OUT OF THE ASHES: the fire rav­aged the town of Tathra but couldn’t de­stroy its com­mu­nity spirit

When ire rav­aged the NSW South Coast town of Tathra eight months ago, it left a com­mu­nity in tat­ters. But, as Saman­tha Trenoweth dis­cov­ers, what is be­ing re­built from the rub­ble is much more than just bricks and mor­tar, it's hope, joy and the tri­umph of

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by JU­LIAN KING MA

Julie Krone is perched on the front stoop of her car­a­van with a steam­ing mug of tea. From high on the es­carp­ment she looks out across the rush­ing blue Bega River and hun­dreds of hectares of burnt black and brindle for­est. It’s half-past seven in the morn­ing. She’ll leave in an hour to teach an art class in town. It’s been eight months since the Tathra re jumped the river, roared up the es­carp­ment and in­cin­er­ated the 57-year-old print­maker’s stu­dio and home. She moved back onto her land just last week­end, and for the rst time in a long while she’s feel­ing al­most set­tled.

It has been a mon­strous year for Tathra – the kind that could make or break a town, but it’s made this one. “There’s some­thing about this com­mu­nity,” says Julie. “When the re came and this house burnt down, they just picked me up and took care of me, and sud­denly they be­came fam­ily. A friend said to me, ‘you re­alise you’ve been branded into the com­mu­nity,’ and it does feel like that.”

The eye of the restorm

Sun­day, March 18 was a sear­ing 37-de­gree day in Tathra, a pic­tureper­fect sea­side town on the far south coast of NSW. Winds were gust­ing up to 72 kilo­me­tres per hour and the re dan­ger rat­ing was the Bega Val­ley’s fourth high­est on record.

An elec­tri­cal fault started the re out near Reedy Swamp, less than 10 kilo­me­tres as the crow ies from the old Tathra wharf, and too close for com­fort to the prop­erty where Al­lan and Kim Noble had planted an or­chard and a veg­gie plot, col­lected an­tiques and old wares, built a record­ing stu­dio and a life for them­selves, and raised ve strong kids over 25 years. It was not long af­ter mid­day. They were stand­ing in the hot sun at a mar­ket stall in Mer­im­bula when an hour-old mes­sage ap­peared on Al­lan’s phone: ‘There’s a fast-mov­ing re near your place. You have to get out.’

Two of their adult kids were at home. Al­lan called and “told them to grab what they could and get the hell out the back way”. They es­caped to nearby Ber­magui. Then Allen and Kim dropped their daugh­ter with friends and drove to the prop­erty through thick smoke and rain­ing em­bers to see if there was any­thing they could save. Fif­teen min­utes later, the re­front hit. “The whole ridge just ex­ploded,” and they were trapped there, “ ght­ing for our lives” for eight hours.

“The wind was gale force and the air was full of re,” says Al­lan. “Things were ex­plod­ing into ames all around us. In the be­gin­ning, we each had a

hose and we were run­ning, putting out res ev­ery­where. But by the end our bod­ies had seized up with ex­haus­tion and adren­a­line sick­ness. When Kim couldn’t move at all, I propped her against a bull bar and put a hose in her hand. At one point, I ran past and she turned the hose on me. I hadn’t no­ticed that I was on re.”

Neigh­bours nally made it into the prop­erty at around 10 o’clock that night, and took Kim to hos­pi­tal with car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing and a heart ar­rhyth­mia. They weren’t able to get Al­lan out un­til the fol­low­ing day. He was ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal with burns to the corneas of his eyes. His sight is still af­fected and he’s been plagued with post-trau­matic stress.

From Reedy Swamp, the re gath­ered speed as it swept to­ward the coast. Ru­ral re ghter Kath­leen McCann had been watch­ing the plume of smoke from her liv­ing room win­dow in Tanja, just 10 min­utes from Tathra, for a cou­ple of hours. She’d been a mem­ber of her lo­cal Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice brigade for 14 years and had fought bush res in the past – but none quite like this. She rang Fire Con­trol, who told her not to worry, but the plume wasn’t get­ting any smaller.

