Survivors of the NSW Black Summer bushfires reflect on their loss as inquiry continues

It’s thinking about the things she lost that hurts the most. 

“I have nothing of my children of when they were little, nothing of my grandchildren, no photo albums,” she says.

Coronial inquiry 

The Black Summer fires burned across multiple states, including NSW where 25 people died. More than five and a half million hectares of bushland was destroyed along with almost 2,500 homes.

Over the next two weeks, the NSW state coroner in Sydney will investigate circumstances surrounding key fires and deaths in the state’s south, before visiting other regional areas. Earlier, the inquiry heard much of the evidence would show that many towns simply weren’t prepared. 

Jan Harris says she lost everything and still struggles with what happened.

Source: Supplied

The New South Wales Bushfires Coronial Inquiry follows a Royal Commission into the disaster and Ms Harris hopes it will have a positive effect.

“The biggest part of you wants answers so that they inform decisions so that these things don’t happen again,” she says.

“This is a community that’s been through three major fires, a couple of big floods, and [COVID-19] lockdowns.”

“I think everybody is stretched emotionally and on a bit of a tightrope.”

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In his opening statement at the inquiry last month, assisting counsel Adam Casselden spoke about ensuring the number of homes that were destroyed in the fires was put in perspective.

“The figures are important, but they cannot capture the human tragedy that sits behind the numbers, or the memories in sentimental belongings lost in the burning embers of one’s home,” he said.

“These hearings acknowledge the trauma and grief that the fires wrought persist long after the last flames are extinguished.”

Coping during COVID

Since she lost her home in 2018, Ms Harris has been trying to arrange the construction of a new house at the site where her old one used to be.

Several weeks ago – after more than three and a half years – her dream seemed that much closer when builders finally laid the foundations and poured in the concrete.

Jan Harris has begun building her home more than three years after it was destroyed.

Source: Supplied

Bega Valley councillor Jo Dodds says many in the community are still finding it hard to cope.

“There are still people who spent mid-winter on their block of land in a caravan or in a tent,” she says. 

“And that may not be necessarily that they don’t have the assistance available, but they may not be ready to make the decisions about what they do next.”

Bega Valley councillor Jo Dodds says more needs to be done to tackle climate change.

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Ms Dodds says the COVID-19 restrictions imposed shortly after the Black Summer fires impacted the region and denied many survivors vital supports at a time when they were needed most.

“That meant we couldn’t gather in those groups and we couldn’t get together and hug and cry and support each other.” 

“There are people who are deeply traumatised and there are people in my shire who’ve been through three significant fire events in just over three years.”

Climate threat

Ms Dodd is the president of the Bushfire Survivors for Climate Change Action Group and a strong advocate for greater federal government action on emission reductions.

She says evidence from firefighters about the increased ferocity and frequency of recent bushfires means the issue of climate change needs to be properly addressed.

“They’re saying it doesn’t matter how good the equipment is or how fast the truck is, these fires are too dangerous to go anywhere near.”

Jack Egan’s house as fire approaches.

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Just south of Batemans Bay in the town of Rosedale, resident Jack Egan shares that sentiment.

He and his wife lost everything when their house was burned to the ground on New Year’s Eve in 2019 during the fires.

He said while state and federal government financial support – which flowed in shortly after the fires – was a relief to many, higher costs to meet strict new guidelines for improved fire protection put the prospect of rebuilding out of reach for a number of people and they were forced to leave.  

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“I know of some people who’ve been unable to move back onto their properties because it’s just too daunting, too expensive to rebuild, or they’re just not able to get used to a new life in a new place,” he says. 

“I think that the businesses that have been hammered by the bushfires and then by the coronavirus have also been struggling a great deal.”

Jack Egan’s house on fire.

Source: Supplied

Emergency Management Minister Bridget McKenzie told parliament last month some $2.8 billion in support for those impacted by the 2019-20 fires had been made available and 85 per cent had been delivered.

“This includes $1.7 billion delivered from the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, supporting locally-led efforts on the ground because we know that locals know what’s best for their community,” Senator McKenzie said.

The federal government said there had been 5,000 properties cleared, more than 200,000 disaster recovery payments made to individuals, more than 88,000 back-to-school payments of $400 made to families, more than 27,000 grants and loans given to small businesses and farmers, and financial assistance provided to 3,200 volunteer firefighters.

Jack Egan and his partner Cath at their home before the fire.

Source: Supplied

Deeply connected to his community, Mr Egan says rebuilding for him was the only option, but he still harbours a fear that it could all so easily be lost again.

“For a very long time into the future,” he says. 

“Because the climate indicators are getting worse and what happened to us is an early indication of what’s to come.” 

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.  

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