podcast-512
LATEST PODCASTS
Play Podcast

And that was probably the one moment where I thought we're at real risk of the glass breaking and there being a back draft effect being created, which would have meant we would have been incinerated instantly. And that was a real fear.

Episode 17

Kangaroo Valley Fire Storm – On Designing, Defending & Gambling Your Life On Your Own Ingenuity & Self Belief

Nick Turner | Founder & Principal | Turner

Nicholas is the Principal and founder of Turner, one of Australia’s leading architectural practices employing around 100 permanent staff from 24 different countries. Within the practice, he leads the design of innovative mixed-use residential, public, workplace, industrial and hospitality projects that are both responsive and memorable, each with a strong identity that reflects a familial approach to repairing and enhancing the urban environment. Projects to date include locations as diverse as China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Lebanon as well as locally in Sydney, Wolgan Valley, Melbourne, Tweed Heads, Bowral and a personal project of great significance in Kangaroo Valley – the design of which he literally bet his life on. Recently the practice has opened a new studio in London, offering direct access to opportunities within the UK and wider European markets. Nicholas is an accomplished speaker and presenter of ideas, providing clarity to the process of designing and delivering buildings, helping to steer a definitive course through the often-complex requirements of approvals and construction.

This episode is little different so we’re bringing it to you in two parts.

This episode: Kangaroo Valley Fire Storm explores a personal design and building project Nick undertook in the beautiful Kangaroo Valley just a few hours south of Sydney. Now to say he put his life on the line to save this house – is no where near an understatement. He and a few of his mates and some local refugees battled and took refuge from the mega Currowan Fire and Nick’s story of preparing for, fighting and surviving this fire is nothing short of astonishing. It really does talk to Nick’s character and his detailed & thorough approach to everything he does not to mention his courage and self belief in his own design ingenuity – it’s a fascinating story and I strongly encourage you to take the time to listen to the whole thing as Nick is a great storyteller and he really does keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

Episode 18: Turner Design Studio – explores everything from packing a glock pistol in Iraq to what it takes to scale an architectural business to over 100 employees, what does good place making feel & look like, managing the complex issue of community consultation, exploring the notion of planning purity as opposed to planning efficiency and all things property marketing. Enjoy.

Transcript

Anthony Denman:
Okay so I just have a quote here which I absolutely love. So this is a quote of yours, “landscape design and landscape construction – that’s my hobby. Some people read books, some people crochet, some people collect fast cars, I garden”. Which leads me to a personal project of yours in the Kangaroo Valley. Interestingly enough it’s the smallest GFA, so gross floor area that’s for those that don’t know. The smallest GFA project you’ve ever designed at just 325 square meters juxtaposed to the largest landscaped area you’ve ever worked on at 40 hectares.

Anthony Denman:
So that’s 100 acres, so if you can imagine a 325 square meter house on 100 acres which included and get this give that quote a bit of context. The insertion of 30,000 plants, trees and grasses over 15 years. I mean that if anybody’s ever planted one tree that’s… just have a think about that 30,000 my God, at the 15 years which clearly was and remains today, your most treasured design ever. In fact, you literally risked your life to save it and we’ll get to that but before we do I just want to get right back to the beginning. So was it all… I mean obviously I guess working in the garden building structures at the age of four was there a moment where the dream kind of crystallized in your mind that you’re going to build this kind of house of your project of your dreams?

Nick Turner:
Okay, we’ve got to start… actually before I even stumble across this property in Kangaroo Valley, one of my school holiday jobs as I got a bit older was rustling up some landscape projects in the neighborhood and the school holidays were a week or two. Inevitably I’d find some willing customer to entrust me with the successful delivery of a revitalized garden or totally new garden. If I had a Bobcat in there and ripped up their whole front yard and started again – it was just something I loved.

Nick Turner:
It was exercise. It was about the creation for people in a very simplistic and crude way back then a great complementary outdoor space for their home. And it kind of paid well too and so it was kind of chicken and egg. It was something really satisfying that paid well. My passion for landscaping really developed through my teens but I guess thinking about it I’d also help my father in the garden when I was very young and was really connected with the idea of making gardens.

Nick Turner:
As I said it was in a very unsophisticated pretty crude way but relative to a 12 or 13 year old I think it was pretty good at the time and some of those still last today. They’re not great works of art but they’re in there, they’re cared for 35, 40 years… 40 years on. But Kangaroo Valley came about because Kangaroo Valley is a place that since I had license I’de driven through back to, had explored around and I was just drawn to the place. There was something magical about it when you approached from the west from Fitzroy falls and you come through the saddle of the hill, on top of the mountain actually saddle of the mountain and drop down from that down Barrengarry mountain you looked into the Valley and it was forever changing. It was dry periods.

Nick Turner:
It was in yellow mostly it was very green has great rainfall and some often early mornings the fog would just sit like floating cotton wool and you’d come from blue sky and you drop down into the Valley through the fog and it was dripping wet. And then the sun would come out and the whole landscape was just glistening. But I realized there were different landscapes, different microclimates, different weather patterns, different rainfalls within the Valley and one day there was an opportunity back in 2003 to actually buy a property there and I hadn’t really contemplated it at that stage of my life but the opportunity was there.

