From fire to flood: how one rare weather system lifted the hopes of thousands

Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelright, pictured with his kelpie Ned, said that the paddocks on his property had greened rapidly following recent rains. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelright, pictured with his kelpie Ned, said that the paddocks on his property had greened rapidly following recent rains. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

They were the six official words that everyone across New South Wales had so desperately wanted to hear this summer: "The fire is set to out".

And in a remarkable February turnaround, what were once firegrounds then became floodlands.

As if a giant switch had been thrown in the upper atmosphere, many of the NSW areas ravaged by bushfires since before Christmas, from Coffs Harbour in the north to Bega in the far south, felt February's sudden deluge of welcome rain.

Ongoing drought conditions across much of NSW snap-eased as finally the huge high pressure systems which, like a blowtorch, had dragged hot, dry winds out of the desert, inexplicably dissipated.

Within days, a low pressure formed off the NSW north coast and huge volumes of rainfall worked their magic on a previously cracked, dry and scorched landscape.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons had talked about needing a helping hand from Mother Nature.

While that help arrived too late to save lives, homes and stock already smashed by bushfires, this rare offshore weather system intervened to rekindle hope for the rural regions and in doing so, replenished collective energy levels.

Within 36 hours, two NSW megafires - Gospers Mountain to the north of Sydney and Currowan to the far south - were "set to out". Others such as Kerry Ridge, near Muswellbrook, and Liberation Trail, on the Mid-North Coast, were also among the seven listed as officially extinguished.

Sheets of water over paddocks in Roslyn on Wednesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Sheets of water over paddocks in Roslyn on Wednesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Collectively the two megafires had burned more than a million hectares of NSW bushland and pasture. The Currowan had burned for 74 days and destroyed 312 homes. It had choked Australia's national capital with days of thick smoke the likes of which gave it the worst air quality of any city in the world, closed major highways, cut off south coast communities, and took the lives of firefighters and farmers desperately trying to protect property.

The Gospers Mountain fire had been equally destructive, burning 512,626 hectares. It had begun with a lightning strike way back on October 26, before summer had even officially started.

When the clouds turned grey - this time laden with water, not smoke - and that great relief valve in the sky opened, it did so in a great hurry.

From February 7, the arriving east coast low pressure system began flinging heavy bands of rain across the north of the state as far west as Walgett and then bucketed down on the Sydney region, which recorded some of its heaviest localised falls in 30 years.

The same system then travelled south, filling dams and raising hopes as it went.

At the end of January, Goulburn's usable water storage was at 52 per cent and restrictions were in place. The controversial $55 million Highland Source Pipeline, stretching 81 kilometres from Bowral, had been pumping at full capacity to keep the city watered.

Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelwright shows off one of his dams that filled up from recent rains. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelwright shows off one of his dams that filled up from recent rains. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Just one week later, the local Wollondilly River was running a bunker, the city's dam was full, roads were flooded, the pumps switched off and water restrictions forgotten.

"There are farmers in this area that have tipped 100mm or more out of their gauges since that weather event," agronomist and southern regional services manager for NSW Farmers Dave Banham said.

"It's certainly a great kickstart. Farmers can finally get off the fireground and get back to farming again."

And sure enough, linkages were being tested, hydraulics connected up and usually chatty farmers unable to stop for a yarn as soon as the rainfall eased.

Many were spraying to suppress the weeds certain to be the first to emerge from the soaked soil, others were seeding. In various parts of the NSW southern tablelands, moisture probes were showing sub-soil saturation down to almost one metre.

And the smiles had returned to many faces in our drought-racked regional areas.

Kenneth Wheelwright, who has farmed all his life at Roslyn, 13kms from Crookwell in the NSW Southern Highlands, stood in gumboots atop his highest point on the Great Dividing Range - 940 metres above sea level - and said that the 125mm of rain he received in total over the weekend was that most he could recall falling in one spell.

Below him, the stream that formed the headwaters of the Wollondilly River was finally running freely again for the first time in years.

"That stream was bone dry last week; you might have found a pool or two along the watercourse that was an inch or two deep but that was it," he said.

"Our rainfall started slowly; we had an initial fall of about 13mm on Saturday and we thought that was all we would get.

"But then on Sunday night it really started to come down. We received more than 100mm overnight.

"I'm flabbergasted to see all the dams full and the streams running. Over the years we've had 60 or 70mm fall in one go before but never this much, this quickly".

While the coastal nature of the system didn't rain push far enough west in the state to help badly drought-stricken areas such as the Macquarie Valley, northern rivers in the Murray Darling system such as the Namoi and the Gwydir had received good inflows.

