A year on, while memories of the catastrophic fires that tore across parts of Australia during the Black Summer will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of those who experienced their destruction first-hand, the journey that these horses – now collectively known as the Orphan Horses of Paynes Crossing – have undertaken, is a story of hope, recovery and new beginnings in the wake of devastation.
In December 2019, the secluded, tourist-friendly historic village of Wollombi, NSW, was surrounded by out-of-control fires. With the vast Gosper’s Mountain fire raging to the south, the Little L fire to the west, the Crumps Complex fire to the east, and Owendale blaze to the north, there was doubt whether the village could be saved. The community rallied, and help arrived – at one stage there were more than 20 tankers and 37 crews in the village – with locals fighting fires alongside firefighters from interstate, New Zealand, and from as far away as America.
Yet there were areas that the NSW Rural Fire Service could not protect due to issues such as access and lack of radio service, and these were left entirely to the locals to defend. One such area was Paynes Crossing, part of the Wollombi Valley. As residents including Fiona Migan battled from sunrise to sunset for weeks on end, their focus on saving lives and property was as relentless as the scorching conditions they faced. There was little room in their minds to think about anything else.
For Fiona, a surprise encounter with a band of horses in the midst of a torrid Black Summer week, would set in motion a courageous effort to provide critical care for animals in need at a time when help and resources were scarce, emotions were high, and people’s capacity to give support – financially, practically and emotionally – was drained.
“We were in an area called Stockyard Creek, helping to defend the valley. It’s at least 15km long, and it was hit pretty hard by the fires. At the end of one long day I was sitting out in the paddock of a property we were defending lower down the valley, totally exhausted from fighting fires for about a week, when suddenly the horses appeared. They came down the valley so calmly; the sun was setting as they appeared through the smoke haze. The way they moved together as a herd, and the way they looked with their dreadlocked manes, it was almost surreal – like an ancient scene from another time and place.
“It totally caught my heart. I was obviously exhausted and quite emotional, and there I was completely captured by the sight of them. I went and stood near them; they weren’t really interested in me or having anything to do with me, but I just watched them interact as a herd. It was a really, really beautiful moment,” Fiona recalls.
While Fiona had previously heard stories about some old Standardbred horses who roamed the hills above Wollombi, this was the first time she had seen them in the flesh. “I knew they existed, but there was never much information about them. There are a few different versions of their past; I’d heard they belonged to a man and his girlfriend, and he was a criminal. When he went to jail, they were left to fend for themselves, and lived in this huge area of bushland without any human help or interaction for about 15 years.”