Nick Turner:
And I remember walking onto the site and the site is about 35 acres that are undulating and a little clear but pockets of Woodland and a dramatic rock out crops and so on. And then running east-west about halfway to the site. There’s a cliff of about 20 odd meters and the site ran away about 160 meters down to the Kangaroo River. And along that cliff line, there was really something very spiritual about being there. The unfortunate thing was the guy that had it before me had decided to do some clearing and made a bit of a mess and piled root balls up on on rock shelves and there were piles of recycled building materials ready to build his aspirational structure he had in mind for the place.

Nick Turner:
But I saw through all of that and the potential and we ended up building a house for my wife and daughter. And that was the house of about 300 square meters that you were talking about before. So that was built 15 years ago now we just got on and got it approved and built it. And I guess sometimes where there’s a will there’s a way. And I also had in my mind that in or on some of the more damaged and degraded parts of the site at some point in the future that would give me a great canvas for building either some structured gardens or just supplementing the qualities and making insertions into some of the existing landscape that we really wanted to retain.

Nick Turner:
It’s a very difficult thing to master plan I think because you’re constantly in your mind dreaming up new components and projects and it evolves over time. But over that 15 year period and most of the work was probably done over the last 12 years. Yeah. We planted up to about 30,000 plants, trees and shrubs and so on. And it was a really satisfying project and we’ll get to it shortly but it kind of all disappeared on the 4th of January, 2020. But it had survived the drought, heavy periods of rainfall and it was maturing and it was looking really amazing. It was really my escape when I got to the front gate and arrived there I kind of felt like I was off the radar and I could really clear my head whilst I would be thinking about projects that we’re working on in the office. I just felt like I was a million miles away from anywhere and couldn’t be bothered by others.

Anthony Denman:
I love that feeling. I think that helps you get in touch with your spiritual and creative self as well. There’s something about the magic of nature that allows you to access far more creative and compassionate and caring side to what lies within.

Nick Turner:
Absolutely.

Anthony Denman:
I just want to say I have some degree of experience in this field not anything like what you’ve done or been through but I live on sort of three acres adjoining the national park myself which means we have to have a fire plan. And look our fire plan is we have a little box by the door and in that box is just some stuff that we can’t kind of… it would be hard to move on with life if we weren’t able to save those things emotionally just hard drives of photographs, memories really and a few other bits and pieces but it’s just a little plastic box. And so the plan is if we get a fire in our area and it gets too severe.

Anthony Denman:
Then my wife and my two children and the dogs will collect the box jump in the car and head down the beach whereas I’ll stay and try and put out any embers that might find their way onto the property. And I’ve got a crude system fire sort of hoses set up around the various points. If it gets to catastrophic and just for those of you that don’t know there’s a government issued scale in regards to fire warning levels – which you may have seen on the road side whilst driving – particularly in regional areas – a dial that goes from green to orange – which starts at low / moderate followed by high – to very high – to severe then extreme and finally catastrophic.

Anthony Denman:
So if it gets to catastrophic and that just means you’ve got a fire storm raging around the place then I’m out of there, right? I’m not going to stay in defend and risk my life especially for the kind of crude structure that sits on our land which is mostly build of all to Timber 20 year old sort of cottage style property that would go up in an instant.

Nick Turner:
Spontaneously combust by the sound of it.

Anthony Denman:
Spontaneously combust and just separately I’m going to talk to you at some stage about doing something to overcome some of those challenges. So, I guess yeah to just put some context to this and most people will when it gets to catastrophic not going to hang around. Now it was the Currowan fire that was starting to threaten the whole of the Kangaroo Valley and correct me if I’m wrong you were in Sydney when this was happening you weren’t actually at the property. As I understand it you made a decision to… sorry and then I’ll hand over and let you go but because this is really interesting to me I wouldn’t stay and defend my own home that I live in. Yet as I understand it you made a decision to actually leave Sydney, traveled down to the Kangaroo Valley. So there’s this whole thing stay in defend you went and defended.

Nick Turner:
That’s a simplistic summary we departed Sydney to go into a fire. I might go back a few steps but the first, when we built the house originally obviously there was a set of controls standards that were imposed on us for building in a bush fire prone environment. And I was never in denial that we’d be fine it wouldn’t be us. I had in the back of my mind and I guess as we were designing it that it was inevitable that one day there would be a fire. And hopefully it was one that was not a raging inferno but a fire that was well behaved that we could deal with but just part of the course of the cycle of the Australian environment. And then there were measures that were put in place that proved to be successful and really worth doing.

Nick Turner:
And then in 2018 I completed an extension of the house which characteristically is quite different to the first pavilion that we built connected by a bridge and that was because the composition of the family changed. I now had three kids and there were spaces and places that I think we felt we wanted to add to the house. Having had a better understanding of the climatic extremes and the way in which we’re evolving to use the property which was more and more as well in terms of frequency of visits. So it’s not a place that we turned up to once a month or once every three months or just over school holidays. The house is probably used four out of five weekends and some time either side of that from time to time.