The Peel River which flows through Tamworth had been all but dry for months. In December, a giant plastic bag had been placed across the riverbed in an attempt to store the precious trickle of inflow in an effort to buy the city time while a "rescue" pipeline was being constructed from the Chaffey Dam.

By the start of 2021, Tamworth was expected to be completely out of water, together with many surrounding towns.

Then came the February rain and up came the river. By February 12, the level in the Peel had surpassed 2016.

WaterNSW had previously described the giant Keepit Dam as "functionally dry" for more than 12 months. However, more than four gigalitres of water has flowed into Keepit Dam in the past two weeks.

While it's not yet enough to restore Lake Keepit to the Sydney Harbour size that it was in late 2016, there's now plans for the sailing club to start sailing again.

"The Keepit Dam has been the canary in the coal mine to flag the severity of this drought," WaterNSW spokesman Tony Webber said.

"To have that amount of inflow in such a short time isn't transformational but if the rain keeps coming, even in small amounts, then the entire Barwon-Darling river system will benefit and all the towns along it."

Inverell, Moree and Narrabri all received strong falls although caution has been expressed that such has been the dryness of the landscape for so long, the soil will soak up much of the moisture before it is released as run-off.

The river water from the recent weather system has already flowed on through Walgett and is slowly making its way south.

Even better short-term news for the regions is that out in the Tasman Sea, one low pressure system is now being replaced by another, this time the tropical low formed from the former Cyclone Uesi.

This system is now expected to gradually track south and west through the Tasman Sea, toward the New Zealand South Island.

The Halliday family of Ben Nevis Angus at Walcha had halved their breeder numbers following three difficult seasons in which they'd endured mini cyclones, fire and drought. In 2019, they received just 228mm of rain over 12 months.

They confined their remaining 350 head into one hectare lots and had been feeding them a daily canola hay ration.

The confinement pens were designed with steel posts 10 paces apart with a hot wire 60 centimetres off the ground and another above it, allowing the cattle to put their head under and eat.

Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelwright prepares to drench his sheep on Wednesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Roslyn grazier Ken Wheelwright prepares to drench his sheep on Wednesday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Before the rain fell, the Hallidays were hanging tough. Erica Halliday said that if they could manage to get through, they would be in a strong position.

"We see a real shortage of supply looming, particularly for females, particularly for Angus females and protein in general," she said.

After the February rain on the "rested" paddocks - which brought their seven-week 2020 total to 382mm - they were finally able to open their gates and let the cows walk out of confinement and into grass-filled paddocks.

"When it first started to rain in the second week in January we kept the cows on confinement for three more weeks and because there was four months of it [the pasture] being destocked, we were able to put the cows back out onto grass," Ms Halliday said.

"It was the greatest feeling ever.

"I just can't believe how forgiving the country is. I can't believe how it can go from so brutal to so forgiving."

Yarra grazier Guy Milson, who has 6400 acres just outside Goulburn, has been watching the dip in the Indian Ocean dipole with keen interest over the past month and says this factor appears to have been one of the most significant contributors recently.

"After all that fierce January heat and the fires that came with it, we desperately needed a circuit breaker," Mr Milson said.

"Like many farmers, I'm always looking across a range of weather influencers to plan ahead and the movement in the Indian Ocean dipole appears to have been a key trigger to this event.

"It [the dipole] started dropping right through January and once it reached the neutral range, that's when we've seen the monsoons arrive in the north of the country and this unusual east coast rain event roll in."

He said one of the measures of how severe the recent drought has been was that a wooden bridge across a watercourse at the back of his property was smashed apart by timber carried by floodwater.

"That bridge had been there since 1954. On the weekend, trees upstream that had died and fallen in the drought were picked up, carried down by the speed of the water and just wiped out the entire bridge," he said.

Crookwell grazier Charlie Prell had gradually de-stocked his farm since the drought started to bite hard, reducing his sheep and lamb numbers by more than a third.

He said the rain event of February 7-9 was of a magnitude he hadn't seen in many years and thoughts are now turning as to how to make the most of this liquid windfall, arriving so quickly after January's fierce heat and dryness.

This time last year, 87 per cent of NSW farmers surveyed said they didn't have enough moisture in their land to plant a winter crop.

Agronomist Dave Banham says there will be many farmers now willing to take a calculated risk that more rain is on the way before Easter and will put in a winter crop.

He remains optimistic there's more rain to come.

"There will be some farmers willing to just push ahead and hope for the follow-up, and others hedging their bets a little more and preparing," he said.

"Around here the rain has created a bit of a buzz around the farmers and the local farming community; everyone is out and about, working their land, making plans and thinking positively for the future. And that's a great outcome for regional areas."

This story From fire to flood: how one rare weather system lifted the hopes of thousands first appeared on The Canberra Times.