Michael Hughes, a teacher at McAuley Catholic Central School at Tumut, lost his home in the Dunns Road fire that roared through Batlow on 4 January . Trina McCallum is a teacher at St Peter’s Anglican College, Broulee, which was damaged in the massive Currowan fire. Yet they speak of good fortune, and one heroic Year 5 student, writes journalist Monica Crouch.
Michael lives on a farm in Batlow, about 32 kilometres from Tumut, where fire destroyed his home and machinery shed. But his 100 or so cows and calves survived and, thanks to a sudden change of wind direction, so did his full hayshed, so he could still feed them. “I saved my cattle and I regard myself as very fortunate,” Michael said.
The fire took out 37 properties in Batlow, a small village of just 1300 people, and several of the children at McAuley also lost their homes. In the week before the fire, reports became “gloomier and gloomier”, Michael said, and the Rural Fire Service warned that Batlow would not be defendable. “There was a sense of helplessness,” he said. When the fire finally came, Michael had evacuated to Tumut.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Michael, who grew up in the area, returning in 1983. “It was a game changer – it was very, very bad.”
Michael, who has been an IEU member for 37 years, says the support he has received since the fire has been extraordinary. “I felt gutted initially,” he said. “But the staff at McAuley have been exceptional, I’ve had massive support from them. Catholic Education in Canberra gave five days’ relief due to the bushfires and that’s been invaluable for getting through hours in the queue to the insurance companies.”
Other teachers at McAuley worked tirelessly throughout January in the local food centre, cooking and baking to make sure everyone was fed.
McAuley has about 350 students, and those who lost their homes are proving remarkably resilient. “Believe it or not, they’re pretty good,” Michael said. “They’ve been telling me about the new houses their mums and dads have picked out.” Counselling has been available to the entire school community, including parents.
The community held a recovery get-together at Batlow RSL club on Australia Day to thank the local fireys, the RFS and all the emergency services. “It was huge – everybody was there,” said Michael. “The trees are even beginning to rejuvenate after recent rains.”