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Firie’s journey of resilience beyond smoke and ash

It was the longest 55-minute drive of Greg’s life. But when his brigade finally arrived, their home village, Killabakh was on fire. And their fire truck was out of water.

It was 8 November 2019 and Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer, Greg and Killabakh RFS brigade were a fighting a blaze in Bobin, west of Killabakh when they ran out of water.

While they waited for their water supplies to be replenished, they were suddenly called back to Killabakh, along the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. As they drove through, they met a horrifying site. Their village was engulfed by fire.

“I’d never watch a house burn until that day at Bobin. When we came over the hill [in Killabakh], everything was on fire. We’ve never seen that before,” says Greg.

The stakes suddenly rose. For Greg and his brigade, this wasn’t just any fire; they were now fighting to save the lives and homes of their community, their family and friends.

But there was little back up and only one fire truck available. They were it. No one else was coming.

“We didn’t get much assistance from the RFS because there was so much going on in the whole of the Manning Valley. There was a region probably 40 kilometres wide and long that was just basically on fire. No one’s got enough trucks for that.”

Shortly after arriving home, Greg made the decision to save his own home – a decision he still wrestles with. After nine days fighting bushfires, nine homes from Killabakh were destroyed, including a friend’s, who bravely assisted firefighters at the fire shed while her home was burning.

“The fire brigade is struggling with that because we all feel a sense of responsibility about the fact that we weren’t able to save those houses,” says Greg.

Greg and his wife Gabrielle own a 160-acre property. Together they defended their home from an inferno on their land. For four days they barely slept. Every hour Greg would wake and walk around his veranda to check the location of the fire.

“We’ve got a house right on a ridge and you can see the whole farm from there – a 360-degree view and we just watched the fire burn around us.”

On the last night of the fire on their property, things took a turn for the worse; flames surrounded their farm, all exits were blocked and they were trapped. They moved their cattle to safety and armed with 1,000 litres of water, a fire pump and some long hoses, they prepared to fight the blaze.

“We watched the fire come down the northern ridge, back towards the cattle yards and we waited until it came to the road and then we spent about three hours putting it out.”

As the flames escalated, Greg realised their fire hose wasn’t long enough to reach the end of the fire.

“Gabrielle got on the quad bike and she went up to the house and she threw the remaining three hoses on the seat of the quad bike, some really cumbersome big hoses, and came back in about six minutes.”

By 10.30pm the fire approaching their cattle yards was out. But the crisis wasn’t over. While they’d been extinguishing the fire, their fences and bush near their shed full of farming equipment had been burning unchecked for two hours.

“A nice stack of fence posts we purchased just recently for new fencing, were all on fire,” Greg sadly reflects.

By 3am it was finally over. Their land was scorched and many fences destroyed but thankfully, they’d managed to save their cattle, shed and farming tools. While exhausted from non-stop firefighting, Gabrielle was still thinking of her neighbours, so they hopped on their quad bike to check on their friends.

While a traumatic experience for Greg and Gabrielle, sadly the bushfires are just the latest in a series of disasters. For the last two years their community has faced drought.

“It’s one thing to watch your property shrivel from the drought and then another to watch it burn,” says Greg.

The lack of rain has led to dry, barren land, resulting in little to no feed left for their cattle. Twice a day, Greg and Gabrielle hand-feed their cattle. And they’re struggling to maintain it.

“Their (cattle) grocery bill is way above ours. We spend most of our money on cattle feed. We thought, if we can just get a wet break, the paddocks will come back. Well, most of those paddocks got burnt from the fires.”

Clean up is still in motion in Killabakh, along with plans to rebuild. But beyond the physical damage, many people are left with scars and trauma from the devastating bushfires.

“People are frozen and not able to prioritise, me included. I can see that some people are at a point where they don’t really know how to solve things,” explains Greg.

“The mental health toll of an incident like this on a community is almost like a simmering disaster itself.”

Greg is a member of Wesley LifeForce Manning Suicide Prevention Network, based in Taree. The network brings together community members and local organisations to create awareness about suicide and develop community-led suicide prevention strategies at a grassroot level.

Greg first joined the network after losing a friend to suicide.

“That really shocked us. We’re a tight, vibrant community so we were all just flopped because we weren’t ready for it. And I say that knowing that you’re never ready for that sort of event,” says Greg.

Wesley LifeForce Community Development Coordinator, Amy says in addition to practical help, mental health support is crucial to long-term recovery in the region.

“About post six weeks after a disaster, suicide risk is a lot higher,” explains Amy. “Going through disasters like these, trauma lasts for a long time and people respond to trauma in different ways.

“People still have the memory of the smoke, losing their home or losing a loved one. That’s why it’s really important for us to be in communities providing ongoing mental health support.”

Wesley LifeForce Manning Suicide Prevention Network is currently planning how to support communities in the Manning Valley, including Killabakh along their journey towards recovery.

“The network is still navigating the best ways to support their community ongoing. Rather than reacting quickly, we’re listening to what the community needs and asking them what they want to have as a helpful response,” explains Amy.

“This is long-term. It’s about looking at sustainable long-term support and solutions for communities like Killabakh.”

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