REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: South Coast one year on, spirits burnt and blackened but not broken

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Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley comforts Adam and Chris Webb at Conjola Park on the South Coast of NSW, where 89 homes were lost on New Year's Eve, 2019.

Shoalhaven Mayor Amanda Findley comforts Adam and Chris Webb at Conjola Park on the South Coast of NSW, where 89 homes were lost on New Year's Eve, 2019.

"Every night, my head goes through every single drawer in the house and I remember what was in it. I've constantly been thinking, 'oh, that was in there, my wedding dress was in there'."

These are the words of Mogo's Renee Wolfe describing the anxiety she still feels since losing her family's home in the Black Summer fires.

In the stories collected for our readers to mark the one year anniversary of the start of the monstrous Currowan fire, there are many words that show just how raw the events are still on the South Coast of NSW.

During those terrible days our journalists, like everyone else, were overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. There seemed not enough hours in the day to cover everything that was happening, or to understand the plight of every affected person. I remember saying to them at the time, this is a story that is too big to tell.

Artist Jenni Bruce among the ruins of her Upper Brogo home. Photo: Sylvia Liber

Artist Jenni Bruce among the ruins of her Upper Brogo home. Photo: Sylvia Liber

This still rings true, 12 months on, as we revisit our towns and villages to gauge how the community is recovering.

We remember beautiful moments, like when exhausted fire personnel walked into the Milton Ulladulla Ex-Servos Club, which also served as an evacuation centre. Every person there stood and applauded, standing back and waiting until the firefighters were fed.

There is a first person story written for us by nine-year-old Sienna White, who talks of the fear she felt knowing her parents were out on the fireground at night, facing the flames.

RFS incident controller Superintendent Mark Williams addresses a packed community meeting at the Bomaderry Bowling Club. Photo: Stuart Thomson

RFS incident controller Superintendent Mark Williams addresses a packed community meeting at the Bomaderry Bowling Club. Photo: Stuart Thomson

We hear from remarkable leaders like Shoalhaven's incident controller Mark Williams, who day after day, addressed public meetings packed with anxious residents, desperate for life saving direction and reassurance.

To read these stories is to be taken back to last summer, to sleepless, smoke-filled nights, dry thunder storms rumbling in a red sky, water bombers relentlessly flying low, black leaves and embers falling, the dread of wind change.

Events moved at a nightmarish pace with worse and worse news coming by the hour as the monster bore down on Cobargo, Mogo, Conjola, Sassafras and Kangaroo Valley, bringing terrifying scenes of loss and destruction none of us can forget.

Sue Schepisi gets ready as the Big Jack Mountain Fire begins to threaten Wyndham, February 1, 2020. Photo: Michael Weinhardt

Sue Schepisi gets ready as the Big Jack Mountain Fire begins to threaten Wyndham, February 1, 2020. Photo: Michael Weinhardt

Twelve months on, we find that much is still blackened and broken, but there is recovery and there is hope.

And there is something else. Over and over again people tell us of a new appreciation for family, friends, neighbours, community. If Currowan was big, our response, that came swiftly, with courage, love and generosity, was even bigger.

Our newspapers at Bega, Batemans Bay and Nowra continue to cover the story of recovery closely. We will be doing so for years to come.

On this anniversary we asked our editors to provide some perspective on the fires. The eloquent words of editors Ben Smyth, Kerrie O'Connor and John Hanscombe capture the many emotions of the last year, as well as the wisdom gained.

This is still a story too big to tell. But it's a story that stands as a testament to the power of community, and the people of the NSW South Coast who must look back on those dark days with absolute pride for what they've endured, and how far they've come.

Kathy Sharpe

Group editor, non-dailies, ACM

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