Nick Turner:
So the new wing was built and it was I guess not only was it built under a different set of building standards, but it was also I decided to make it a more intelligent and environmentally sustainable research project for myself with the ambition of taking the whole property off grid albeit we would probably have a grid connection but not be relying on that power grid connection. So the house had more intelligent glazing and the original house was double-glazed both wings have a glazing standard. That’s there to meet the relevant bushfire standards of the day I’ve used a series of geothermal ground loops through heat exchange or heat pumps to have an integrated solution for heating ventilating, cooling, heating the pool, portable hot water, chilled water for fan core units, hot water for in slab heating.

Nick Turner:
And also with that in a company which was critical was a 27-kilowatt solar array and we were able to… because of the area to the west of the house that was relatively clear we’re able to construct that in a very cool single plane. It’s about 21 meters by seven and a half meters as a single array and then a series of batteries, inverters and so on 50-kilowatt of batteries, inverters and last resort was a diesel backup generator in the event that everything failed. And that was that’s not something relied on day to day it was just in case everything else failed.

Nick Turner:
So there was sort of various tiers of redundancy grid diesel generator, solar, batteries and so on. And the other component was that the new pavilion in the house had a green roof and in a Bush fire prone environment sounds a little silly but thermally it gets so hot there. Thermally it really helps reduce the impact of hot days and also retain the warmth inside the house in the cooler months of winter. And the temperature extremes down there I’ve experienced a minus three to 47.5 degrees.

Nick Turner:
So it’s a broad range, it’s a big range. So that was set up but the green roof had a plant on it Carpobrotus which is pigface and that’s 90% water. And I thought that was pretty smart, good type of plant to have on a roof in a Bush prone environment. But what had happened leading up to 4th of January last year in 2020, was that the drought had bitten really badly in the last sort of 12 months of the three year period that it was really severe down there. And despite hand watering because there’s no irrigation on the roof it was intended that was self-sufficient. Some of that was getting pretty crispy and deteriorating and not looking particularly healthy so that posed a risk in itself. But with a days watering on the day of the fire to soak that ground and 300 mils of soil on the roof meant that there was enough moisture in there that it wasn’t affected which was a great relief.

Nick Turner:
But coming back to your question on the basis that I had anticipated a fire one day. I’d also said to my wife that if there was going to be a fire there I wanted to be there. And I felt that we couldn’t rely on the RFS to be there because there’s only one road in and the same road out. And the reality is that if there was a fire it wouldn’t be a scene like we saw on the TV during the latter months of 2019 where there were fire trucks racing around everywhere and defending fires. In fact, it would be the opposite there’d just be no one around. So we made a plan and I know in June 2019 I said to my wife, I think this is the year conditions are right for fire whether it’s deliberately lit, product of a lightning strike, product of power lines arcing but there’s no moisture content in the ground in the soil profile at all.

Nick Turner:
Trees were stressing out losing leaf. There hadn’t been a fire since 84. The fuel load was massive, absolutely massive. Dense thick, half a meter thick leaf litter and fallen trees and branches. And actually that’s really critical to the intensity of the fire. So, when a fire front comes through it’s everything that’s about six millimeters and minus that contributes to that high energy, high heat of 14, 1500 degrees when the fire front comes through. And other than the asset protection zone around the house which sort of range from 20 to 40 meters beyond that it was half a meter of that kind of fuel load. So, I felt that in the absence of any rainfall it was going to be the year and then sure enough up in the Mid North Coast the fire season there started a whole lot earlier.

Nick Turner:
And then in that mid December 2019 I remember waking up one morning and I’d heard that a fire had started just north of the Clyde River down near Batemans Bay to the west of the Princes Highway which is well west of places like Pebbly Beach and Depot Beach. But those two locations are east on the coast but due east from where to say the fire was. And that fire started 165 kilometers away from us and it blew east across over the Princess Highway and took out a lot of Pebbly Beach. And I remember that very fondly as a kid going there when I was seven or eight with my parents for holiday stays and these great little cabins on the beach and no one was around it was the most wonderful place, just magical place. Anyway there were a whole series of wind patterns.

Nick Turner:
There were westerly winds during the day and southerly changes every couple of days. So the fire was blowing west and blowing north and then west and north and so on and just kept crabbing its way heading north. And then on the Braidwood Road which is around a place called Tianjara Falls I remember on the 22nd of December, there were multiple ignition points and a fire had started so deliberately lit fire just north of the Currowan fire. And then with the temperatures rising, low humidity the Tianjara fire got consumed by the racing Currowan fire behind it.

Nick Turner:
They renamed it then Currowan two and then that became the monster that effectively wiped out the entire Morton National Park. And I went into a mode of being pretty obsessed by it actually and it’s patterns and behaviors and progress heading North. And now when the Tianjara fire started up, I sent a WhatsApp message to our local group of residents which is residents of about a 15 sort of kilometer east-west proximity wrapped up for the year. Actually 22nd, I remember being at our office Christmas party on the 22nd and I saw a notification for the Tianjara fire.

Nick Turner:
Anyway I sent out a message a WhatsApp message to this group that I’d set up some months beforehand in anticipation of fire and having a great method for disseminating information not gossip but information about… and factual information and updates about fire progress preparation and getting together as a neighborhood when and if we needed to and how we might deal with evacuations and so on. Anyway so I said, Tianjara fire started it’s now not a matter of if but when this fire will get to us. And then we went down for the Christmas break and that’s pretty much all I could think of. I wiped out my whole Christmas break I think and disconnected from the family. Just thinking about going over my head all the plans for preparation had been underway for months but what had I forgotten.

