As bushfires ravaged Tasmania, the battle to save one local watering hole unfolded on Facebook
The Great Lake Hotel’s Facebook page has more than 43,000 followers. (Facebook: Claude Road Fire Brigade)
With the collective memory of Tasmanians deeply seared by bushfire tragedies of the past, news the small town of Miena and its local pub were in the path of a large, uncontrolled blaze had many fearing the worst.
The bushfire crisis that has slowly unfolded across Tasmania since December season has been fought on several fronts — on the west coast, in the south-west wilderness, in the south-east, and in the Central Highlands.
It was the Central Highlands blaze — dubbed the Great Pine Tier fire by authorities — that was threatening Kaylee Hattinger’s pub: the Great Lake Hotel.
The blaze was first reported on January 15 after a lightning storm ignited dozens of fires across the state.
Four days later, the fire rapidly spread and was advancing towards the Great Lake Hotel.
Ms Hattinger documented the experience on Facebook, unfiltered and raw for her more than 43,000 followers.
The pub was feeding the fire crews working to save Miena, and they were piling up at Ms Hattinger’s front door.
“Forty-one trucks and lots of firefighters, never felt safer,” she wrote on Facebook on January 19, sharing a video of the scene.
The supportive comments flowed thick and fast.
“What wonderful people. Keep safe everyone and good luck,” wrote one follower.
“Wishing you all the best, from someone who knows what it’s like,” posted another.
‘It could still happen’
Kaylee Hattinger (right) with Miena resident and volunteer Bronwyn Turner preparing lunches for fire crews. (ABC News: Annah Fromberg)
As conditions and forecasts worsened, Ms Hattinger’s tone on Facebook remained stoic and, at times, buoyant.
Sharing photos of scones and butter on January 20, she thanked a bakery for providing “some very happy firies” with treats for their lunches.
But the January 22 loss of the nearby Skittle Ball Plains Homestead changed the game.
The property was in a clearing and away from vegetation, considered “defendable” by authorities.
Despite that, the homestead was overwhelmed by showering embers and the popular destination was left in ruins.
The lodge’s destruction devastated its owners and others worried for their properties. (Supplied: TFS)
“So, so sorry for your loss,” Ms Hattinger posted, sharing a photo of the aftermath.
She would later say the loss of the property left her rattled.
“With all the best intentions in the world, it could still happen,” she said.
‘Will you stay?’
Conditions at Miena hit their peak on Friday, January 25, which authorities had tipped to be the “worst” day of the fire season.
The combination of hot weather, low humidity, wind and fire already in the landscape led to firefighters setting out a stark choice for Tasmanians thinking of staying to fight the flames.
“It’s going to go black,” TFS chief officer Chris Arnol said.
“[Anyone who stays is] going to have embers dropping all around them. It will be hot, windy, and dark, and there will be fire all around you.
“Will you stay, or will you choose to leave tonight?”
At the Great Lake Hotel, Ms Hattinger decided to stay.
On Friday morning, she posted a photo of the grounds of the hotel, smoke wafting through the strategically burned out landscape.
“The view from my back door,” she wrote. “D-Day.”
“Fingers and toes crossed for you guys,” came the response.
Kaylee Hattinger’s photo of the morning of January 25, at the Great Lake Hotel. (Facebook: Great Lake Hotel)
In the early afternoon, Ms Hattinger posted an update.
“Conditions still horrendous — wind is swirling, dust, smoke, dirt, debris,” she wrote.
“We have bunkered down and are waiting it out.”
Ms Hattinger wasn’t the only one providing information from the ground.
In the days leading up to “D-Day”, the Claude Road Fire Brigade had been sharing its own updates on Facebook, documenting the work of fire crews at the Great Lake Hotel.
The firefighter in charge at Miena, Philip ‘Boma’ de Bomford told the ABC it was realised “very early in the piece” the Great Pine Tier blaze was going to run through the township.
Boma (in the red helmet) with members of the Claude Road Fire Brigade in the field. (Supplied: Tara Felts)
“There was nothing really resource-wise we had on the ground, or in the state, that was going to stop it,” he said.
So firefighters had been putting their defensive plan in place: spraying retardant on buildings nearest the tree line, cutting wider firebreaks, and removing dangerous trees ahead of a planned back-burn to starve any advancing fire of fuel well before it hit the pub.
And it worked.
On the evening of January 26, Boma posted his own Facebook update, in the form of a selfie with flames from the back burn operation behind him.
Claude Road Fire Brigade 2nd Officer Philip de Bomford’s takes a selfie during a backburn operation. (Facebook: Claude Road Fire Brigade)
“Hey, we saved the pub!” he wrote.
“It is usually a sad outcome with these types of fires, but we did get to save a town on this particular day,” he told the ABC, adding he was firm in his belief had the fire been left to take its own course, the town and its pub would be gone.
“I have absolutely no doubt that Miena would have been taken out by that fire,” he said.
He told the ABC he was proud of his team and the chance to “do something good”, extending his thanks to the staff at the hotel, who he said “bent over backwards” to accommodate them.
If Boma or any of his crew ever swing by the Great Lake Hotel again, they are unlikely to go thirsty.
“Those firies never have to buy another beer ever again,” Ms Hattinger said.
While Miena is still under a community alert, it is no longer under immediate threat from fire, with Ms Hattinger posting it is “not so frantic here”.
The Great Pine Tier Fire has moved on, and other communities are now watching its progress closely — no doubt hoping for outcome similar to Miena’s.
“I know, you know, our beautiful highlands have been devastated by these vicious fires,” Ms Hattinger wrote in an update this week.
“But it could have been so much worse.
“Thank you is not a big enough word, but it is all I have.”