Bushfire ravaged town's heartfelt plea to the rest of Australia

·Environment Editor

Port Macquarie locals who survived bushfires earlier this month are calling on Aussies not to abandon their iconic holiday town in its greatest time of need.

News reports from early November show the area shrouded in apocalyptic orange light and koalas being burned alive by bushfires.

While townsfolk have received boisterous messages of support from around the world, nervous holidaymakers have quietly been cancelling their bookings.

Split image. Telephone wires, hills in the distance, smokey skies, everything is orange. An empty beach at Port Macquarie, the sky is blue.
With most of the fires now out, skies have turned from orange to blue. Source: Alex Cassegrain / Michael Dahlstrom

This is despite much of Port Macquarie remaining open and the skies returning to blue.

While many residents have withstood the fires, without visitors the tourism dependent region will suffer.

On Wednesday night, Joel Murdoch’s Botanic Wine Garden would usually be bristling with diners.

“We weren’t quiet before the fires, it was very consistent,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“Ever since that orange day the streets have stopped, and tourism has flowed to a halt.

A burning forest on the Mid North Coast of NSW. Everything is orange and black. One tree glows orange.
Images like these have scorched the minds of tourists who have not returned to Port Macquarie. Source: Alex Cassegrain
Joel Murdoch of Botanic Wine Garden looks pensive with a glass of wine in his hand, standing behind his bar in Port Macquarie..
Joel Murdoch wants to see his beloved town return to normal. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

“You rely on a few things like travellers, corporates and locals, but everyone seems to feel safer staying in their homes.”

Mr Murdoch said he was relying on a “bumper summer” to keep his business open, but now his biggest fear is that people from Sydney and Brisbane will bypass the town.

‘Aussie sprit’ alive and well in Port Macquarie

The fires came within 2km of chef Todd Richardson’s family farm on November 12.

The day Port Macquarie received its first ever catastrophic warning is still fresh in Mr Richardson’s mind.

The town was in uncharted territory, so he sent his staff home to pack their bags as things were looking “pretty grim”.

His wife and three children evacuated.

“One hundred per cent there’s an Aussie sprit, especially people helping people” he said.

“The amount of support that everybody is giving each other is amazing.

“You always see the best in situations like this.

“We’re really hoping that it puts a focus on people supporting the local community, especially farmers.”

An empty street in Port Macquarie with a Christmas tree in the background.
Streets around Port Macquarie remain eerily quiet. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Todd Richardson smiles as he holds two of his daughters in his restaurant in Port Macquarie.
Todd Richardson's family business focuses on sustainable farming and is reliant on the tourist trade. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Mr Richardson’s is back in the kitchen of his LV’S restaurant, cooking the fresh produce he grows on his sustainability focussed property.

Most of the tables remain empty and he’s down $6,000 this week.

In a normal summer, Mr Richardson will take on an extra five staff, but until the tourists return, he can’t commit to take on anyone new.

“The gut feeling around town is that tourists won’t come like they normally do,” he said.

“Yes, there might be a bit of smoke in the air, but the businesses might not be here for next season if the tourists don’t come.

“It’s really putting a big hit on us.”

Split screen. An empty picnic table by the water at the Hastings River. An empty beach with two vehicles in the carpark at Town Beach, Port Macquarie.
Locals are urging tourists to returns to their normally bustling holiday town. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Port Macquarie business owners on edge

Not far from the remains of burnt out bushland, Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreats owner Kerry McFayden sits in her lush garden fed by natural springs.

When the skies turned black earlier this month, pigeons had fallen exhausted from the skies.

Luckily, she has only had one cancellation as a result of the fires.

“That was from England - obviously because it’s been getting such incredible coverage internationally,” she said.

Burnt trees behind a sign that reads 'Stop, Private Road' at Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat.
The Dunbogan fires, south of Port Macquarie, came close to Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Kerry McFayden stands in a lush rainforest at Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat.
Kerry McFayden has only had one cancellation since the bushfires hit Port Macquarie. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Keen to be proactive, she has spoken to all of her guests to reassure them her place is safe.

Sipping green tea in her rainforest, it’s hard to imagine that fires were ever in the area, but then a helicopter flies past and Ms McFayden pauses.

