Sean Doherty: Davey Cathels and the High Country Fire

14 Jan 2020 3 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

“It's been a pretty fucking strange start to the year, that’s for sure.” 

A week into the new year and Davey Cathels just had his first surf. He surfed two foot, onshore Narrabeen, but summer waves never felt so good.

Davey spent the first week of the New Year fighting bushfires a long way from the coast. He travelled down to Batlow to help defend the family farm from the fires that were sweeping across the high country.

SEE ALSO: Here Are a Bunch of Ways You Can Help Our Coastal Communities During this Bushfire Crisis

Ardrossan Orchards was started by Davey’s grandad – Dave Cathels – in the 1950s and has become well established as an apple producer in an area now famous for its fruit. “It’s the family farm. We've got about three different orchard blocks on Old Tumbarumba Road with homesteads and packing sheds. It’s a pretty big joint.”

With fires threatening, Davey headed down on New Year’s Day. “My cousin Jack works with me at the Sydney Fruit Markets and he went down before New Year's and then I went down after New Year's. My cousin had a bunch of friends from Canberra come down with him, and there were also a lot of the staff who work down on the orchards who stayed to fight as well. There was about 20 of us in total.” 

Davey, who between growing up in the water at North Narrabeen and his years on the world tour isn’t afraid of a scrap, found himself in completely foreign territory. “It was so gnarly being out in the bush with those fires around 'cause you've got nowhere to run to. On the coast you’ve got the beach, but on the farm you had to make a plan and stick to it.”

The Dunn’s Road fire had been burning for over a week by this stage and had already torn through 130,000 hectares by January 2, and was now bearing down on the township of Batlow. The residents of the town were evacuated as the RFS had declared the town undefendable. Eventually Batlow would lose 10 houses.

Between the Ardrossan Orchards and the fire was a huge pine plantation to the west, and the worry was that when the fire got into the pines it would intensify. Davey drove up there with his uncle on the Friday afternoon, the day before the fire reached them. “He goes, ‘If this thing goes up, it's like going to be a bomb.’ That afternoon there was a massive cloud of smoke coming over from the west. We were looking at the fire from a vantage point with a bit of height and one of the guys goes, ‘This is all going to be black tomorrow.’”

At 8am the next morning they gathered at one of the houses on the property and were briefed by a couple of local farmers who’d just come in from fighting fires in town all night. “They had experience in fighting fires and just gave us a rundown on what to expect and made sure we had a plan. Everyone had jobs, and we made sure everyone was working in groups of two and we were all on the same radio frequency. It was pretty fucking surreal actually. I was like, 'Fuck, what am I doing here?' It felt like we were going into battle. But those guys were unbelievable, and as soon as they were confident we had a plan and knew what we were doing they took off to the next farm up the road. They're like fucking proper heroes, those guys.”

When asked how he was feeling at the time, Davey responded, “I was absolutely shitting bricks. After the meeting I remember calling my dad and I was almost in tears. Like, what’s going to happen here?” Many of the crew on the farm however had experience with firefighting. They had planned for weeks, were in regular communication with the RFS, and were well equipped. They’d repurposed a bunch of farm equipment usually used on the orchards and turned it into fire fighting equipment. “We had tractors with water cannons on the back, four or five utes with water cannons on the back, and a couple of people riding on quad bikes looking for spotfires.” The property also had a good water supply with 10 dams and a creek that ran through the property.

Around lunchtime Davey was down by a packing shed with one of his cousins, hosing down the shed and the surrounding area when the sky suddenly darkened. “The wind just started picking up and it got really dark. I was like, 'Fuck, this is it.' My cousin had the radio on the other side of the shed. We had all these code levels worked out, and “Code Three” was get back to the house. The fire was just on the other side of the hill and they were telling us to get the fuck out of there and get back to the house, which was the fallback plan.”

“As the fire ripped through we were just sitting in the living room of the house for probably 15 minutes. It was heavy. There was nothing you could do. Like I'm just trying not to send texts my parents, 'cause if I sent those texts it would make it seem more real. Outside it got real dark and then real orange. Then it kinda got light again. And that's when my cousins and all the boys jumped on the tractors and the utes went out and started putting out fires wherever could and it was pretty wild to watch. I was just with my cousin Heidi and our job was to patrol the house and just make sure no grassfires got near it.”

Once the front passed, they were able to inspect the property. “We got lucky. The orchard was pretty green and it kind of slowed the fire up around the house and it went either side of us. We might have lost a third of the crop I reckon. There were three main blocks on the property, and the block with the main houses and the packing shed we lost about 70% of our crop there. The other two blocks we lost only about 10% of those ones. We were lucky but those trees take seven years before they fruit, so you’re back to square one with the ones you lost. But it was really quite random the way the fire went through. On the other side of the hill where the livestock was though, that just caught the full firestorm. We lost 800 lambs and 95 cows. That's what we were doing for the next two days, just cleaning up dead animals with a Bobcat and utes. It was pretty gruesome.” 

The scene was grim. “You just had to crack jokes the whole time to get through it, otherwise you'd just be freaking out, crying. Like what we were going through you just had to take the emotion out of it and just do it. I was tripping out the whole time, but it's family, you know. You just do it for your family.” After two days cleaning up the property and burying dead animals the crew finally cracked a beer. “Beer never tasted that good. That was our New Year’s Eve party.”

The bushfire experience also gave Davey a true appreciation for life on the land and the resourcefulness and character it breeds in the people there. “My cousin and his mates and all these blokes who helped us out were just true blue fucking legends. They didn't owe us anything but risked their lives to protect our property. Country people are so good like that. They were just so ready to help anyone. They’re still down there now fighting fires and cleaning up the mess.”

Davey also was aware of what was happening across on the coast at the same time with the fires on the South Coast. “I've spoken to a few coastal crew and it was heavy down there. In a way we were lucky because we were on the farm we had the equipment to fight our fires, but those guys on the coast had nothing really. What can you do with a garden hose? You got a garden hose and a phone and the car packed with all their stuff.”

Now back home at Narrabeen and back in the surf the enormity of the bushfire experience is settling. “It's just a bit of a hollow feeling really. Like, I'm back, but there’s a part of me that wants to be back down there helping out. You almost feel guilty going for a surf.” 

Read Part 1 in this ongoing series: They're All History Now, The Story of 300 Lost Surfboards

Read Part 2 in this ongoing series: The Storm Front, Mallacoota Local Dale Winward's Perspective

Read Part 3 in this ongoing seriesThe Holidays That Never Were, South Coast Surf Shop Owner Kury Nyholm's Story

Read Part 4 in this ongoing series: A southerly saved Phil Macca’s town. But what now?

Stay tuned to CW for more stories from surfers who’ve felt the heat of these flames. In the meantime, we'd like to encourage everyone to donate, if they can, to the following organisations:

Australian Red CrossThe NSW Rural Fire ServiceThe CFAWIRES, or register to give blood if donating money or items isn't a viable option for you.

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