By James Gratton
Published: Friday, August 28, 2020
Having spent more than 3 decades as a volunteer firefighter, Robert Knobben has witnessed first-hand the devastating effects bushfires can have on regional communities.
But none have hit home harder than the recent Cudlee Creek fires which ravaged the Adelaide Hills in November last year – exactly 30 years after he joined the Gumeracha Brigade CFS.
On that day, high temperatures and strong winds were forecast. Robert was on standby at his Cudlee Creek home when his team were suddenly called out to a nearby fire.
Fortunately, after battling blazes for more than 4 hours, they were able to save a property from approaching flames. But the fire was still burning.
“I didn’t have any phone coverage whatsoever…. I didn’t actually quite know how far it [the fire] was getting,” he said.
It wasn’t until returning from another emergency call-out that Robert realised the extent of the bushfires.
“Everything was just burning everywhere, and I just couldn’t believe what was going on,” he said.
“I said to the guys ‘I need to get back to my place. I need to go and have a look and see what’s going on’.”
Racing towards his property, Robert had to contend with a thick blanket of smoke, which made it almost impossible to spot the giant fallen eucalypts littering the road.
Passing his neighbour’s home, which had already been lost to the blaze, Robert was confronted with his worst nightmare when he reached his house.
“I came in here and the actual house was alight. I didn’t have enough water to do anything,” he said.
“I went to the back door thinking I could go in there and get some stuff out. I sort of thought to myself ‘Nah I can’t do that [as] the ceiling could just collapse on me’.
“I had to think about myself and all the other volunteers as well,” he added.
After watching the fire tear through his family home of 14 years, taking priceless memories and possessions with it, Robert made the selfless decision to keep battling fires in surrounding areas.
“I just didn’t think about it. It [was] just one of those things that I [had] to do. I don’t look at it as being a hero – I’m not a hero by any means,” he said.
Clocking off from his brutal shift, Robert was faced with the grim reality of returning to his scorched home and picking up the pieces of his life.
“It was devastating, it really was devastating,” he said.
“You don’t really think about it at the time. Yes, you know that it is gone… [but] it’s more the aftermath.
“It’s the memories of what was in there; what we collected over our married life… pieces that had been handed down, especially from my wife’s parents who have [now] passed away.”
But it didn’t take long for the Hills community to rally around Robert and his family, with offers flooding in once it was safe to return to his property.
Donations also came from the CFS Foundation, Red Cross and Vinnies, which Robert has used to buy new rainwater tanks.
“Every time people offered help, I was in tears,” he said.
“We had the armed forces gives us a call, and they said they wanted to help. The next day there [were] 30 of them here rolling up old fencing and chopping down trees that looked unsafe.
“The day after that, there were probably double the amount [of people]. The CFS themselves and my brigade… just the amount of help they offered was indescribable.”
Thankfully, Robert was insured and plans to rebuild an eco-friendly house on the same block.
As he wandered across his vacant block of land, Robert’s stoic nature was evident.
“There are quite a few moments [where] you sort of sit back and have a bit of think about it.
“You sort of almost get a bit down from it, but you just get up and you’ve got to keep going,” he said.