THE first stage of the Tour Down Under began in South Australia today. Professional cyclists from thirty countries are racing over 800 kilometres across five days of challenging events. The world is watching.
Stage 1 has brought riders in to the heart of the region that, less than three weeks ago, was the centre of an out of control inferno.
Local residents and businesses are hoping that the broadcast will shine a light on the good work by volunteers during the Adelaide northeastern fires – and show the need for supporting the region going forward.
Paul Clark of Kersbrook Hill Wines and Cider witnessed the fire firsthand. The blaze started to approach his property on Friday, January 2. By Saturday, his vineyard was burning.
“I saw hundred foot trees exploding before my eyes. They were there one minute and they'd just explode like a bomb,” Clark says.
“You don't realise the power of it unless you've been in there. You read about it in the media and see it on the news. To me it's like going to a rock concert and the lightshow is spectacular. You see it on TV and it looks a bit ho-hum, it doesn't pick it up for some reason. It's the same – the fire on TV looks about 1/10th what it does when you see it up close. It's just unreal.”
Just hours earlier, he was entertaining a group of tourists visiting the winery. His family and guests had evacuated, but Clark stayed behind to walk a pair of ponies to a staging point in the nearby town of Kersbrook, which lies around thirty kilometres from the centre of South Australia's capital, Adelaide.
Unable to find a way to evacuate the animals, he walked them back to the Kersbrook Wine cellar door, deciding to stay. The cellar door stands on a main road, in case he needed to quickly leave.
I saw hundred foot trees exploding before my eyes.
“I slept on the concrete floor, which wasn't the most comfortable sleep I've ever had. Bear in mind the heat was unbelievable. It was forty degrees anyway, but the heat off the fire was really hot. And the concrete floor was really cold. It was a strange sensation really.”
Setting an alarm for every hour, Clark would wake up and check the progress of the fire.
“Around 5am, it looked like it wasn't there anymore. There was just eerie smoke and no sound. I walked down in to the paddock and looked further south and of course it had moved through Golden Grove and Chain of Ponds and it was horrendous,” Clark says.
A police officer nearby told Clark to leave, so he went to the top of Checker Hill – one of the spots the Tour Down Under raced past this morning – and watched.
“From then until 9 I watched our property burn. It wasn't much fun. I had a couple whose house had burnt sitting with me. They were decidedly brave all things considered.”
Clark left the area as the fire began to chase them up Checker Hill, joining his family who had evacuated.
The fire continued to spread through the Adelaide Hills. The Country Fire Service (CFS), local brigades of volunteer firefighters, took on the task of protecting homes and properties.
They're made up of over 400 brigades over the state with around 13,500 volunteers. Their numbers were bolstered by interstate firefighters flying in to help out.
Thanks to their work, no lives were lost, and though many houses burned, the damage would have been much worse without their help.
“They've been unbelievable. I found out later that the Kersbrook guys were trapped in Sampson Flat nearby. They were told to take the long way around because they were cut off. They knew if they did that, the town would basically be stuffed,” Clark says.
“The fire got right to the back of the petrol station and the school which is virtually in the middle of town. They made a decision to drive through the fire because it was only five minutes direct as opposed to nearly an hour the long way around. Because they did that, they saved the town. I think most people here are happy they showed a fair bit of guts.”
Clark is grateful in many ways. He can't believe his house and cellar door were still standing. The Kersbrook wine office, sheds, irrigation and equipment are all destroyed, and the vines are badly burnt, but it could have been worse.
“Those guys worked their arse off. When they came to talk to us on the Monday after, it was quite emotional to see these guys so absolutely drained. But there wasn't a house lost in our street and when you see the area around it, it looks like the moon.”
Other businesses nearby were lucky to escape the worst of it. On Saturday January 3, Chain of Ponds Wines, an eight kilometre drive from Kersbrook Hill Wines, was under severe ember attack.
Jo De Fazio, Sales Manager for Chain of Ponds Wines, said they were lucky to escape without damage.