So, about 2pm, she drove be­tween parched pad­docks to her lo­cal RFS shed. A num­ber of other mem­bers had the same idea and, she says, “we took it upon our­selves to go in.”

“On the way, we drove past a stream of cars leav­ing Tathra. As we crossed the bridge at Mog­a­reeka, we could see that Tathra looked like it was go­ing to be hit. Fire Con­trol di­rected us to the top of the hill. That’s where we were when the big wall of smoke and ame and wind hit us. Nor­mally we would get in the truck when the re­front hit, but there were so many em­bers in the air and we could see that houses were start­ing to catch re. Any­where there was a small pocket of leaves, it was alight. Any­thing that was ammable – even shoes left on a ve­randa – caught re. I could hear gas bot­tles ex­plod­ing. It was dif cult to breathe. I’d dropped my mask on the ground and couldn’t see it for the smoke. So I wet a cot­ton scarf and put it around my face. There were four of us in the Tanja brigade and we worked for hours putting out spot res. I was ab­so­lutely terri ed but I had to push down the fear and get on with the job. Then, af­ter the worst of the re had come through, the wind changed, blew the smoke away from us and we could see the town for the rst time, which was ter­ri­fy­ing. We could see how much dam­age had been done, how many trucks were there and how many chop­pers were in the air. It was shock­ing.”

In all, 65 homes, 70 caravans and 1250 hectares of land were de­stroyed.

Just a block or two from where the Tanja RFS was sta­tioned, John Plumb bat­tled the re alone. He had sent his wife, Katie, and their son, nine-yearold Daniel, to the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre in Bega, but stayed be­hind to try to save their house. “I couldn’t breathe,” he says. “I couldn’t see for the smoke.” With a land­scaper’s hose, he doused his prop­erty

in the face of 10-me­tre-high ames, then moved on to his neigh­bours’ houses. “Rag­ing em­bers smashed against the ex­posed parts of my face, head and neck,” he re­calls. “There was a re­lent­less pound­ing and roar­ing in my ears.” In the end, he saved six neigh­bours’ houses, as well as his own.

Bak­ing spree

By 3pm, most of the town had been evac­u­ated to the Bega Show­ground. Eighty-nine-year-old Betty Koell­ner had been in­structed to go, but she’d grown up in Tathra, lived there most of her life and she wasn’t about to leave now. So in the early evening, with spot res still light­ing up the town, her son Mal­colm drove her home to Paci c Street. They were stopped more than once by road­blocks but talked their way through. Mal­colm promised he’d pa­trol the street with a hose, look­ing for spot res all night. So Betty thought, “Oh well, the best thing to do is put my PJs and sleep­ing cap on, and I slept right through the night.”

The next morn­ing, Betty was up bright and early, and started bak­ing. Renowned for her feather-light sponge, she baked cakes for the re ghters, po­lice, State Emer­gency Ser­vices and for the in­di­vid­u­als, like John, who had stayed be­hind to de­fend houses. “I made Weet-Bix cakes, choco­late cakes, sponge cakes,” she tells The Weekly. “My daugh­ter works at the lo­cal gro­cer, so she brought me but­ter and eggs, and then she’d cut up the cakes and de­liver them around town.”

It was the be­gin­ning of an avalanche of acts of kind­ness that en­gulfed Tathra in the weeks af­ter the re and hasn’t stopped since. Those who had left were not al­lowed back for three days be­cause of fears that as­bestos had been re­leased from burn­ing build­ings. Those who had re­mained be­hind were al­lowed to stay, how­ever, so John Plumb and Deb Alker, the lo­cal postie, and oth­ers el­ded calls from peo­ple wor­ried about their homes and checked on them.

Emo­tions were run­ning high. Mo­bile phone net­works were down for much of that rst day and fam­i­lies had been sep­a­rated in the re.

