It’s been an extraordinary ride since we lost our beautiful forest home on 3 December 2019 to the beast that was the Currowan fire that took 312 homes and consumed 500,000 hectares. It has taken time to reach this point of writing. I scribbled here and there but only in the last month have found a place from which I can write. We are moving slowly but intently towards recovery - which feels like the right sentiment to bring to this blog.
Not my anger as ferocious as a bushfire about governments and organisations that contribute to bushfires through negligence or inaction. Aerial firefighting equipment could have been a game changer on 26 November when the Currowan fire ignited by lightning in drought ravaged forest. The fire was all but inaccessible to fire trucks that were almost futile in the absence of water to replenish them. But the federal government now famously didn’t listen to fire chiefs in May or November. Additional aerial support was approved on December 5, too little too late for us. The State Forestry Corporation will shortly receive a letter from me asking why a forest can be logged then the uncommercial debris (approximately 2/3 of the tree) be left to cure in the sun for 2 years to become the perfect bushfire conductor towards and through our block. But ahem, I’m not writing from this angry place, or I would write about the delays and disorganisation of governments, agencies and organisations as they grapple with a disaster of geographical and time magnitude they had never prepared for.
I am not writing from the sludge of post adrenaline exhaustion caused by two evacuations and 6 weeks of fire threat, compounded by the mental energy required to manage my grief as well as my children’s, and sealed by the physical demands of renovating our investment property that needed to be fast tracked for habitation. After a Melbourne Christmas escape we also endured 8 days of stress returning via a circuitous journey of bush fire avoidance in order to finally return to our new residence. During the journey there were anxious days when we couldn’t contact our dog’s kennel, which is located in a particularly badly impacted bushfire area. Eventually we made contact and learned the kennel and our dog narrowly survived. That return journey brought additional tiredness but critically more instability to children’s minds, something we are struggling to manage still.
Nor will I write this blog about the deep sadness I feel at the loss of trees, animals and habitat. I, who like many people on the south coat, choose to live here to be connected to nature and experience its beauty, initially found the flora and fauna loss completely overwhelming. My daily commute through at least 50km of which was burnt out forest and villages, initially was too much for me to bear, my workplace supported me to work locally. Quite apart from our forest including the favourite 300+ year old ‘grandmother’ spotted gum, the extent of the impact on the south cost forests and wildlife is immense and while epicormic regrowth is already occurring, wildlife and habitat recovery looks precarious. It’s brutal but I can’t write from this place.
And I won’t write dwelling on loss of things miniature and enormous, trivial and significant, useful or valuable. Each item is a stitch in the tapestry of our former life. We still periodically feel a stab of remembrance when another thing is realised as lost. A wedding dress, a mother’s gold, favourite snowboard gear, treasures from world travels, Santa’s homemade toy cupboard, a hard earned black belt, a bifold door, our own milled timber, a barely used split system, children’s birthday books, our solar power array & batteries. Many things are easy to relinquish but some tug at the heart or mind. The night my sister in law returned my husband’s beads which she unwittingly had in safe keeping, or when I found I had indeed packed my husband’s wedding ring were insanely emotional moments. But at the end of the day things are things. While I am disappointed I don’t have my wedding dress, I’m really glad I didn’t pay to dry clean it, and practically it’s less important than a saucepan or a vegetable peeler. The more painful loss is our home, painstaking and lovingly made beautiful and comfortable by my amazing husband. Even he sighs at the prospect of beginning again. But we endure beyond property and things so I won’t write about this.
So if I’m not writing in anger, exhaustion, sadness or grief, why have I included all of the above?
Because, you can’t appreciate recovery until you understand loss.
And this is the perspective I am writing from - recovery. My family’s recovery is predominantly due to the generosity of others. This generosity, which is still coming, and still brings me to tears, has enabled us to be living in a house, importantly in our own space, and starting the process of creating a new normal. The support has been wide ranging from the immediate shelter provided by amazing friends during evacuation, through to tradies and friends helping us get into our house in those first few weeks, then astoundingly generous physical and monetary gifts and presents from family, extended family, friends and their families, my workplace and our phenomenal community. There were three angels who started a gofundme page for us – the angels didn’t ask me, they thought I would say no, so they asked my husband and then told me it was for my kids so had me cornered. The page generated staggering donations from people near and far, known and unknown. Family and that page gave us the financial means to finish renovating the rental property which has now become our new home. Some of you reading may be one of our generous donors – thank you from the bottom of my heart. Key also for recovery, we both had jobs and incomes to go back to. Many in our region are not so fortunate. Many were vulnerable before the fires, they are even more vulnerable now. Recovery centres are still open along the south coast and the need is great. Slowly the help is coming and councils and agencies do recognise the road is long and are working on support for the long haul.