Nick Turner:
I was writing out sort of checklists for before the day of the fire, the morning of the fire, during the fire, all these things we needed to do that when I anticipated you’re in a moment of period of high stress that you tend to forget those things. So, I remember on Christmas day my two brothers… sorry Christmas Eve it was, my two brothers volunteered to come down and help because I said I was going back into it. And we thought if it comes somewhere between the 31st and the fifth, 31st of December and the 5th of January. And I’d also had two mates down in Kangaroo Valley that have helped me out on the property over a number of years and they offered to help. So that was sort of five of us. And then over break, another mate came down and we were talking about it and he was going to leave on the 30th.

Nick Turner:
I wanted them all out by the 30th just in case and he offered to stay. And I said, make sure you’re sure you’re comfortable at doing that. And I talked him through what I think some of the circumstances and difficulties might be that we might face but he said, “No, I’m so confident seeing the way you’ve built the house and the way you’ve prepared I’d like to come and join you.” I said, you are going be a big help that’s six of us. That’s three pairs of two. We can work in pairs and they left on the 30th and Lake Conjola went up on the 30th. On the 31st sorry New year’s Eve. And we thought with a southerly that the fire at its northern flank would head into Kangaroo Valley. It wasn’t far of the Shoalhaven, which as the Crow flies.

Nick Turner:
It got to about seven and a half kilometers away from us on the 31st. And I had pulled the guys down in the afternoon. I thought it was really going to happen. They all got down about four o’clock and then suddenly change came and weather conditions shifted and the fire went to sleep for three days. But we had a very quiet New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks on TV and everyone left the next day. And then I had a meeting with a whole bunch of people on the… I stayed on the 1st and on the 2nd of January I had a meeting in town with a bunch of guys just talking about what we thought might happen and the latest weather forecast had come out.

Nick Turner:
So we had three benign days and then the weather for the 4th of January was Fonara which is our local weather station was going to be I think 42, 43. And you can always add between three to eight degrees more for Kangaroo Valley. It’s has a climate like Richmond or Camden. And so I left and all for the two hour drive home I was on the phone to all the five other guys setting up a plan to actually come down on the night of the third. So I went back to Sydney for a day, I rewrote all my fire plans printed them out so we could stick them on the inside of the glass around a courtyard that would become an important part of the house in the event of the fire arrived.

Nick Turner:
And we ended up buying extra generators and lay flat hoses that I got from a mate in Bowral and extra garden hoses that we could keep stored in the event that some of those critical ones might get heat effected that were outside ready to go sort of doubling up on all sorts of things extra full face masks. We all had hard hats anyway, I was all set up for that. Got better quality firefighting gloves got more headlamps for our hard hats. Just over thought we were over-preparing but it was a comfortable thing to do.

Nick Turner:
And I even took a liberty of getting some medication for the guys in the event that they had some panic attacks during the event. And so that everyone remained calm because if they didn’t remain calm then they potentially could… it would be a danger to their or risk to their lives if they made a bad decision. So the 4th of January was my wife’s birthday, I canceled dinner and we left at 8:00 PM and headed down got a good night’s sleep. And we woke up and then very quickly the temperature climbed and it got up to… yeah I remember it was up in the mid 40s by mid to late afternoon.

Nick Turner:
I remember it was up in the mid-’40s by mid to late afternoon. So we prepared all day. We did a final pass around getting rid of, I reckon every single leaf that had blown and fallen around the house for 15 meters. And we’d done that a couple of times already, but more material kept turning up. We put some sprinklers in some strategic locations behind the diesel generator and the solar containers soaking the ground. In the event, the fire would come from the West and we thought we’d come from the West. And also from the North up the Valley sucking East and West up the Valley and the temperature then got to about 47 degrees. And I remember there was one last tree I’d been putting off cutting down in front of the house. It was probably just too risky in our view, given the conditions on the day.

Nick Turner:
I remember we tried to, one of the guys tried to start a brand new chainsaw on it and it wouldn’t start. And Grigori the other guy undid the fuel tank and at it, as he did. Because we thought it was out of… We didn’t have fuel in it and couldn’t see fuels. So he undid the lid and the fuel had vaporized and the chainsaw had a vapor lock, but he got sprayed with petrol. And we had to very quickly, we’ve got an outdoor shower able to doused in down and getting clean and get it out of his eyes. And I thought this is not a good sign. So I said to everyone, we’re not doing anything else. We’re just going to relax. And I think we’re actually sitting around watching the cricket, believe it or not. But we were tracking the progressive growth of this full formation of this para cumulonimbus cloud formation that was coming in from the Southwest.

