In March of 2018 life changed for ever for my family. After 35 years of life on a half acre block in Tathra, suddenly it was all gone. What this shows me is that life can change in an instance, and, it isn’t something you get over quickly.
We were so lucky in so many ways. Firstly, none of us were actually there to go through the experience. Whilst it’s true that we experienced a great deal of loss and there’s massive amounts of shock and emotional damage that come from that loss alone; the real damage I can see, in communities around the region, comes from the actual experience of the fire itself. Secondly, my mums dad was an insurance salesman, which means, we’ve learnt from day one that you insure everything. It might feel expensive when things are tough but the decision to spend that money every year just saved our family from absolute ruin.
I don’t think I’d really thought through the impact that a loss like this might have on family friends and life long neighbours. Our dear old family friend, who lived in the house next door for a while, felt responsible for trying to save our place because he was there. I don’t know that he’ll ever get over that experience.
Our neighbour from across the road has lived in that house for her whole life. While her son managed to save her place, she now spends every day looking out her window at the burnt bush behind where our house was and the empty site on our old block. I hope that the new owners putting a house on the site sooner or later might change her thought processes around that block and allow her to create new memories with a different family on the block.
I honestly didn’t feel as though I was affected by the fire too badly until the events of this last three or four months. When the fires hit Tathra I was living and working in Taree, on the mid north coast of NSW. The team I was working with, the community (or even perhaps family) that I had built for myself in the Manning were there for me in every way possible. They were a friendly ear, they were a shoulder to cry on, they were even strong enough to tell me to get my shit together if I spent too long wallowing in the despair. You can imagine then, sitting in the desert in WA, learning about the fires in the Manning Valley, I suddenly went into shock. I needed to know, right then and there, everything there was to know about that fire situation. Who amongst my friends had been affected, how bad was the situation, who might be under threat? I found myself glued to social media, to the local radio on the mid north coast, and, even keeping an ear on the emergency services two way radio from that region. The internet and social media are amazing things, but, perhaps at times, there is too much info available, especially to someone who can be triggered into PTSD.
Different people are clearly triggered in different ways too. Arriving in the Bega Valley in December, right in the middle of this current fire situation, I felt relatively safe knowing that mums new house is directly behind the evacuation centre in Bega. Mum and dad, on the other hand, were quite clearly affected by situation as it unfolded. Both my parents were obviously scared of what might happen.
When our place went in 2018, I don’t think I was really ready to write this or talk about it properly. Now that summer fires seem to have become the norm of Australia I guess I have to able to talk through it because there are now others who probably could use my help. Me going into shock isn’t going to help anyone any time soon.
One of the things that has really impressed me about Tathra in the years after the fires is how well the community has pulled together. More than that, the life of the community has changed. Growing up in Tathra there was strength in the footy club, or the cricket club, or the surf club, there still is. The difference now though is, people have set up new community groups that never existed before. Tathra now has a community choir, there are community gardens. Someone set up a group who sit in cafe’s or the pub and do drawing or writing exercises together on a regular basis. The community has bonded over the loss it has experienced.
As weird as this might sound I feel like we were lucky to have the Tathra fire situation a few years ago. The experience gave the local government agencies a level of preparedness for this current event that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. When Tathra happened we were the only community under threat from that fire. In this current situation the whole east coast is under threat. The local council, the RFS, all the other parties involved in this situation were able to just swing into action off the back of this major event because of procedures put in place after Tathra.
My family took the opportunity to sell up the block in Tathra, I suspect quite a few others did too. Now that we are finally separated from that loss and have set up new lives for ourselves, we can, at times, see the positives in the experience. The combination of the insurance money plus the money from the sale of the block puts my folks in a better financial position than they would have been if we had managed to sell the property before the fires. There are still those moments on a daily basis where you go ‘where’s that thing, oh wait, that was the other life, before the fires’ but we’re doing OK.