"The Monster on the Hill": Surviving Jan 2020, Bega Valley, NSW

May 26, 2020 / By Tim Falk

Kay, Gregg & Gemma Kay, Gregg & Gemma

For Kay and Gregg Saarinen, 2020 was always going to be a big year. The couple run an eco permaculture farm in Wyndham, a small village in the Bega Valley, and grow herbs to create their Saarinen Organics line of skin care products.

After investing heavily in their business, the Saarinens were ready to start the new year with a bang. But then disaster struck.
“We were set to rocket in 2020 with every day in January devoted to a pop-up shop or markets from Mallacoota to Bermagui, with the hope of finally getting ahead. And then the fires hit; all markets cancelled, our income lost,” Kay says.
“We have been flat out trying to save our farm. Our income from tourists, which is 80% of our income, has turned to zero.”

The first fire hit Wyndham in the lead-up to New Year’s Eve.
“There was no warning,” Kay explains. “A fire quickly spread from a cigarette butt into a drought-ridden landscape. The message we got was it's ‘too late to leave’. We had to bunker down and get ready to fight as the fire approached. It got 3 km away but our farm survived.”

The Saarinens’ fire plan was to evacuate when it was safe to leave with a caravan full of their treasured possessions — their daughter Gemma’s artwork, their puppies, and as many products as they could fit in.
“If there was time to come back for Gregg’s tool trailer and our bikes and kayaks, he would and he did. It was important to get his family to safety first and be close enough to be able to go back and help as a volunteer firefighter,” Kay says.

Having spent 17 years building their farm and self-sufficient home, and with lots of expensive equipment left behind, evacuating was a devastating blow. But there was no other option than to escape “the monster on the hill” and let fate take its course.

The plan was to stay in a caravan park in Pambula. With survival bags packed, the Saarinens were ready to evacuate to the beach if the fire got too close.

“That night was New Year’s Eve,” Kay says. “The fires were growing, our rural towns around were a-glowing. Cobargo was lost, Mallacoota was gone.

“In the next week we were hunting for fuel and food as panic set in. With tens of thousands of tourists up and down the coast, all roads out were blocked. They fought in the streets, so desperate for fuel, so desperate for food.”

The Saarinens were later able to return to their home, but catastrophic fire conditions were on the way. Gregg helped the local fire crew prepare for the expected onslaught, but once again it was soon time to flee.

“Then the sky turned orange, then day to night,” Kay says. “The fire spread quickly through the night — a 60 km monster devoured our state from the Victorian border to Nethercote in one night.”

Panic once again set in. “It was midnight when we saw Eden was being evacuated, Ben Boyd [National Park] was alight and Nethercote was next. We had so many messages from scared local friends, huddled up on small jetties and in homes. The devastation was fierce — too much to fight. No crews were out, it was too thick to fight. There was no telling which way it would go.”

Waking Gemma, who was sleeping in her fire-safe clothes, the family fled through smoke so thick they couldn’t see, the sound of a raging firestorm terrifyingly close.

They parked their car beside their caravan, which had been stowed in a park near the beach, and headed for the sand. As night turned into day and everything stayed dark, the family waited with bated breath for news of the destruction.

“That day was surreal as the reports came in,” Kay says. “So much loss, so much grief.”

But the Saarinens’ property survived. With calmer conditions providing some respite, the family spent two exhausting weeks preparing — raking, mowing, taping windows and moving stock — before the monster returned and they had to evacuate to Pambula once again.

At the time of writing, the fire is 25 km away from the family’s farm with a 60 km front. “This is what we have to live with, this sleeping monster on the hill, waiting for a day of wind to wake it up and roar again,” Kay says.
“Our farm survived, but will we? Of the millions donated, we still have no help. Our town is without fuel. On the craziest night of all, the fire trucks here had to siphon fuel from a willing local’s truck.

“Our products are safe at Bega, our van at Pambula. Our house is still packed up and set up to fight. The threat is still here but we are happy that finally, after three weeks, a plane has arrived, a pink layer of powder is down and containment lines have been drawn.”

And now the Saarinens have another monster to fight.
“With no tourists our economy is no more, our income is low. Our drinking water tanks are no good at all; full of ash and soot they are. We cannot drink nor manufacture. The government won't help.”
And for those Australians looking to do something to help fire-affected communities in NSW and Victoria, Kay has one simple request: please support rural businesses any way you can.

“The money donated is really good, where it is going I cannot say. It’s certainly not in our small town,” Kay says.
“Please support small businesses. It's not a hand out, it's not a donation. Find something that makes your heart sing and purchase online.”

You can check out the Saarinen Organics range of skincare products on their website. And in the months ahead, when it is safe to do so, think about planning a trip to one of the many fire-affected communities on or near the NSW South Coast. Tourism is going to be crucial to the recovery of many of the towns and villages hit hardest by the fires, so book yourself a getaway and help these communities at the same time.

We think you should know: The Weekender's travel guides are independently written by real travellers. We do not receive any money from, or have a sponsorship arrangement with, any of the entities listed in, or referred to in this article. 

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