Nick Turner:
And it developed from this white wispy smoke off in the distance. And remember that I was saying the fire was really only about seven and a half kilometers away, but the day before as the Crow flies and hadn’t moved until the morning of the 4th of Jan, it was enormous. And what I now know from the talking to the head of the Bureau of Meteorology was it’s about 10 kilometers high. And the fire was literally by 7:30 was burning around us from the West to the South to the East. And these textbook fire would ordinarily, never come at us from those directions, but there was nothing textbook about this fire and particularly on the day of the fire and the conditions. And I’d also been communicating with the captain, the deputy captain of the local brigade every hour and a half or so and he was keeping us updated by…

Nick Turner:
The RFS, had a list of us that were staying our names, numbers, contact details, next of kin, everything that you would ordinarily need if you were staying. Most people had actually evacuated our area of Kangaroo Valley the day before and on the morning of the fourth. And then we had a couple of neighbors that were determined to stay next door, to defend their house, which was timber. And I’d said to them the day before you can’t do that, if you want to stay, that’s fine. But you come and take refuge with us. I don’t want you to participate. I don’t want you to offer to help. I don’t need to provide advice. I just want you to sit calmly and take refuge in the house. And if we need to do something, I’ll let you know. So they were there.

Nick Turner:
And one other guy from up the road that was a bit lost and was a bit disorientated and had freaked out about the fire coming. And hadn’t got his act together and hadn’t evacuated. So we went and grabbed him and made sure he was safe and with us as well. So we had three refugees and the six of us and at 7:30, we were standing looking to the South and we’re like tourists holding our phones, videoing this big pyro cloud. And by that stage it was just a waiting game. And I said to the guys, I said, “I’m not sure if you know what’s going on here.” So what do you mean? I said, “Well, look at the size of this thing.” And that these black gray plumes were peeling out out the sides of this big cloud formation. I said, “Look, it’s collapsing. It’s going to collapse very, very soon.” And what happens is they, they get to a point where they get completely full with Ash.

Nick Turner:
And under the weight of the Ash, they collapse. That’s like an inverted nuclear mushroom cloud. And from the time I said, “It’s peeling apart.” It was eight minutes. And it was blacker than midnight when I say blacker than midnight, because of the Ash in the air, the only way you could see was with high-powered torches. And then very shortly after that. So, this is about quarter to 8:00 on the night. Very shortly after that, we heard this roar. This is like this fleet of freight trains coming at us from the Southeast. Couldn’t see anything, but could hear this roar. And it was deafening, and then to the West, about 150, 200 meters to the West, there was all of a sudden this really bright red fire glow. So, I merely thought the property next door, which was an accommodation place that was all gone.

Nick Turner:
And then over our right shoulder was this missile that came flying through the air and this lump of wood with a big tail flame about 20 meters off our shoulder to the West. And it hit the base of a Banksia tree and the Banksia trees it’s exploded. At that point, I said, “I want everyone inside now we’re on.” So the magic RFS rule is five to 15 minutes. You take refuge active refuge. So that is a place where you can see what’s going on, not in a bathroom, not in a basement. I was even in a basement and it’s not smoke sealed, smoke, settles the lowest part of the house and fills basements first. So, we’re in the living space of the new wing, where we had good visibility to the Southeast, not to the West because the house is very defensive and it’s designed to the West and to the North and the old wing of the house.

Nick Turner:
We’re able to see South and Southeast as well as North. So, we headed into the house and it was as if someone had sprayed the whole landscape with petrol and just ignited it. By the way, there were trees that were lighting up with no flame behind them. They were spontaneously combusting. It was like a light switch went on from not on fire, to everything on fire. And the night progressed and I was a bit laxed actually texting my wife, giving her updates. And we all, I have to say, we all lost track of time. And the adrenaline was an extraordinary experience. It just absolutely polarized you. You went into survival mode and we could see and think so clearly, no one lost their shit. Everyone held it together. Everyone functioned really well.

Nick Turner:
But at this stage, all we are doing is working in pairs, patrolling the integrity of the house, the old wing and the new wing of the house. And this seemed to go on for a long period of time because we kept testing going outside and what the conditions were like outside to the North. And we had a Northern courtyard that was very protected and had a concrete roof over it. And it was a safe place to effectively ultimately set up a bit of a command center. That’s where we could run things from, but it just seemed to go on and on and we couldn’t get out. And the temperature was just unbelievable. The intensity of the smoke, it was acrid and yellow. And I now understand because there were some… There were 70 houses nearby around us that burned and vehicles and so on fuel plastics.

Nick Turner:
So, the smoke was acrid because of that, but the heat was insane. And I know at one point when I was worried about the winds were, because the winds were horrendous when this cloud collapsed and the fire front came through. And if you think about this, we’ve got a collapsing pyro cloud. It was 47 degrees with a 60 kilometer hour westerly and 9% humidity and a southerly change coming in behind the collapsing pyro cloud. And one of the other things, the head of the Bureau told us was that coming at us when that cloud collapsed and the southerly kicked in, we had wind gusts of up to 300 kilometers an hour. Now, when I found that out five days later, it made a whole lot of sense as to why the fire behaved the way it did, why the landscape behaved the way it did.

Nick Turner:
And ultimately the next morning, while why there was nothing left, it was like a war zone. It was just gray Ash and stuff on fire. I think I mentioned, we lost track of time just to give you an idea. There’s a point at which I did. I think I sent about 11:00 PM. I sent my wife a text saying, “Armageddon, we’re alive.” And then I didn’t get back to her til about 2:00 AM and was a little more positive about where we’re at. And I think we’d sat down. I sat down at one point and I said, “Guys, I want, I want you to all, all to go and get some sleep stuff is on fire. But I think I’m confident that we are now safe. We’ve made it out the other side.” We’ll discover in the morning what that meant. But the house is intact windows haven’t broken. So the house hadn’t been engulfed, we’re alive, we’re exhausted.

