From the Gong, to the Bay, to the Harbor: A Bush Fire Recovery Effort – Part 1/3

Matthew Bates

In late 2019 and into early 2020, hundreds, if not thousands of fires had broken out across Australia. At the time of this blog, fires are still burning across the nation with areas in New South Wales facing more fires and weather to come. Character Care, in partnership with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, visited fire affected areas. In September 2019 we sent two therapists to Stanthorpe Qld and we have now just returned from rural NSW to provide therapeutic support to the local communities in affected areas. We were equipped with an RV to provide a space for people to chat about anything they felt might be helpful in the next stage of their recovery. We were mobile and self-sustaining, so we did not create any extra load on the communities. Tarini (counsellor) headed from Brisbane to meet with Matt (counsellor) later in the week. Matt started in Sydney and headed south-west in a loop back to Sydney. The intention of this blog is to share the stories of the journey and provide a different view of what is happening in these areas. This blog is in 3 parts, each one released separately every couple of days…


The Gong

I quickly learnt Wollongong embraces the name “The Gong” with pride and affection. I had arrived from Sydney late in the evening on Sunday 19th January 2020. I set up the RV and ventured down to the heart of the Gong to see it for myself. Along the way, I met a volunteer from a folk festival that had been happening that weekend. The gentleman was a lovely fellow who had family members lose homes in the devastation. I was curious to “pick his brain” about what I might hear the following day in the Gong. From what I knew, no major fires had hit the area, yet there were effects from the crisis. He went on to tell me how smoke had engulfed the region for weeks creating all kinds of health concerns for the community (especially youths) and people in the community had lost properties in the bush. One story he shared was a family who had lost their house which they had built themselves and were faced with the decision to rebuild or move on. The description of the sight being “all black, just nothing but black” was a harsh reality for me, as I had not considered this image. The following day I had the privilege to meet people in the community of the Gong at the local university. One woman shared her story with me, which she gave permission for me to share further.

During the crisis, she had lost two investment properties out in the bush: one of them being her retirement plan. The land had been set up as a conservation property to rescue local wildlife. When it was safe to return, she had to remove many animal corpses and clean up the area: nothing left to salvage except some of the building. She described the situation as “harrowing.” Despite this harsh reality, a beautiful moment came from her face when she described the night’s stay after cleaning. “At night you can usually hear all the wildlife, chatting and singing. I was expecting to hear nothing. To my surprise, I heard a whole lot of birds and creatures out there. I also saw a kangaroo and her joey come out of a termite mound; she had found a way to survive!” As she described this story, she stared out the window and had a glimmer in her eye and a quiet smile. It is a moment I will forever remember and privileged to witness… a comforting moment amongst the harrowing…

The Bush – Balmoral

I left the Gong and headed to a town called Balmoral. The drive was scenic and mountainous where I began to reflect on all the wildlife lost in this tragedy. From all reports, the death toll of animals is in the billions! Once I reached the town itself, I began to feel the “harrowing” and see “the black.” Balmoral had a main road which I was situated for the day. As I drove through, I could see how the fire had no trace of a pattern: one house would be in ashes while the one next door was green and untouched, then two doors down was in ashes. It was almost like a tornado path, no way of telling where it would have gone. Once I was setup for the day, a local came to chat with me about his experience and tell stories of the town itself. Balmoral had experienced 3 fires within the last 15 years. I was located next to the “Village Hall” which the local described “has 9 lives, it has survived each fire!” We had a laugh about it but then discussed what this might mean? The hall at this time was full of donations from local communities: clothes (4 tons!) food, toiletries, water, toys, power tools, and everything in between. Maybe the hall surviving had some symbolism to the people, community, and gathering place for all to come? Not sure… I had the honor of meeting the family orchestrating the donations. They offered me a peach and I kindly refused as my directions were to not take away from the community, but they insisted and threw it at me (ha)! The generosity of the locals and their coming together in this time is inspirational. I heard a story that American fire fighters donated a bunch of face masks for people to use on the smokey days. I asked the family if they had time for themselves through all this? The question was met with a tear and a half-way smile: “we all need to pitch in and do our bit otherwise people will go without.” As this was told to me, their grandchildren were playing, made me think how in spite all this, children’s laughter is one of the purest things we have in this world. I can’t imagine how the children perceived what had occurred during this crisis. The family were off to the beach the next week before school started, which made me feel warm just hearing that they would get some time for themselves, how good!

Part 2 will be out in a couple days where the journey heads to Wingello and Bateman’s Bay, stay tuned!

BIG UPS to the team at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell for taking care us throughout the week!