Followed by fire from Corryong to Euroa

By John Lewis

Stay or go — that's the simple choice when you stand at your front door and watch your big old friendly mountain catch fire.

Then, just like the monster that is bushfire, things get complicated.

When Diane Walton woke at 3 am on the morning of New Year's Eve to switch off an outside light, she could see a red glow on Mt Mittamatite, which looms over her Tintaldra home.

“By the glow I knew it had hit Corryong. That's when I was glad we didn't go there,” she said.

Fires had raged across the Upper Murray area for days burning 110 000 ha right up to the backyards of the town of 1200 in the foothills of the Victorian High Country.

The day before, on December 30, NSW Rural Fire Service firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, was killed when his truck flipped in the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic, 40 km away.

During the warm afternoon of December 30, as smoke plumes curled over the ridges of Mitta Mitta National Park, Diane had considered driving herself, her son Darcy and her 92-year-old mother Betty, a bush poet and grand old dame of Tintaldra, to the safety of Corryong, 23 km away.

“Darcy was keen to evacuate to Corryong and a lot of family members were telling me to do the same,” she said.

But Diane has seen fire in the area before, she knew the wind direction so she stayed put.

She later found out that neighbours had tried to leave Tintaldra for Corryong at 4 am but they turned back when they saw flames leaping off the side of the mountain.

As the sun struggled to appear on the morning of New Year's Eve, things got more complicated.

Power had already gone out in the early morning which meant their water pumps were not working. Then the phone landline failed, followed by mobile services about 10 am.

“You couldn't follow any of the emergency apps, and you couldn't really see anything because of the smoke,” Diane said.

Meanwhile her daughter Tara Whitsed was 700 km away in Newcastle north of Sydney, spending the holidays with her partner Eddie's family.

“I was getting frantic because I didn't know what was going on — all the phones were out and there was hardly any news about Tintaldra,” Tara said.

She and Eddie decided to head back to their Euroa home.

Diane spent the next two days throwing away food and trying to find out from neighbours, police and the CFA what was going on. Unfortunately she forgot about frozen prawns in the freezer.

“I was worried about getting Betty out because the smoke was really bad at that stage. It was unbearable, it was like fog,” she said.

She was also aware of the big heat forecast for the coming weekend.

By Thursday they had had enough and they registered with the Red Cross in Corryong to join a CFA convoy out of the blackened, smoke-filled area. When word came the convoy was leaving, they had an hour to pack.

Betty made sure all the historic documents about the National Trust-listed Tintaldra Store and Tea Rooms were placed in the huge post office safe, while Diane gathered up Mish the gentle family dog and Tara's Christmas presents left unopened until the family was together again after New Year.

But Paz, their 20-year-old black cat, had to stay with a dish of fresh Whiskettes to keep him going.

“We weren't able to do anything for him in the mad rush,” Betty said.

“And anyway, he wouldn't have survived the journey,” she said.

Then they joined the convoy of more than 100 vehicles which snaked its way through a fire-ravaged landscape to Tallangatta, 3.5 hours away.

“The amount of power poles down was just incredible, and a lot of people have lost homes. I know of one family — the backbone of the local Tintaldra CFA for 50 years — they have lost their home,” Diane said.

She said the huge homestead of Silver Brumby author Elaine Mitchell on Towong Hill had also been reduced to ash.

By the afternoon of Thursday, January 2, Betty and Diane felt safe in Euroa with Tara and Eddie.

But the monster had followed them.

They were living under the shadow of Euroa's Balmattum Hill, which caught fire on the afternoon of Saturday, January 4.

Tara said she had watched the blaze develop from a small plume of smoke visible from their house.

“I was getting worried,” she said.

But Diane wasn't too bothered.

“The aerial attacks they were throwing at the fire was phenomenal,” she said.

Diane and Betty are now nervously waiting to see what will happen this weekend when temperatures are forecast to rise again, and whether the blazes around Corryong and the fires in NSW merge as predicted into one giant mega-fire.

“We're just waiting to see what happens after these really hot spike days coming,” Diane said.

But out of the smoke, the Tintaldra bush telegraph has delivered some good news.

A friend has thrown away the prawns, and Paz is alive and well and still crunching on his Whiskettes.