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
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.
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.