“We had four CFS crews there that defended the property. There were also staff members nearby who were able to get access to the site and put the sprinklers on,” De Fazio said.
Out of gratitude to the Country Fire Service, Chain of Ponds Wines has put on two winemaker dinners at the Caledonian Hotel. Proceeds from the wine sales, tickets and food among other fundraising will go to the local CFS brigade.
“Within 24 hours they sold out, largely due to the fact that we're doing donations to the CFS.”
Chain of Ponds is not officially open again, but they will be for the Adelaide Hills Crush Festival this coming weekend. The CFS have been invited to come and raise more funds there, and a portion of glass and bottle sales will go their way.
“We'll be completely open for business. It's safe, it looks as beautiful as ever. It's a good opportunity to come and support the CFS.”
For Paul Clark, visitors willing to buy their wine is the biggest help they could ask for.
“You have no choice but to move on and say, well, how do we make the best of this? The winery is still there. It would have been the end of us if it burnt down. But we have three or four years of stock to keep the business running on,” Clark says.
One upside is that tens of thousands of more people have seen and shared Kersbrook Hill Wines' social media posts. And while it might seem a little shallow at first glance, a lot of those have followed up with offers to help.
“We have a good client base and our customers seem to have a good time. They're really friendly and support us well in the main. But we had people turn up over the weekend who'd never been here, who just came because they wanted to help. That was really humbling.”
Rather than asking for a handout, businesses in the area are hoping that people come and support them, enjoy the area, and get something good in return for that support.
You have no choice but to move on and say, well, how do we make the best of this?
“It's very confronting for people to come up and just give you stuff,” Clark says. “Your basic instinct is to tell them to give it to someone who really needs it – that's not me. The charities had trouble getting food and supplies to people because most people in the area didn't see themselves as victims.
“My wife Mary and I put up a post online. Those people who keep saying they want to help, we appreciate it more than you can imagine. Come up to the cellar door and buy some wine. You get some wine, it keeps our business going, and I can only imagine that other people who have been affected the same way would appreciate that same support.”
Others are in the same boat. Small businesses around the area that the Tour Down Under passed today were closed for the fires but many managed to make it through unscathed. Gorge Wildlife Park and the Giant Rocking Horse are two that lie near the cyclist's path, and while there's still work to be done, they're open to visitors.
The Tour Down Under ran right underneath Kersbrook.
“Hopefully today's stage will bring some pleasure and excitement for those communities who've suffered so much during the past three weeks, as well as generating some much-needed income for local businesses,” Bignell said.
“The vision of the blackened landscape to be seen by the international TV audience should also reinforce the message that Australia is a country of extremes, but life also goes on despite the ravages of nature.”
Up at Kersbrook, they've begun to rebuild. There are still decisions to be made, work to be done and money to be spent, but it's moving. Posts in the vineyard are still catching alight even now.
“They burn from the inside up like a cigarette. Two weeks later and they just keep disappearing. I can't get my head around that.”
Despite the lasting damage, Clark is optimistic the vines will come back. Friends and locals have been helping by cutting down burnt trees. Another rebuilt their sign without claiming credit or letting them know.
“It's amazing. You hear of the Aussie spirit and all that. It sounds so clichéd. But this wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world, I swear to God. They'd either take credit for it or not at all. To us, that summed up the feeling amongst people,” Clark says.
“The danger for us and others here is that another news story comes up, which is natural and fair, and it becomes yesterdays news. If they show a helicopter shot through the Chain of Ponds section of the TDU, it's unreal. Maybe that'll keep it fresh in people's minds for five minutes.
“This is a really bad thing and I wouldn't wish it on anybody. But in the fullness of time, these things make you take stock and you go again. And that's what we're hoping to do.”
The Kersbrook Hill Cellar Door is located at 1498 South Para Road, Kersbrook, South Australia.
Chain of Ponds Wines' Cellar Door is located at 198C Torrens Valley Road, Gumeracha, South Australia. Their phone line is currently out of service due to the fires.Jump to next article