The Black Summer left their lives in ashes. Then the world got caught up in a different crisis. Now, something else is smouldering in Bega Valley Shire …
This is what Jamie Robinson calls a quiet moment. One of those Bega Valley Shire moments that will unfold largely unseen by wider Australia. Three semi-trailers carrying 207 1000-litre water tanks pulling into the Cobargo showgrounds Bushfire Relief Centre just in the nick of time.
Source: rent Dalton and Sean Davey, News Corp
Back to fire zone: afterburn in Cobargo
One week before the start of winter. Five months and two weeks since Jamie finished building his dream home on his secluded bushland property in the pristine heart of Yowrie, 20km west of Cobargo. Five months since a fire that was surely sent from the basement of hell burnt that home to the ground.
Jamie’s whole adult life has been defined by the quiet moments that the rest of the world seemed to miss. In 1996, when he was 25 years old and working in Canberra, he received a bravery medal for saving an 18-month-old girl from a house fire in the suburb of Holt. His family and friends were so deeply proud of Jamie’s courage but all he felt in the quiet moments that followed was sorrow that he was unable to save the girl’s four-year-old brother.
Seven years later, Jamie lost all his possessions when his rental home in Duffy was consumed by the Canberra bushfires of summer 2003. In the quiet moments that followed that fire, Jamie turned to God and the universe and his own mind, hopelessly trying to solve riddles of fate and karma and misfortune. “But I’m the guy who saved the girl?” he told himself. Then: “Aaahhhh, I’m also the guy who couldn’t save the boy.”
There’s another quiet moment he wants to share because he feels it’s fairly representative of the pain he says resides just beneath the brave faces of many fire-affected residents across the Bega Valley Shire. This is the moment when he found himself alone on his devastated property, but for his loyal half-kelpie, half-Australian shepherd dog Omi, surrounded by the charred wood and tin that was once his home. He doesn’t know what triggered it exactly. The fire was a big part of it. The future. The past. Not long before the fire he’d broken up with his partner of 12 years, so love was a part of it, too. It was just a series of quiet moments. Drag a burnt log or two across the property, clear some debris, find a rope. Take a seat some place peaceful while you try again to solve the riddles of fate and karma and misfortune. Then look down after all that deep thinking at the thing you’ve made from your own shaking hands. A noose.
“It’s like, f. k it. There is no point. I just wanted to exit the planet. And then my beautiful girl here, Omi, she comes up, looks at me, and with her paws she kind of slaps my hands that are doing the tying and she just stares at me and I swear she does this big intentional blink like, ‘Don’t be a f. khead, Dad. Who’s gonna look after me?’”
Jamie takes a long deep breath. Exhales.
“These quiet moments,” he says. “We’ve all had them. And you just got to look at the whole community down here and look a bit deeper into the eyes of other people who are affected, you’re looking at heartbreak. When you get off the main streets of the towns down here and go onto the dirt roads, you’ll still see people almost hiding away because of the hurt that they’re still holding on to, nurturing even, with no real way out.”
Jamie and another local man load several water tanks onto the tray of a truck owned by a man from Towamba, south of Cobargo. This is a good quiet moment. At the gates of the Cobargo showgrounds are lines of utes and trucks and weary drivers who have come from all sides of the Bega Valley Shire – places like Eden and Kiah and Pericoe in the south; as far as Tinpot in the north – to collect a free water tank. Dozens of volunteers like Jamie who emerged this morning from the bush to help unload the tanks from the semi-trailers. “For me, this is all I can do now for my own mental health,” Jamie says. “Just jump in and help other people.”
The world moved on and the pain stayed put. The fires went out and our focus shifted from the Black Summer that burned millions of hectares of the coast, destroyed 5900 buildings, and killed at least 34 people and an estimated one billion animals. Our collective eyes turned to an invisible enemy, a global pandemic as near to us all as our fingertips. But in the Bega Valley Shire, the people’s gaze remained elsewhere.
“Water,” says Chris Walters, joint co-ordinator of the Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre. “People haven’t had any drinking water. They’ve been living on bottled water. Their dams either haven’t got anything in them or they’ve been contaminated by smoke and ash. All the plastic tanks melted. If you had a concrete water tank that didn’t burn then the water in it was contaminated.”
Some weeks ago, Chris was contacted by News Corp Australia’s Bushfire Working Group, which was in the process of distributing $1.9 million raised from special bushfire fundraising editions of metropolitan newspapers. “What do you need?” the working group asked. Chris started at the top of her list. “Water,” she said.
Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre joint co-ordinator Danielle Murphy began calling fire-affected residents across the entire Bega Valley Shire, painstakingly formulating a list of 207 families in the region in critical need of a new drinking water tank donated by the Bushfire Working Group. “People were crying when they received these calls,” Danielle says. “They’ve been down in these really isolated, hard-to-access areas and they’ve received very little. This was the first time some of them had felt actually seen by anyone. It’s third world down here. We are opening eyes to the fact that there are people here who don’t have clean drinking water.”