We have been back to our block only twice. Mainly this was due to practical reasons – initially it wasn’t safe and then we didn’t have time as we were too busy renovating. The first visit was hard, intense and overwhelming. We went to witness destruction and loss. As my 6 year old marvelled, it’s all gone down to nothing. The second visit was purposeful, we wanted to explore the rest of our block and see if the rainforest gully had survived. Two months had elapsed since our first visit. We were a bit nervous about how it might impact our mental health being back, but staying away wasn’t ideal either. We promised the boys we wouldn’t be near the house for long and that we would explore the block. Thankfully it turned into a healing visit. While still confronting, the burnt out home didn’t bring the same horror as the first visit. Wonderfully we discovered tomatoes and strawberries growing in our veggie patch! We brought them back to Mollymook to be the first plants in a new veggie garden. The rainforest gully had sadly been completely burnt out, but I cried with relief to see fern fronds emerging from black stumps. Due to the absence of vegetation we could actually explore the gully like we had never been able to before. And best of all, with the significant rain we had in February, the creek was running through the gully - it was clear, rocky and beautiful. The rest of the block had been burnt, but many trees were fluffy with newly sprouting shiny green leaves.
So what’s next for us? People ask, will we go back? Will we rebuild? Will our house build be different? Answers: Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s one step at a time. We’re still in the queue for the clean-up with everyone else. But in the meantime we will probably get a shed up and we’ve been given an onsite cabin so we will work towards an interim but movable habitable space. We can’t afford financially or mentally to lose everything again. But we want to get back onto our land and it would be very handy to get some holiday rental income from the Molly house. When things are settled and the world is back to normal we will sell our investment property and commence the subdivision and house build. It’s definitely a marathon not a sprint. We think we will have the means and the energy to achieve it. Plenty of blog opportunities ahead!
Right now we are living in the right now. We are missing the treechange but we are still living the seachange intent of our move from the city. Mollymook isn’t our first choice, but it’s still a lovely place to live - after school beach visits are easy and the boys are loving that. We are exceedingly fortunate to have this house – it was without a doubt the best decision we made last year. It is an adjustment to come from 72 acres and only one house in sight on the hill above us, to a goldfish bowl backyard with houses all around. Gradually the feeling of being on display is subsiding, feeling hemmed in is not. Fortunately it’s a quiet road so we’re not too disturbed by traffic. Gradually we are getting used to the streetlight across the road. We have an especially lovely neighbour and her youngest son is a regular and welcome visitor. The boys still go to their same school and in fact I drive them past school and out of town to catch the bus from their old bus stop as it’s on the way to work and is 20 minutes closer to the office. I have sadly gained an extra 40mins per day commute time. Some bush habits haven’t changed, in the shower I still start washing my feet in the cold water before it runs hot – preserving rain water will be a hard habit to lose. Being back on the power grid is a novelty, sometimes I put the dishwasher and the washing machine on at the same time, and at night! Few readers powered by the grid will have understood the significance of that sentence – night time appliance use - got it? OK never mind.
It is recovery, but it’s fragile. We are up skilling on child psychology and parenting big time. I probably started writing this blog a month ago, when a new virus wasn’t worrying that many people. Right now everyone’s worrying and for our community it feels like a body blow. We’ve experienced disaster, we know the feeling of the world being upside down because nowhere feels safe. We’re exhausted, we need to connect, but that is being denied us. How will we all cope with this? Hopefully the same way we coped with the bushfires, with the help of friends, family, community. To those of you reading who helped us in this recovery, thank you. It means everything to us. In the midst of the fires I used to end conversations with, “Keep safe”. Now I say to you, “Keep healthy”.