Nick Turner:
“I want you to go to bed.” And I looked at my watch and it was quarter to four in the morning. And I know the next morning we had a conversation when we were sitting around in a complete daze and not far off going into our adrenaline crash, which is a whole other story and experience, but we all reckon that we’re going for two hours. And we’d been in fact, going from 7:30 in the evening fire time to quarter to four in the morning. I was going back to that concept of what adrenaline does for you in a survival mode. I mentioned the high wind gusts, and that was the context for measuring mentioning that I was worried about these two and a half by two and a half meter pieces of glass that were 12 mil-fixed at 12 mil-toughened glass.

Nick Turner:
I was worried about them either blowing in or getting sucked out with the winds outside. And I put my tip 10 fingertips on the glass, on the South side of the house. And this is glass has got a precast wall containing a courtyard, eight meters away. So effectively a heat shield to the glass, albeit eight meters away. And there’s no roof, but still some radiant heat shielding would have benefited that glass. So I put my 10 fingertips on the and you could feel the glass flexing. And that was probably the one moment where I thought we’re at real risk of the glass breaking and there being a back draft effect being created, which would have meant we would have been incinerated instantly. And that was a real fear.

Anthony Denman:
Genuine, Can I just, just, I just want to just put that in context, if you don’t mind, because I’ve done some research on building a fire bunker at our house and just to give people an idea of what a fire bunker looks like, they utilize reinforced concrete and with a stainless steel door and a chimney stack, there are about 10 square meters cube, like a concrete box, a tiny prefabricated concrete box that then is built into the ground. Yeah. So, I mean, I just to give people some context that you have, firstly, being able to design a house with glass that can survive a fire storm of what? 1500 degrees Celsius, thereabouts?

Nick Turner:
Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
And then had the balls to fucking hell, man, you’re a fuckin lunatic. Had the balls to go down there and defend it. To me, I just it’s beyond my level of comprehension.

Nick Turner:
Well, look, I think it was beyond my level of comprehension too, because I’d become so… I was so doggedly determined to be there during the event. It was an event, even eventuated, and I’d put so much preparation into this. I wanted to be there to ensure that we had the best possible chance of saving the property and ourselves at the same time. So my primary, obviously primary focus on the night was firstly, the lives of those that were assisting me, the lives of those that were taking refuge, and then the house, and then the property we thought we’d studied and understood very well how bad the fire was going to be. But I have to say all that, all those months of studying the fires that had been around new South Wales, this fire wasn’t a patch on that. We thought the worst was coming.

Nick Turner:
We had no idea what was coming, but coming back to the glass thing for a minute and adrenaline, it was probably three days later, three or four days later, all my fingertips peeled. So when I put my fingertips on the glass to see how much it was flexing, I couldn’t feel a thing, but they were badly burnt. And then about a week and a half later, again, they peeled again yet you just… And I think on reflection at the time, I wasn’t cognizant of the temperature inside the house after a few weeks of reflecting. And one other thing, well, I didn’t think of at the time. And perhaps it was a good thing I didn’t think about this was the impact or the potential mental impact issues that one could experience or come out the other side with, after going into an event like this, it just didn’t dawn on me.

Nick Turner:
But I have to say that when a few days later we’re able to get our senses back to some sense of normality. And we were sitting around talking about it and there was a lot of talking about in our night that night. And it went on for weeks and weeks just regurgitating things because we all realized our memories were completely stuffed. And we had a problem with sequencing of things. We couldn’t recall the correct sequences of things, but we were sitting around talking and then someone said, “Fuck, it was hot in the house.” And I thought about, and I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” It was like, when you’ve got an oven, that’s at 180 degrees fan forced oven and you opened door and you’re stupidly, keep your head too close to it. When you go to check the roast potatoes and you get blasted with this hot air, I said, “It was just like that.” But we were in it for ages and then outside was even worse. They hold these kind of recollections.

Anthony Denman:
So, how hot do you think it would have been inside that house?

Nick Turner:
I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I know what the temperature of the fire front was. It actually got up to 1700 degrees because we found sand that had melted. So we found silicate in some areas of the garden. So it got that high. I don’t think it was that high for very long. I’d say it was just when the fire front came through, but the smoke-

Anthony Denman:
Best guess?

Nick Turner:
… Best guess, in the house. I don’t know, Anthony. I just don’t know. I’m sure it varied during the course of the evening, but I know outside, it was actually too hot to physically breathe through a full face mask for the first hour. And that’s when we were able to get out and really deal with it. The fires immediately around the perimeter of the house, which we successfully did, but realized that everything else had gone except my solar panels and my shipping container with the batteries and the diesel generator.

Nick Turner:
One thing I was conscious of was that outside there’s an LED strip light under an outdoor kitchenette. I turned that light on intentionally early in the evening. I just wanted to see when it was going to go off. Because first thing that happens is when a fire front comes through, the power lines are on the road, all the power’s off. And you then on to backup systems of some sort, whatever you happened to have? But I noticed the light just kept going and going and going.

