That is why we still have a house and a packing shed today.
Is your outlook positive?
People are asking us whether we will rebuild, and the answer is a resounding yes. Crisis offers the opportunity to do things smarter and better next time around, and with every decision we are making right now we are asking ourselves how we can build it better.
We are still facing significant challenges and whilst the fire has passed, the drought continues. We need rain now more than ever before. Our goals have become crystal clear and going forward we will do what we have always done - take good care of our trees and take good care of our customers by producing a quality product that we can sell with confidence.