Cobargo Co-op survives catastrophic fires on NYE

New Year’s Day 2020 saw many Australians wake up to images of towns blackened by one of the most ferocious bush fires to ever take place in Australian history. The fires were particularly catastrophic around the NSW south-coast, Victoria’s south-east and South Australia. 

Business: Cobargo Co-op Society Ltd (Thrifty-Link)
Manager: Dan Williamson
Location: Cobargo, NSW
Buying Group: IHG (Independent Hardware Group)

By the end of January, the BBC reported that 33 people had been killed by the fires – including four firefighters – with more than 11 million hectares of bush, forest and parks wiped out.

The rural town of Cobargo, located in south-east NSW, half an hour’s drive north of Bega, took one of the biggest hits, with three locals killed and most of the town’s farms, houses and main street destroyed.

One of the Independent Hardware Group’s (IHG) rural stores, the Cobargo Co-op is located in the main street of town and was miraculously spared during the fires thanks to the brave efforts of the local fire brigade. Incredibly, the flames came within five metres of its feed shed and within two metres of its storage of LPG gas bottles. 

Owned and run by the local community since 1900, the Cobargo Co-op is an all-in-one hardware store, garden centre, petrol station and farm supplies business, as well as being a crucial resource and connection point for the small town. In the immediate aftermath of the fires, the Co-op became a central point for the townspeople to work together and rebuild a community that was physically and mentally broken. 

Inferno decimates Cobargo

Store Manager, Dan Williamson said the fireys put in an incredible effort to save essential buildings in the town, such as the Cobargo Co-op that held crucial supplies including fuel, feed and fencing that the town desperately needed after the fire had passed.

“The day before New Year’s Eve we had a full semi-load of hay delivered into the big shed out the back. Thankfully the fireys pushed the fire back from there and we did not lose anything at the Co-op. The fire came within metres of the shop and everything was lost just a few shops away.”

“I believe the fire started in the Wadbilliga National Park, west of Cobargo. By the time it reached the town of Cobargo itself, it had turned into a huge monster, taking out nearly all of our farms and most of the town,” Dan said.

The Cobargo Co-op was miraculously spared from ferocious bushfires that destroyed the small town and its surrounds on New Year’s Eve.
“The fire sounded like five 747s roaring through the town.”

Luckily Dan and his partner were able to save their house located in bushland about 20 kilometres out of town, but many were not so lucky.

“My partner and I were always going to stay and fight and we did. The fire front hit us at about 4am New Year’s Day and it sounded like five 747s roaring over us. We sheltered in the house which was built to withstand fire as it has sprinklers and fire hoses installed. But everything else is gone. It now looks like a bomb has gone off out there,” he said.

Dan was desperate to get to town and open the store as soon as he could but it took him two days to cut his way through all of the burnt, fallen trees on the road to get to work. 

“My trip to work is about 20 kilometres through rural area and there are now about 38 houses burnt on that 20-kilometre trip that I drive past every day,” he said.

Serving a desperate community

When Dan first arrived at the store, he had major doubts he could run the store, particularly without power, but so many local people were desperate for help.

“By day three we were up and trading and I pulled in as many staff as I could. Our boss was trapped in Narooma. There was also no power in town so we could not run anything. We managed to find a generator on the first day so we could run the fuel pumps, which was our first priority. There was no fuel anywhere. Even the local service station could not run their pumps due to no power,” Dan said.

“There was still fire all around us and a lot of locals needed to evacuate but it was impossible because they did not have any fuel to get out. Once we had the fuel running, we manually wrote down huge lists of names and numbers of how much fuel people bought because we had no computer systems to run payments. Mains power was not re-stored to the store for over a month,” he said.

Initially the Co-op was forced to ration fuel to only 20 litres per customer per day. Fuel was not only limited but it was also impossible to source more supplies for the store because all highways into town were closed.

“Locals were desperate to source feed straight away because whatever animals had survived in the fires needed to be fed immediately and all of the grass was burnt for miles. Running the store during this time was totally based around supporting the local community as much as we possibly could. I had no idea how we were going to run the shop but I knew we just had to. We just had to open the doors, bring all the staff in and just go for it,” he said.

“We pretty much sold fuel and feed for the first few days before we got hold of a much bigger generator that could power the entire store. We then restored the computer systems, point of sale, and opened up the rest of the store, including tools and plumbing supplies, so locals could get their water up and running as soon as possible.”

“We already had pages and pages of transactions we needed to enter into the system from when the power was down, which was a huge headache. We also told customers to pay us when they could because people had lost everything. They did not have any money or credit cards so we just had to let people rack up a bill until they could pay for it,” Dan said.

Emotional toll

On the initial days after the fire, the Co-op’s staff and customers ran on adrenaline. As the weeks wore on, many of the locals began to crumble under the emotional toll of the disaster. This is when Cobargo Co-op served as a place not only to source crucial supplies, but also a place where locals could come and talk to staff about their experiences and current struggles.

“We provided a lot of emotional support to customers in the early days because we were the only point of call for anyone to come and talk to. It was incredible what our staff did for the town. They left their own stuff at home, with the bush burning all around them, and continually came in to keep this place running. It was unbelievable what they did – truly medal worthy,” he said.

All of Cobargo Co-op’s staff were impacted by the fires in one way or another, whether they had their properties burnt or severely damaged, everyone was dealing with some sort of mess at home. One long standing staff member, Barry, lost everything in the fires and never returned to work, choosing to retire straight away.