Nick Turner:
And we had power all through the event. And that was a product of protecting the shipping container that had all the solar batteries and the inverters and so on. But we were able to use what had been stored in the batteries all day. And then the generator like clockwork kicked in and started charging the batteries. And it actually did that for a few days because the power lines were on the road for two weeks. But the smoke didn’t lift for over a week. So we weren’t generating that much solar. And I think there were 12 panels out of 84 that were slightly damaged, but remarkably they were producing power for us for the entire period that the grid was off.

Anthony Denman:
So essentially that’s what saved your lives was having the… I mean apart from the incredibly-

Nick Turner:
It really helped. On God, yes.

Anthony Denman:
… Yeah, because just having the solar panels being separate, located separately to the house on a concrete pad if you like with a steel joinery, which then connected to the batteries, which inside a shipping container. Okay. And so, the shipping container didn’t catch fire

Nick Turner:
The shipping container was protected cables in and out of the shipping container where we’re insulated and protected from heat. And there was the sprinkling of the ground to the West of the container and the generator really assessed to them that there was nothing to burn because the ground was so wet. And that was just a thing that we had a going for eight hours.

Anthony Denman:
And that, so that power kept the sprinklers going both there and on the roof of the house, right?

Nick Turner:
On the roof of the house that was powered by a diesel generator, that’s our diesel pump, diesel-

Anthony Denman:
And where was the diesel generator kit?

Nick Turner:
… diesel pump set. So the diesel pump set ran all the fire sprinklers. So it wasn’t relied on mains’ power or electricity.

Anthony Denman:
Right, okay. Where were the generator located?

Nick Turner:
So, the diesel generator was next to the shipping container with solar gear in it. And the diesel pump was near a tank farm in a protected enclosure and with no organic material or foliage or anywhere near it. And that worked, I think we dumped about 100,000 liters of water in about an hour and a half, two hours from tanks. And we got through about 50%. So we were well armed with water. The diesel pump performed perfectly and mind you, we had done some dry runs with a diesel pump in the days leading up to the fire, just to make sure that it was going to do what it was supposed to do.

Nick Turner:
It would have been probably 7:00 PM was my last message from the RFS who were one kilometer away from the house. And that was the latest image and update to standing up the road short, just a small way up the road from us at an intersection. And that was my last contact with them. And they had, I subsequently learned that they disappeared and retreated to the township of Kangaroo Valley because there was nothing they could do. And in fact, all we had was a water tanker and two fire trucks. There were no external resources in Kangaroo Valley that night. They were all over the hill to the East or South, South and East down in Nowra. And apparently there were more resources there and they could poke a stick at no one knew what to do. There was nothing for them to do. And yet Kangaroo Valley was so under resourced.

Nick Turner:
But as I said, I didn’t expect the guys to be around. They’re great guys, but I understand why they retreated. So we had no RFS support. And in fact, the first fire truck I saw was at nine o’clock the next morning when they came out, expecting the guys got out of the truck and fire captain and deputy teared up. I think I was standing there in a pair of thongs and underpants and a decanter full of red wine. And I was drinking straight from the decanter and-

Anthony Denman:
And knowing you it would be a Bordeaux?

Nick Turner:
… it was a random grab out of the cellar, yes it was. And I just stood there and stared at them and scream at them and said, “Where the fuck were you?” And I knew exactly where they were, they’d gone, but I think I was in a state of shock, absolute shock. Anyway, the boys teared up a bit and they said, “Shit, we can’t believe you’re alive. We were coming out here expecting to find nine dead bodies. And it’s just so good to see you.” But it was a bizarre image-

Anthony Denman:
It’s amazing my friend.

Nick Turner:
… It was this ashen, yellowy, gray, smoky landscape, nothing green left, and this Vermilion colored fire truck with red and blue flashing lights. And these guys wearing bright yellow fire suits. And it was the only color I could see in a totally monochromatic landscape. It was such a memorable image.

Anthony Denman:
Yeah. I can only even begin to imagine. Can I just ask a couple of questions?

Nick Turner:
Yeah.

Anthony Denman:
Would you do it again?

Nick Turner:
Yeah. We all spoke about this. We spoke about it twice. We spoke about it about a week after the fire, and then we spoke about it again, about three months after the fire and on both accounts, we said, “Yes, we’d do it again.”

Anthony Denman:
Can I ask? And this is really a tough question and it’s hypothetical anyway, but if you had a choice, would you have saved the house or the landscape?

Nick Turner:
I think it’s really clear. What was critical to save was the house. The fact that the garden went represented loss, but I needed to be able to then return once I got my head around the fact that it was a start all over again, scenario I needed in my mind, I guess I anticipated that I would need to want to have a purpose for going to the property and a draw to the property. I would have hated to come out the other end of it and felt that I was so messed up by what had happened, that I didn’t want to see the site anymore. So the house was the anchor. It was the safe haven.

Nick Turner:
It was relatively unchanged. It was unscathed. It was almost business as usual, as far as the house was concerned. So, it meant it was easy to go back. And I started going back quite a bit for the first month and within three days of the fire, I was back and were into cleaning up. Because I just couldn’t bear to see it in a state that was in, it was time to get on with things and move forward, not sit there and dwell on the disastrous state of the environment.

