Two years on, bushfire victims are still recovering and rebuilding

06 November 2021

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AUSTRALIA – Mother of four Tina Hag remembers the day the sky turned orange and devastating bushfires tore through her small northern New South Wales community.

Her youngest was only two months old when they had to rapidly evacuate their Rappville home.

The family escaped but their house burned to the ground.

That was in October 2019.

“It felt like last month I was here for the first anniversary … it hits you sometimes — it was exactly two years ago,” she said.

They have since been living in a basic shed at Ellengowan, half an hour away from their home, and the rebuilding process has been slow.

“We are really looking forward to getting back here  [the house] and being able to have doors,” she said.

“It’s been hot and it’s been cold and no one has had their own space…we’ve just been living together for two years.

Ms Hag said it had been hard living away from their community.

“It sort of gets sort of forgotten about, especially with COVID.”

Ms Hag said they had their sights set on being home for Christmas.

“The whole thing [getting home] is going to be a big Christmas present really.

Nymboida: No formula for recovery

Nymboida resident Laena Stephenson and her husband lost their home when the fires tore through their town north-west of Coffs Harbour, destroying 85 houses in the area.

The fire hit in November 2019 and they’ve been living in a shed since, and focussing on the Nymboida Camping and Canoeing Centre, with which they are heavily involved.

They are just at the point of submitting their new house plans to council.

“It’s fine, we are comfortable enough,” Ms Stephenson said.

“We’ve been trying to re-establish the business and make it through COVID-19.

“Everybody does it in their own way. There is no formula or set way of recovering.

Ms Stephenson said her garden had proved a source of great healing.

“Watching flowers bloom, watching things come back,” she said.

“One thing the fires taught me more than anything is my connection to this land.”

‘Difficult’ decision to leave

Not everyone, though, has decided to rebuild.

Jennifer Spencer, also lost her home at Nymboida and, after about 40 years in that community, has since made the tough decision to start a new life elsewhere.

“It was the difficulty in getting things moving, getting things cleaned, up and the weather was getting to me.

“Trying to clean up on your own and it’s sort of 35 degrees in summer, and it was just too hot.”

Ms Spencer has moved to Myponga, South Australia, in search of a cooler climate and fresh start.

“The more I thought about it the more sense that made and I originally grew up in Adelaide, so it wasn’t a total new experience for me,” she said.

“It was very difficult to make the decision to leave the community that I had lived in.”

Talarm: Starting from scratch

South of Coffs Harbour at Talarm, west of Macksville, Tonia Welsh and Will Norman have successfully rebuilt after the bushfires wiped out their home.

Their new property has been designed to use the environment to help heat and cool the house, and provide future bushfire protection.

It’s built into the hill and there is sand on the roof balcony

“We collect the water off the roof for a fire-fighting tank and for some use in the house,” Mr Norman added.

The couple moved into their new home earlier this year and said it felt ‘surreal’.

They are also rebuilding their farm, growing stone fruits and a timber plantation on their property sustained heavy damage in the fires.

“To see that destroyed, 10-15 per cent of it is all that will be useable … that’s 15, 20 years worth of work that can’t be replaced,” Ms Welsh said.

“We still have our farm that we are having to start from scratch again.

“You just have to give people time and everyone will recover in their own way.”

Bobin: We look out for each other

Further south, the village of Bobin, north-west of Taree, is also slowly bouncing back, after 18 homes, and the local school, were destroyed in a bushfire in November 2019.

“Everybody was affected in some way,” Bobin Hall president, Peter Schouten, said.

“Some are still coming to terms with it, suffering some form of anxiety as a result of it.

Mr Schouten said some had left the area, while for others, the rebuilding process has been hampered by material and labour shortages.

71-year-old Dianne Moteby said her partner was still rebuilding at Bobin.

“We are living in his old shed … it is full of holes and we can’t really heat it efficiently and we are both finding it really difficult at our age to cope with living in these conditions.”

The community has pulled together and been holding working bees when someone needs a hand.

“We look out for each other.”

Communities ‘fire ready’

A ‘Fire Ready’ project has also been launched at Bobin to ensure residents and emergency service crews would be better equipped to manage future bushfire events.

It will involve signposting properties in an emergency to show if residents are home, or have evacuated, and also include installing a pipe at front gates, containing relevant property information- particularly important in areas with no mobile coverage.

“We talked to the firies to find out what they needed … a lot came in from out of the area,” Mr Schouten said.

“We have 10 communities around Bobin that have all signed up for the project … from a humble idea it seems to have really taken off.”

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