Cawder Ross has never fought a bushfire in his life but for the past four weeks, he has been trying to contain fires in a rainforest that he didn’t think would burn.
At first, he was just defending homes on Siddha Farm, the cooperative he shares with 20 other households.
But then Mr Ross became one of a group of volunteers known as Community Defenders.
Rakes, leaf blowers and backpack sprays
Siddha Farm is one of many land cooperatives, or intentional communities, nestled into the valley below Mt Nardi and Nightcap National Park on the New South Wales north coast.
On the 11th of November, with fire conditions predicted to worsen, Senior Deputy Captain of the Nimbin Rural Fire Brigade Charlie Cohen was concerned there were houses in these communities that could not be saved.
“We’ll save some of them, but not all of them, some of them are just too hard,” Mr Cohen said.
“I’ve been asking people for months and years to clear around their houses, and days like today and tomorrow are why.”
Mr Ross decided to stay and defend his home, taking advice from the local brigade on clearing a containment line with bulldozers, rakes and leaf blowers, where homes on the community met the forest.
“Many sleepless nights and busy days clearing around houses”, Mr Ross said.
“By the time the fire actually got here I was physically and mentally already exhausted.”
The fire was contained just above the houses on the community’s land, and then something happened that no one could have predicted.
A small army of volunteers turned up at the main gates of all the communities in the valley, including Siddha farm, wanting to help stop the Mt Nardi fire.
“Volunteers from neighbouring communities and all over the northern rivers just turning up in utes with rakes, leaf blowers and backpack sprays and excuse the term, but manpower,” Mr Ross said.
The volunteers came not just to save houses but to also save the rainforest of Nightcap National Park.
The rainforests are burning
This fire season has seen something that had been unthinkable — wilderness rainforests burning in savage forest fires.
Nightcap National Park is now one of them.
It was listed as part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area after a four-year protest in the 1970s where environmentalists blocked the path of bulldozers from logging one of the last remaining stands of subtropical rainforest in Australia.
Botanist and farmer Nan Nicholson was one of the original protestors.
Her property at Terania Creek was in the path of the Mt Nardi fire.
“To come here now just utterly breaks my heart, we never thought it would burn,” she told 7.30.
“It’s normally really wet here in Terania Creek.
“These forests are going to continue to burn if we have hotter drier, extreme heatwaves.
“All these forests that we thought we could possibly control fire in, suddenly we can’t.”
Ms Nicholson is worried about the climate change feedback loop that could be created if these forests keep burning.
“We know these rainforests are priceless and often they can’t be replaced,” she said.
“The sceptics, they say that climate has always changed, we know it’s always changed, but this is extreme change that is off the charts.
“It’s well known that these moist forests help produce rain.
“This is all going to alter as our rainforests diminish with drying and increased burning, then we’ll have more heat and drying conditions, which will be a vicious cycle.”
‘There’s no room for heroes’
Marcus Mantscheff, the Captain of the Nimbin Rural Fire Brigade, watched the volunteers arriving with some trepidation.
An untrained volunteer workforce on a fire ground was potentially a safety nightmare for the Rural Fire Service (RFS).
“It just took on a life of its own and the offers of help started coming in so many ways,” he told 7.30.
“There’s a real safety risk to that, there’s no room for heroes.”
But rather than turn them away, the communities, with the help of their local brigades, got organised.
The Tuntable Falls Community Cooperative took the lead, developing a check-in and check-out system for all the Community Defenders, making sure they had a specific task and were safe, properly clothed and rested.
The local CWA cooked and delivered food for both the RFS and the Defenders.
The system was shared with the other communities across the valley.
Cawdor Ross became one of the Community Defenders.
“We were cutting big containment lines to stop the fire spreading,” Mr Ross said.
“A lot of spot fire control, a lot of cutting down dead trees and raking up the composting debris so it was just bare dirt, nothing to burn.
“I certainly learnt the value of leaf blowers.”
It was a risky experiment that paid off.
While the RFS volunteers fought the fire on the frontline, the Community Defenders did the work behind the scenes.
In the past, the RFS would have tried to do both.
“The communities sought good and strategic advice from us and they worked with us”, Captain Mantscheff said.
“Huge control lines were being consolidated and constructed.
“Their marvellous feats of endurance to drive them and construct six-lane highways that would make it very difficult for the fire to get across.
“It made our firefighting job so much safer.
“It bought time and no one lost a home there because of the work that was being done.
“Man oh man, they stepped up in such a way that we, all of us in uniform, were just completely blown away and continue to be because they’re still out there now.”
Community Defender model
The Mt Nardi fire is still classified as being controlled, with persistent flare-ups and breaches of the containment line.
The Community Defenders are still on high alert, rostered on for day and night patrols on the Mt Nardi containment lines.
They are also still working in teams with the local rural fire brigades to put the fire out in problem areas.
Despite this work and the predictions of worsening fire seasons, the Nimbin Brigade’s Captain Mantscheff is not convinced the Community Defender model would work across the rest of the country.
“I’m very impressed by the way this community managed itself in this crisis,” he said.
“But these communities are already intentional communities, there’s already that fabric that exists there.
“I’m not too sure how that might work in a different area where there are private leaseholds and people don’t know their neighbours as well.
“I’m not advocating what’s going on, but I’m really glad that what happened here happened in the way that it did.”
Nicole Raward, one of the people looking after the Defenders on Siddha Farm, believes there are lessons for other communities in what they have achieved.
“It possibly isn’t something that can be a model that can be used in very high fire danger places, but the idea of preparing together is,” she said.
“Getting together with your neighbours and making plans about your street.
“I don’t think we are unique.”
For local rural fire brigade driver Nick Adams, the Community Defenders have become vital members of his Brigade’s firefighting effort.
“Without the volunteers’ work we would not have contained this fire and they are working their guts out,” he told 7.30.
“I’m so proud of them and it’s very emotional, it’s very emotional.
“We expect to have 20 new members at the end of this event and I am so happy about that.
“I’m so proud to be part of this community.”