It’s hard to believe it has been 12 months since the Black Summer bushfires ravaged our little community of Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast – and we’re still struggling.
It feels like an eternity ago – but it also feels like it was only yesterday we woke up at the crack of dawn to the gut-wrenching news to get out, the fire is coming. Evacuate.
Experiencing a bushfire first-hand is more horrific, more emotional, and more exhausting than you could imagine.
One day, the sky is blue – and the next, it’s blood red, with ash raining from the sky. The thick, black smoke chokes you, blinds you. With no power or reception, you don’t know what the fire’s doing – or even if the people you love are still alive. It is the most terrifying thing you can possibly imagine, especially when you see the hungry flames devouring everything you’ve ever known.
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Every single one of us who went through it was impacted. You didn’t have to lose a house or a loved one to feel that heart-shattering grief: because even if you didn’t know the people affected, they’re still people in your community. And it’s heartbreaking to see them struggle. People are still living in tents. People are still struggling to find homes, with too high demand. Yes, some have rebuilt their lives, but so many haven’t.
And that pain, that fear, that terror – it stays with you forever.
RFS Long Beach Brigade volunteer Kirsty Vickers, who’s 21-year-old son Michael – also a volunteer firefighter – lost his Nelligan home after he’d battled all through the night to save houses nearby, says not enough has been done.
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“We were forgotten by March,” she said.
“COVID kicked in, and it was more important to fix that instead of putting a roof over families heads. The big charities didn’t do enough. They didn’t want to help young families or renters. I had to fight to get $5000 for my kids who lost everything.
“There’s still people homeless. Michael and his young family are on their third lot of temporary accommodation. We forked out billions to help with COVID … why not help fire victims?”
Kirsty also believes there should be a fund to help RFS volunteers who lose everything while they’re busy saving others.
North Batemans Bay resident Hayley Gray and her family were evacuated from their home a few times before Christmas and were on constant alert the entire fire season.
“My sister and I would take turns on who would stay awake and keep updated on the fires so we knew when it was time to flee,” she said.
When the New Year’s Eve fires threatened the farm her nan and uncle lived on, she and her sister rushed to their aid, only to be stopped at Dunns Creek Road to turn around.
Her family survived, but the farm didn’t — and heartbreakingly, shortly after, her nan passed away.
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“The house our family lived on for more than 100 years turned to ashes. We lost so much but I think we are one of the lucky ones because we still have a home to return to. My uncle is living in a pod and plans to build a house on the property.
“But my son is still petrified of fires and smoke. My nephew is scared another fire will come for us again.”
Many of us – myself included – have survivor’s guilt. We diminish our experiences, because others had it much worse. When in reality, we all experienced a natural disaster.
Bimbimbie’s Nicky Robinson says once the next big story came along, fire-affected communities were brushed to the side.
“It’s 12 months on and I can honestly say it feels like yesterday my whole world was devastated. We had great support for the first six weeks, and then zip: nothing.
“I often hear people talking about how green everything is and how quick our recovery has been. There’s never been a mention of the 1800 water bottles it took us to get through the first few weeks, the electricity we went without for 60 days, the buckets I’m still showering out of and the rubble we had to live with for five months.
“If there was one thing I would shout to the world, it would be: why have we been forgotten?”
Mogo resident Sara Gardner is still battling with the public trustee to release funds. The family lost everything, including two houses, a mechanic workshop with tools from the 1800s, and custom stables with more than $60,000 of horse riding equipment – but because the insurance was in her mother’s name (who battles dementia and doesn’t have a power of attorney), she hasn’t seen a single cent.
Now living in a recovery pod, which took months to arrive and even longer to have electricity and septic installed, the family says they’ve slipped through the cracks.
“We were given money from the Red Cross which mostly went on generators, fuel, food, water and electricity, covering our everyday needs. We are still struggling. I don’t even know where to start to ask for help. I’ve tried, but have been let down too many times.”
The recovery pod – a 20-foot shipping container with four bunk beds, a kitchen bench, a fridge, washing machine, shower and toilet – only has a 2000L water tank. And for a family of five, it doesn’t last long.
“You use the washing machine, and half the water’s gone already,” says Sara.
The family aren’t allowed to modify the pods to add gutters or catchments and when it rains, it leaks, causing the family to spend more than $1000 on tarps. Their biggest need at this stage is a large water tank, as well as grocery and Bunnings gift cards, and donations of dog food and horse feed for their nine dogs and four horses, who are mostly rescues.
Heartbreakingly, for some, the fires were the last straw, including 53-year-old Kerry Reinhardt, who took her own life. Her partner, Craig Virtue, says she sought help many times.
“The bushfires and COVID pushed her over the edge. While nothing burnt around us, we were constantly on watch for ember attacks because there was still so much to burn.
“Not having a psychiatrist anywhere near here, and then having to wait for months to see one all added to it too. She never got to see one in the end. For Kerry, the bushfires were the beginning of the end. We just didn’t know it.”
There’s vacant lots where homes and shops used to be. Businesses have closed down. There’s blackened trees, and while some have green fuzzy growth, many are husks with no leaves and no life.
So many people can’t talk about it still. So many want to forget the memories; of seeing unspeakable things, like fire bombs the size of semi trailers, fleeing animals with charred paws and nowhere to go, and watching birds fall from the sky. And when COVID-19 came, we couldn’t mourn the trauma we’d experience – we were too worried about the people we love catching this dreaded virus.
When we hear, see or smell smoke, sirens and helicopters, we’re thrust back into our trauma. We look around, searching for the ever-present danger in our minds. We wonder: will it come back to finish the job?
I’m lucky. I didn’t lose my house in Malua Bay. But I did see my community ravaged. I did have to lie to my crying godchildren that everything was going to be okay when the sky went black, without any idea if it was true.
I saw the world I’d grown up reduced to ash and flame. And I knew some of the people who lost their lives; one of which, I went to school with.
I see and hear the impacts of this trauma every single day; so many with PTSD, depression and anxiety that’s increased as a result of our experiences – but also a greater appreciation for life, and a greater love for each other.
We will live with these scars forever, some more so than others. We might not be on your screens, but we are here.
Please, remember us.
To help Batemans Bay and the surrounding areas you can donate via the South Coast Donations Logistics Team, Batemans Bay Baptist Church or Wild2Free inc (animal sanctuary).
Zoe Simmons is a journalist with a passion for making a difference. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter for more.