Australia — Christmas in the Blue Mountains will be especially poignant and painful for residents who lost their homes in October’s devastating bushfires, and local support services have swung into gear to help.
More than 200 homes were lost in the region, west of Sydney, and many residents have had to move outside the area because of a lack of rental accommodation as they decide whether to rebuild their homes and where.
The Blue Mountains City Council estimates that between 50 and 60 per cent of those affected will rebuild.
More than 370 jobs have been lost since the fires and tourism seriously affected as visitors cancel holidays.
President of the Lions Club in Winmalee, John Donohue, says his home burnt to the ground and he intends to rebuild.
He says some people are coping better than others, as some find it hard to ask for help.
But he believes the efforts of local council, the Rural Fire Service (RFS), churches and the recovery team are really important in what will be a long-term effort, and especially at this time of year.
“You can’t stand around grieving for too long. You’ve got to get on and do things,” he said.
“We’re going through that process of suffering a loss. The number of times we have a laugh about it, someone says, ‘I’ve got such and such’ and you say, ‘I’ve got – no, I had such and such’ and those kind of comparisons.
“We have those memories because we’re alive and we share those memories because we share the joy of having them at the time, with our friends and family and partners, so we’re extremely blessed in this recent incident by not losing any lives at all, people are just shaking their head with wonder at that.”
Community events bringing people together
Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill says Christmas is a particularly hard time for people who lost their homes, especially when many know that any rebuilding is still a long way off.
“We’re very conscious, both the council and the recovery committee of the time of year,” he said.
“Christmas is a time when normally you’re at home reflecting on what it means to be a family and those four walls that encase your family for some are gone, and also for other people they’ve had to be relocated outside the community.”
He says local meetings are being held on a regular basis and a concert was also organised, all with the aim of bringing people together.
The Lions and Rotary Clubs have been holding street BBQs, with mobile BBQ trucks for anyone who requests one.
RFS volunteers dressed as Santa have been out and about in Winmalee, delivering parcels to children and adults.
Councillor Greenhill, alongside bushfire recovery coordinator Phil Koperburg, has delivered Christmas packages to residents who lost their homes.
“The kids worry me a lot,” Councillor Greenhill said.
“I worry about children in particular at this time of year and with Phil Koperburg – not just for the kids but the adults too – we’re doing some work with Beyond Blue to deal with how this is impacting people.
“The reconstruction effort is one thing but the reconstructing of lives and the support for people is another and you can’t ignore it.”
Margaret and Richard Bell lost their home in Singles Ridge Road in Springwood, staying on their property to protect it right up until they were ordered to leave by the RFS.
The fire got so close they could not get their cars out of the driveway and had to make a run for it.
Amazingly, their restored 1927 “red rattler” railway carriage, which was about 30 metres away from the house, survived the blaze.
The carriage, with a wooden floor and wooden sleepers underneath, was even closer to trees than the house, but was miraculously bypassed by the flames.
Support and recovery is long process
Councillor Greenhill says experience from the Kinglake fires in Victoria and at Coonabarabran in NSW show that the recovery process can take a long time, and there is a need for ongoing support for as long as it takes.
He says people whose homes were destroyed have found that there is a gap between the rebuild costs and insurance cover, and because of new building codes the cost of fire-proofing homes has risen significantly – which may mean some people cannot afford to rebuild in the Blue Mountains at all.
In the meantime he is calling for a more coordinated approach by the federal and New South Wales governments to the tourism problem, saying visitors believe the Blue Mountains is damaged and the area needs help to restore its brand.
“What we need is a more coordinated strategy and I think we need the engagement of tourism authorities in New South Wales and also the national body to overturn what has been a dramatic impact to the tourism economy,” he said.
“Grants in dribs and dribs are fine but where’s the coordination, where’s the strategy around rebuilding our brand.”