“These people are waking up every day and they’re still, five months on, looking at ruined houses, collapsed sheds,” says Rural Aid business development manager Craig Marsh, who stepped in weeks ago to manage the logistics of moving 207 water tanks on three semi-trailers almost 700km by road from the tank manufacturer in Laverton, Melbourne, to the distribution point at the Cobargo showgrounds.
“Some of these people are living up to an hour away from Cobargo and they’re going in to the Cobargo showgrounds to get a hot shower,” Craig says. “From the day the fire started these people have been living hand to mouth. Can you imagine going into the showgrounds, jumping into open showers and saying to your neighbour, ‘G’day Bob, how ya going?’ While they’re there they fill up their water bottles and drums and all the rest of it but that doesn’t last. Some have to come back and get water the very next day. Tanks like these will keep them going for two weeks.”
Small steps. Simple steps. Real aid. As they wait to pick up their tanks, locals listen to radio news updates on bushfire recovery plans. National Bushfire Recovery Agency deputy co-ordinator Major General Andrew Hocking is about to tell a Senate committee examining issues across regional Australia that of the 7.1 million Australians living in local government areas affected directly or indirectly by the Black Summer fires, only 291,000 “have been supported through disaster recovery allowance and disaster recovery payments”.
“Right through the Bega Valley Shire these people are saying, ‘Where’s the human services?’, ” says Craig Marsh. “And since COVID-19 the whole focus has just switched.”
Sandy Reed’s parents, Norm and Pat, lost their Cobargo home in the fires. They’re in their 70s, are yet to receive government aid and fear they will miss out altogether because they are self-funded retirees. “I just need a tractor,” Norm tells his family but Sandy knows he will need far more than that to rebuild for retirement. They’re living in a shed with no electricity, managing to sleep at night through temperatures that often drop to 2C.
“They’re scraping,” Sandy says. “They can’t maintain anything. They’ve got no income. I just want them to live the rest of their lives in a comfortable way, like, not have to walk out at two o’clock in the morning and go to the toilet and have a shower in winter in the cold. [Dad] worries me, because he said, ‘I’ll shoot myself if I sit here any longer’. You’ve heard about a guy out here recently.”
That story’s on everyone’s mind in town. A much-loved local who gave so much of himself helping others in the wake of the fires. Another local lost in another quiet moment. “These are the people who fall through the cracks,” says Danielle Murphy. “Just people who’ve lost their livelihoods.”
Danielle has had her share of quiet moments. She and Chris Walters have been working for five straight months out of the bushfire relief centre shed where locals come for food, cleaning products, baby supplies and all manner of home essentials many can no longer afford. “There were moments where I almost have clocked out,” Danielle says. “But every time, within about 12 hours of me feeling so low, someone will do something beautiful that lifts me back up and keeps me going again.”
Danielle’s image was splashed across news feeds across the world in the early days of the Black Summer when she and several other Cobargo locals let Prime Minister Scott Morrison know exactly how they felt about the way he breezed into town at the height of the crisis.
“That was anger,” she says. “And exhaustion. I’d been fighting fires. I stayed behind on New Year’s Eve and fought the fire in town and that was quite an emotional thing. My children and my in-laws had evacuated and I hadn’t been able to speak to them. For the first 24 hours I didn’t even know that they knew I was OK. My youngest son has autism and epilepsy and I was concerned with how he was doing. I knew he would be having sensory overload and I was asking myself that question everybody asked themselves: ‘Have I made the right decision to stay?’ ”
Scott Morrison padded lightly into a Cobargo showground that was simmering that day with a hundred quiet moments of frustration and tension and desperation and fear that grew louder because of his presence. The months since that day have passed in phases. Something not unlike the five stages of grieving. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Acceptance is the way 72-year-old volunteer David Handran-Smith looks at the plastic bags that have sat in the back of his ute since his home in Quaama, south of Cobargo, was burnt down in the Black Summer fires. “Whatever I own’s in the back of this ute,” he says. “That’s my total life after 72 years, in the back of the ute. That’s it. It’s in plastic bags.”
Acceptance is the way fire-affected volunteers pour through the showground gates to help haul the 207 1000-litre water tanks onto a seemingly endless line of utes and trucks. “It’s just one less thing for them to think about,” says Craig Marsh. “That means a lot right now. All these people need is a turning point. They just need to know something is happening that can buck them up a bit.”
Acceptance is the way Jamie Robinson leans in through a ute window and asks how a stranger wants their tank tied down. “G’day!” he beams, and the stranger picking up the tank has no possible clue about where Jamie’s come from, about where he’s going and the quiet moments he’ll always carry along the way.
“This thing called life,” Jamie laughs. “My life’s been sort of dictated by all these moments. Each one has helped me to know what it’s like to be in need. These people have been through enough and there’s still plenty of heartache around and to try to alleviate that I get to go up to a car window and say, ‘G’day, here’s your water tank, let me chuck it on the back for you’. And they say, ‘Thanks’, and then you can look in their eyes and you can see their heartbreak and you know you can’t solve their problems but you can let them know how you feel about it all. Like, ‘We’re gonna make it and you’re OK and, f. k man, there’s been so many days where it’s been so hard for me, too, to put one foot in front of the other but that’s what we’ve got to do, you know. You just have to push. You just have to push on.’ ”