“I am so grateful and proud of my staff at how much time and effort they put in to be at the store and to be of service to the community. Thank God for them and everyone here.”

“My partner even volunteered at the store because locals really needed us and we were just flooded with calls for help. We did not stop for weeks and spent most of our time trouble shooting because we could not get any new stock in,” Dan said.

In saying this, Dan also worked at the store with one arm completely immobilised after he fell through a window and cut his wrist, severing seven tendons, an artery and a nerve in November. Dan remained in the splint until the end of February.

Tool library

IHG organised a container of tools to be sent down from Sydney so a tool library could be set up for locals who had lost everything.

Support from IHG was immediate and on-going, according to Dan, who said as soon as the highway opened, Cobargo Co-op was given priority to bring in as much stock as possible, while payment terms were also extended immediately.

“IHG also came up with the idea of starting a tool library, so locals could have access to any tools they needed to get their farms running again. The day IHG came up with the idea to run the tool library, a local had come up to me and said one of the major problems for the locals was that they did not have any tools to get their farms running again.”

“The next day I received a call from IHG’s Andrew Hollywood, who organised a container of tools to be sent down from Sydney. Andrew worked with many suppliers to have trade-quality tools and equipment donated to support the needs of locals. The library has been a huge help to locals and is now manned by volunteers on a membership system,” he said.

Critical supplies

While the Cobargo Co-op did provide crucial fuel and farm feed the days following the fire, it also provided locals with hardware supplies, as well as rural supplies such as drenches, chemicals, fertilizer and irrigation.

“Since the fire, the store’s dynamics have changed massively, with the crucial departments now including fencing, feed, plumbing, as well as tools. One thing I love about the Co-op is that all the money that is spent in the store, money that customers have sourced from their insurance is coming back into the store, which is owned by community.”

“This money has already helped us expand our supply yard at the back of the store where we keep all of our fencing gear,” Dan said.

Due to the huge amount of construction that will be required to rebuild the town and surrounding farms, Dan said access to volume trade materials came via the ‘hub and spoke’ model that operates successfully within the IHG network.

“We have not traditionally stocked a wide range of timber or building materials due to our size, but we have been fortunate to have our IHG Business Development Manager, Shawn Benson, assist in facilitating a relationship with Pambula Mitre 10, about an hour south from us. By tapping into their trade volume and distribution channels, we are able to be price competitive and offer good value to builders and home owners.”

“Most customers want to get all of their materials from one spot but we have not been the obvious choice for construction in the past, let alone when an entire town needs to be rebuilt. Everyone in the Co-op is really proud to be able to work together with Pambula to source materials and become the primary channel for building in the area,” he said.

The physical re-build of the lost buildings however, remains a slow process, according to Dan.

“Only a few locals have started to rebuild but the majority of the town has not. The recovery will take a long time because we are still going through the clean-up.” he said.

“There are still trucks rolling all over the country side cleaning up all the burnt houses and properties. The grass is green again but we are mopping up a huge, natural disaster. I live out in the bush and I love it but it is totally destroyed,” Dan said.

Despite the devastation Dan said any assistance the store and the town received in the early days after the fire came from ordinary Australians who drove to Cobargo and volunteered to help.

“One group was established after the fires by a bunch of random volunteers from Sydney. A lot of them are in a Porsche club. After the fires about 20 volunteers in Porsches turned up and put on a massive dinner at the pub. They are self-funded and they are still here to this day helping us out. Another group that was amazing was ‘The City Slickers Appeal’. They would jump on their Facebook page every couple of weeks and ask people to donate machinery and their time. They would come with their bob cats and excavators, dozers, trucks and just help farmers on their properties. These are the people that got help to us really quickly – when we needed it the most,” Dan said.

“We had a few big donors come through including ‘The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity,’ which is the biggest, non-governmental, non-profit, charity organisation in Poland. They have a big concert every year and this year they rolled out a huge Australian flag on top of the crowd and raised $10,000 for us to help re-build the community.”

“We also organised some of our own fundraising here through our GoFundMe page and we were able to support all of our members and any locals effected by fire with a grant of $200,” he said.

COVID-19

Just a few months after the fires, the COVID-19 outbreak proved to be another challenge for the Co-op, particularly when locals ‘panic bought’ just after the State Government announced the initial lock down.

“We experienced our biggest day of trading ever the day after the State Government announced the lockdown and implementation of Stage 3 restrictions. Everyone freaked out and were buying feed and fuel, plants and tools and the demand just has not stopped. We are still trading well beyond anywhere that we were this time last year,” he said.

“COVID-19 also changed a few things around town, particularly in our relief centres which supplied things such as food, clothing and furniture for people. These had to shut down but they managed to re-open with a different schedule.”

“Once this COVID business is over we need people to come and visit us back in the town. So many people did come and visit pre-COVID from all over to support us and it was busy which was great to see. We just need people to spend money here when they can,” Dan said.

What next?

The Co-op team with some helpful assistants from St George Illawarra Dragons who pitched in to help soon after the fire devastated the town. Dan Williamson pictured front row second from right.

The next obstacle for Dan and his team be to overcome the economic fallout of COVID-19, as well as finding government financial support to assist with the clean-up, which will go on for quite some time, according to Dan. 

“For the people who are living in this disaster zone we know you just have to do what you can sometimes. This is what 2020 is all about. The fires happened, then COVID happened, so you just have to say ‘Righto’, let’s just get on with it.”