CUDGEWA president Greg Hillier is confident the fires won't destroy his football club. In fact, he's optimistic they will make it stronger. Hillier was front and centre at the ground when they swept through the region on New Year's Eve and still shakes his head in amazement how they didn't wipe the entire community out. He spoke to The Border Mail's BRETT KOHLHAGEN at the ground this week about the damage and how the night unfolded.
BRETT KOHLHAGEN: Take us back to New Years's Eve at Cudgewa. It must have been terrifying?
GREG HILLIER: I've never seen anything like it.
BK: Like many of the locals, you were racing about doing whatever you could. How close were the football-netball clubrooms to going up in smoke?
GH: I flew in on the bulldozer at about 11pm and the garden near the veranda, which is within a metre of the clubrooms, was on fire. There was firewood burning near the rooms as well.
BK: What did you do?
GH: The flames were 20 metres high in the cabungie grass over there and the ground had been burnt to the ground. I called the CFA guys and they came out with two units. I thought the storage shed was on fire but it was actually the firewood on the ground near it. We just did what we could.
BK: How worried were you about the rooms?
GH: I thought it was safe because of the nature of the colorbond building. If it was an older building it would probably have just exploded. The garden was smoldering, but the initial fire front is the thing that would have got the rooms.
BK: The township would have been devastated to lose the $750,000 facility?
GH: Absolutely. That would have been hard to take. It's a big part of the community. As I drove to the ground I actually thought it was gone.
BK: How scary was it?
GH: Extremely, like something I've never seen before. There were 20-metre high flames everywhere you looked and the way it rolled over the hills was something I won't forget.
BK: Total confusion then?
GH: When I came in on a bulldozer people were lining up here in cars because it's a place of last resort. I told them to evacuate to Corryong because it just wasn't safe. At that stage it had burnt to the veranda, the ground was gone and there was a 20-metre high fire front coming up the road which could have come in at the other end. I've been advocating for a long time to have it irrigated here for that reason. We are currently talking to the irrigation mob to have a design set up. They are putting in a fire suppression for the building because if it's going to be a safety place then it has to be safe.
BK: I noticed houses have been lost in Cudgewa?
GH: We have two members who have lost homes and a couple of others went as well. Nearly every member in the club, except for probably the outside boys from Wodonga, have been affected in one way or another. Every local from Tintaldra to Lucyvale has been affected really.
BK: How will the footy club cope?
GH: I think it's got to get stronger. I'll be advocating for that. Even on Tuesday in town I came across a few people who said the footy season would be buggered. I said it's absolutely not buggered. It's more and more important to make it stronger. People need an outlet. This (clubrooms) is a great thing on a Thursday night and Saturday and we need to support each other. We need to get on with it. We are going to need funding for irrigation and a generator to get back on our feet.
BK: Talking of support, what's it been like in the Upper Murray?
GH: Everyone has forgotten the colours at present and is helping everyone out. It's big. Federal, Corryong, Tumbarumba and Walwa have all had similar losses. Everyone is affected and no one is going with colours presently. It's just all in.
BK: And the support from outside the region has been endless as well?
GH: It's been absolutely amazing. Brendan Farrell from the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners had 50 trucks of hay up here within 36 hours. And it hasn't stopped coming. Brendan would be a part of that along with many others. The Coo-wee ride is coming here on Saturday with Matt Aldridge's organisation bringing in 35 to 50 trucks.
BK: Personally, how did you go with the fires?
GH: We were pretty lucky. Skye (daughter) and Adam (Prior) were at our place with some footballers helping and they did well. We lost some stuff at our other property like a hay shed and a few things like that. It wasn't too bad though. Many others were worse off.
BK: How long did you go without any sleep?
I think it's got to get stronger. I'll be advocating for that. Even on the Tuesday in town I came across a few people who said the footy season would be buggered. I said it's absolutely not buggered. People need an outlet.Greg Hillier
GH: I'm not sure. I went to get a dozer at 5am on the Monday and slept at about midnight on New Year's so about 40 hours. I don't think anyone in the district would have slept on the Monday night . Everyone was watching and protecting things.
BK: Are they the worst fires you have seen in the Upper Murray?
GH: 2003 was bad but it didn't affect any townships like this. People at the top of the valleys in 2003 were threatened with the odd shed or two going. It didn't have the impact on the farming community like this though. My guess is that from Walwa to Biggara to Berringama and all the valleys upwards about 75 per cent of farming land at least would be burnt. It's a big whack. Heaps of livestock have been going out with people destocking.
BK: Exactly what damage was done at the ground?
GH: Obviously the playing surface and a few trees but otherwise just a few signs were singed and they will live to fight another day.
BK: How long will it take the club to get the ground back in order?
GH: We will drill and fertilize it. I'd like to think in a month or six weeks we will have it green again. It will respond.
BK: How have coach Brayden Carey and the players been through this?
GH: There has been a lot of messages offering help. Brayden's been fantastic for the footy club. He's works for Tonkin Plumbing and they have offered to help out in any way they can.
BK: I'm told Cudgewa had planned to send trucks to Armidale this week with the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners?
GH: We had four trucks going but unfortunately we couldn't go with all that has been going on. We're disappointed about it to honest.
BK: I'm sure they will understand.