“There was a no­tice­board at the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre where peo­ple were writ­ing name af­ter name of friends and fam­ily mem­bers who they hadn’t been able to nd,” says Amanda Galvin-My­ers, 53, who has lived in the dis­trict for only a cou­ple of years. “Ten names, twenty names, thirty names, forty names, but even­tu­ally all those peo­ple were found. I was one of the rst to ar­rive at the cen­tre and I watched as the whole town fol­lowed, shocked and trau­ma­tised. Of­ten women were driv­ing, with their cars loaded up with chil­dren and pets and neigh­bours. We hear so much about the courage of the re ghters and the peo­ple who stayed but I think the women of Tathra saved the peo­ple of Tathra, and the pets of Tathra, that day. They checked on neigh­bours and made sure they got ev­ery­one out. For the rst cou­ple of days, no one cared about any­thing ex­cept that we had sur­vived. If you saw some­one you knew, you ran and hugged them and were so happy to see them alive.”

It was con­sid­ered a mir­a­cle that not a sin­gle life was lost in Tathra.

The Bega Val­ley ral­lied around the evac­uees, pro­vid­ing them with food,

shel­ter, clothes, while they waited for the all-clear to go home. And once they ar­rived back in town, the gen­eros­ity just kept com­ing: do­na­tions from gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and char­i­ties, and tiny gifts from the heart.

When the Plumb fam­ily re­turned home, Daniel found that two of his clos­est friends had lost their homes. “So,” says John, “he went to his money box and got out ve or six dol­lars in 20 cent coins and put them into two plas­tic bags. It was ev­ery cent he owned. And he went and got his favourite green car and put it into one plas­tic bag and an­other toy in the other. Then he added some crys­tals. Kate saw him stand­ing at the door and said, ‘What are you up to?’ He said, ‘I want to take th­ese to Ja­cob and Malakai.’ Kate and I just cried.”

On that rst week­end back, Quyen and Joe Nguyen from the lo­cal bak­ery put on a free break­fast for Tathra, and vol­un­teers stayed up all night mak­ing donuts. Later a group of young Is­lamic peo­ple, called Syd­ney Youth Con­nect, turned up and cooked lunch for Tathra in the park. The Lions Club be­gan work on the mas­sive clean-up and mem­bers are still vol­un­teer­ing in yards eight months later. And Team Ru­bi­con, an or­gan­i­sa­tion of re­turned ser­vice peo­ple – many suf­fer­ing from PTSD – ar­rived, pitched tents and pitched in.

“They stayed for weeks and worked so hard,” says Loretta Chap­ple, the Sec­re­tary at the lo­cal Surf Club. “They helped with every­thing from mov­ing trees that had fallen across roads to nd­ing peo­ple’s trea­sures in the rub­ble. Th­ese guys and girls gave so much, and I hope Tathra was able to give some­thing back to them as well.”

Loretta took a fort­night’s an­nual leave and worked from rst light un­til late in the evenings at the Surf Club, which had be­come a com­mu­nity hub. Mem­bers went door-to-door through the town, ask­ing how peo­ple were do­ing, and re­fer­ring them on to ser­vices that might be able to help. Mean­while, do­na­tions of food and goods streamed in from around the coun­try and, says Pat Camp­bell, Chair of the speed­ily con­vened Tathra Com­mu­nity Ref­er­ence Group, “the Surf Club be­came a gro­cery store and the town hall looked like an oldfash­ioned coun­try em­po­rium.”

Peo­ple were strug­gling emo­tion­ally and with the im­men­sity of the task ahead in those early weeks, and it would be fair to say there are many who still are. “It’s been a lot to get over,” Al­lan ad­mits. “I came home from work a few weeks ago and there was a beau­ti­ful sun­set on the ridge, all or­ange and red, and I had an at­tack of PTSD that kicked the crap out of me. Just for that se­cond, I thought the res were com­ing again. It’s changed every­thing.”

The lo­cal gen­eral prac­tice has pro­vided rooms for a free coun­selling ser­vice, which has helped. And out of con­ver­sa­tions in the street, at the post of ce and on­line, have come some life­sav­ing ini­tia­tives.

Marg Tay­lor – once a teacher at the lo­cal school, now the Ro­tary Club Pres­i­dent – no­ticed that one of the fam­i­lies on her street didn’t seem to be cop­ing. “So I thought, I’ll drop a choco­late cake off on their doorstep,” she says, and she did. The heal­ing power of cake is much ap­pre­ci­ated in Tathra. “Then I thought, we’ve got to do more. I wanted to do some­thing for women and I thought, ‘I know what women do best. We have cups of cof­fee and have a good talk or a cry or a laugh to­gether – we’re key com­mu­ni­ca­tors. So my friend Leonie and I put yers out and we held our rst ladies’ lunch at Tathra Beach Ta­pas. The own­ers, Caro and Lona, and the Ro­tary Club pro­vided free meals for peo­ple who had lost every­thing, and we were full up, chock­ers.”