“Perhaps I am a bit more jumpy that I was previously,” she said.

“Something unusual happens and I go ‘oops’, what’s that, where’s that coming from?”

Amid the devastation, a number of creatures who lost their homes have found shelter at Ms McFayden’s retreat.

“The nice thing that’s come out of it is we have the most amazing birds on our property now,” she said.

The rare Wompoo fruit dove is one of many new species that have begun frequenting her oasis, signalling change and renewal.

“They were hunted to almost extinction here when the white settlers moved in because they’re really good eating.”

“They’re a fat bird that’s clumsy and they’re brightly coloured so they’re easy to see.

“But now they’ve been devastated elsewhere and they’re thinking where can we go that we can get food and water.”

‘They would come here hell or high water’

Snaking along unmade roads and into state forest on the outskirts of Port Macquarie, there are reminders that travellers need to remain vigilant.

Smoke rises from the mountains in Upper Lansdowne after overnight storms sparked another blaze.

Three helicopters fly through the smoke and dump large bags of water onto the flames.

Alan and Kez Pierce’s Bybarra cafe was threatened by bushfires earlier in the month.

Split image. A smokey forest. Alan Pierce of Bybarra Cafe points out from his deck to the hills in the distance.
Bybarra cafe owner Alan Pierce points to where bushfires threatened his business. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia / Kez Pierce
The sky is dark orange. The sun is bright orange. Silhouette of trees.
On November 12, skies turned orange at the Pierce's cafe. Source: Kez Pierce

The area was inundated with smoke and Ms Pierce has had nightmares about her beloved peacocks perishing in the flames ever since.

While tourists are no longer venturing to their business, the Pierces have been buoyed by the support of people from the town.

A large table is filled with the laughter of “local ladies” stopping for coffee after a morning of yoga at the town hall.

“They would come here hell or high water, but other than that we’ve had two people in today,” Mr Pierce said.

The Bybarra cafe owner believes the widespread fires have made many apprehensive about travelling.

“Last Saturday we didn’t see anyone in the restaurant,” he said.

“They’re going hang on a sec, I don’t want to leave home in case I need to pack stuff up.”

Mr Pierce describes his staff as “ripper people” that he doesn’t want to let go, but he cannot survive on four customers a day.

“I don’t want to lose them at all,” he said.

“But I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do if it keeps at this level.”

‘I think things will improve’

Only minutes from Port Macquarie, Alex Cassegrain helped defend his family’s winery from bushfires which jumped across green paddocks and lapped at their manicured gardens.

“The winds picked up a lot more than we anticipated.

On Tuesday, November 12 they closed the Cassegrain and staff volunteered to help stop the fire entering the vineyard.

“It did actually jump the highway,” he explained.

“I don’t think I’ve felt anything like it, and I don’t think anyone else here has actually witnessed anything like it.

Cassegrain Wines' vineyard from the front deck. Behind the vines, thick smoke rises in the distance.
Alex Cassegrain has shared memories of the day fire threatened his Port Macquarie vineyard. Source: Alex Cassegrain
A dark burning forest near the Cassegrain Wines vineyard. The ground is covered in fires.
Flames entered the Cassegrain property, but stopped short of their gardens. Source: Alex Cassegrain
Alex Cassegrain stands next to a large burnt tree in a largely green paddock.
An ember attack caused a large tree at Alex Cassegrain's vineyard to catch fire. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Embers from the fires landed in nearby mulch, sparking new fires and even setting alight a large tree surrounded by green pasture.

“The bit of rain we’ve had over the last few days has lifted the smoke,” Mr Cassegrain said.

“Today is actually the first day in weeks we’ve had clear blue skies.

“I think things will improve, for sure.”

We’re open for business, so please come to Port Macquarie and enjoy the town.”

Thin trees by the roadside that have been burnt.
The RFS has conducted back burning to help stop the spread of existing fires. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Looking from high up on a mountain past trees and down to the Port Macquarie hinterland. The ocean in the distance.
Much of Port Macquarie remains green and open for business. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Conditions can change rapidly in fire zones, people wishing to monitor the area can do so via the Rural Fire Service’s Fires Near Me app and a list of road closures can be found here.

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered wildlife carer in NSW and travelled to Port Macquarie as a guest of the local council.

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