Anthony Denman:
Okay. I say, because you mentioned to me off air is that nothing, I mean of the 30,000 plants, trees, shrubs, grasses. only a few survived?

Nick Turner:
Yeah. Some came back some bounced, but they wouldn’t amount to any more than about 200 everything else was… You can actually see the holes in the ground where the tree or plant and shrubs stems where the fire burnt down the stems into the ground. And in fact, I remember at one point when I was able to see outside, down to the East, I’d spent a lot of time soil conditioning because the soil is fairly poor there and everything was mulched to retain moisture and give the plants the best possible chance they could. I remember seeing the ground, the soil on fire. So all the organics in the soil were burning.

Anthony Denman:
I read a book called the Overstory by Richard Powers. Who’s the winner won the Pulitzer Prize for best Fiction in 2019, but it had some facts sprinkled throughout it. And one of those facts was that there’s only this particular type of seed that will only open and germinate in the extreme fire or the extreme heat of a fire, like the when you accounted, creates. Have you seen any evidence of that happening?

Nick Turner:
Yeah. And in fact, we’ve had exactly that talking to national parks and some of the new South Wales Conservation and Land Management guys, we’re finding that there are species of native species of plants and trees that hadn’t been seen for 50 to 100 years popping up in some locations. We’re also getting populations of native plants emerging now that I’ve not seen on the property before, but they are endemic to the area.

Anthony Denman:
Crazy, that’s so good.

Nick Turner:
But it’s funny thing trees like, and I now appreciate why, but the trees like the Banksias’ the old man Banksia Serrata that look, gnarly and tough as nails. And in fact, in a fire there or a hot fire, they’re very, very vulnerable. And we lost a big, almost a forest of these old man Banksias or they just disappeared. And those that remain standing didn’t re-shoot, but what we are seeing or lots and lots of seedlings that are coming through that will in time, we’ll need to fin out a bit, but allow those strongest seedlings to really, really power on because they’re in an area that they’ve previously grown in, the soil conditions must be perfect for them.

Nick Turner:
A lot of the bush, a lot of the forest is not going to come back. It was so hot and you see trees, river gums along the creek edges were… They must’ve been 30, 40 meters high there’s, one corpse maybe of about 60 or 80 of them upper creek line. And they’re all dead. And they had diameters that were up to, from probably 600 to 1.5 meters. There’s a whole re-establishment, regeneration re-establishment process that that needs to go on naturally of course, in burnt parts of the spine, not everywhere, but certainly in a really, really hot burn areas where the fuel load was really high or in fact, where, for example, our ground fire turned into a crowning fire as it went over the cliff, but getting some analysis done off the fire, from some bushfire experts, the subtly over the top of the cliff created a suction of fire back up the mountain, on the ground, back up against the cliff and back towards us.

Nick Turner:
And we weren’t aware of that on the night because our peripheral vision, psychologically, our peripheral vision was really narrowed when you’re in that stressed survival mode. So, we didn’t see that, but there’s burn evidence of that. Part of the landscape has this sort of double burn. It really just is the last nail in the coffin. So it’s regenerating now in a very, very different way.

Anthony Denman:
And you’re a big part of that. You’re back on the bike so to speaking-

Nick Turner:
Absolutely.

Anthony Denman:
… and re-plant. So how you going with that regeneration process?

Nick Turner:
We plan to try and get it back. The idea wasn’t that would be like for like that there was actually opportunity to refine areas, make some changes introduce in a broader range of native species and cultivars, but something happened. Well, I knew the weather systems were changing. We were going into a totally different environment this year. And you know how wet… Or sorry, in 2020 you know how wet 2020 has been and the first part of ’21. Yeah, we have probably got as far as I think I’m going to get in a 12-month period with basically back to a point where I can say that we have now gone through a full recovery process and a re-establishment of the structure and planted gardens wave with those dividing plants. I think we counted up on a schedule we’re up to about 15,500 plants.

Nick Turner:
We counted up on a schedule. We’re up to about 15 and a half 1,000 plants and trees in the 12 months after the fire. And that’s probably okay. It’s not about numbers-

Anthony Denman:
That’s great Nick. No, that’s-

Nick Turner:
… but it’s really satisfying to see things that we put in March of 2020, now two or three times the size. And I think it will be better than it was before. It’s certainly more mature now. And it’s informed by different forces, and events, and experiences, and knowledge. And it’s now curated in a slightly different way than it was before. But I think it’s definitely going to be better.

Anthony Denman:
You get to watch it grow all over again

Nick Turner:
Absolutely!

Anthony Denman:
Good on you. I love your character, I love your strength, love your attitude. Love what you do for the environment. This is a property marketing podcast. But I just think that story just really resonated with me, and goes to your character. And really does give people an idea of what it takes.

About Us

The Property Marketing Podcast is an original podcast hosted by Anthony Denman, co-founder of Our Agency. In each episode Anthony talks to Australia’s most experienced property professionals, unearthing their tips and providing insights on how to create the most successful place, property, corporate & personal brands possible.

If you would like to get in touch with us please fill out the form below.