The women of Tathra came and shared their sto­ries, and women’s groups from around the coun­try sent all man­ner of gifts from hand-sewn quilts to pot­ted rhubarb. Magic hap­pened at th­ese gath­er­ings too. One older woman, a for­mer pi­ano teacher, had lost not only her house but her pi­ano in the re. She men­tioned it at the lunch and, the fol­low­ing week, a lo­cal pi­ano tuner de­liv­ered two pi­anos and asked her to choose one.

Tathra lights up

As the months passed, John, Al­lan, Kath­leen and oth­ers in the com­mu­nity re­alised that they were strug­gling with post-trau­matic stress. The coun­selling helped, as did the sup­port of fel­low reys, friends and neigh­bours. Writ­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence has given John strength and he’s now en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to share their re sto­ries, which he is col­lect­ing for a book.

Amanda also no­ticed that peo­ple needed emo­tional sup­port. From con­ver­sa­tions with friends came the Tathra Fire­birds, who meet in the lo­cal ho­tel to chat over cof­fee and make art and craft. When The Weekly vis­its, in­tri­cate origami Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions are in the works. And a Fire­birds’ spin-off, Christ­mas Cheer for Tathra (brain­child of the town’s for­mer GP, Marie Oak­ley) has been mak­ing Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, bunting and baubles for those who lost their homes.

Christ­mas will be a chal­leng­ing time for many in Tathra this year. Most of those who lost houses are still in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion, and the for­est be­hind the town is still black­ened, though new growth is sprout­ing and the com­mu­nity re­cently re­planted the head­land. To spread more cheer, the Com­mu­nity Ref­er­ence Group has put funds aside to buy Christ­mas lights for Tathra, and a lo­cal with a fruit-picker has of­fered to string them through the streets. Tathrans say they might cel­e­brate Christ­mas dif­fer­ently this year, but cel­e­brate they shall.

Al­lan and Kim say some of their grown-up kids have taken more in­ter­est in the farm and they’ll all be home this year. “Christ­mas has al­ways been a big deal,” Al­lan says. “This year it will be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent but just re­cently I went to a garage sale and bought six old wooden ca­noes. So the plan is to have a fam­ily re­gatta on the river.”

Kath­leen says she’s “more of a pa­gan girl. I usu­ally cel­e­brate sum­mer sol­stice. It’s all about gath­er­ing with friends, cel­e­brat­ing the good food that’s been grow­ing through spring and sum­mer, and be­ing grate­ful for life,” which seems es­pe­cially poignant this year.

Julie came home the other day to nd a let­ter box erected at the top of her drive­way, ready to re­ceive fes­tive sea­son cards. “I don’t know who put it there,” she says. “It’s so kind and it’s just the way things have been hap­pen­ing here.”

“The spon­ta­neous way the town has come to­gether af­ter this tragedy,” says Marg, “to me it demon­strates what Christ­mas is all about. We’ve got noth­ing but we’ve got every­thing. If we’ve got love in our hearts and re­spect for the other per­son, and we’re putting their wel­fare be­fore ours, we can move moun­tains, and that’s what’s hap­pen­ing in Tathra.”

To donate to the May­oral Ap­peal for Tathra, call (02) 6499 2222. To sup­port Tathra Surf Club, Ro­tary, Lions or the RFS, visit their web­sites.

Julie Krone on the ruins of her home; her daugh­ter Gina Hawkes (be­low) sur­veys the prop­erty just af­ter the fire; fire­fighter Kath­leen McCann (right).

Above: John Plumb sur­veys the dam­age in the af­ter­math of the rag­ing fire (be­low). Left: John poses with wife Katie and son Daniel onThe Weekly’s visit. Right: the Tathra com­mu­nity has a strong team spirit.

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