A month on from the devastating bushfire, Mallacoota is beginning its recovery


February 10, 2020 06:22:06

The apocalyptic images of Mallacoota during the New Year’s Day bushfire were broadcast across the world.

Key points:

  • Mallacoota residents attend Waves of Wellness sessions to reclaim their beach
  • Students of Mallacoota P-12 return to school
  • Town is reconnected to the main power grid, and plans are being made to clear the debris

Thousands of people sheltered on the beach as the sky turned blazing red, watching as the town succumbed to the flames.

It has only been a month since that terrible day, but for the town’s permanent residents it is time to figure out what’s next.

Joel Pilgrim is the CEO of Waves of Wellness (WOW) which has been holding mental health surfing lessons in an effort for the town to “reclaim the beach”.

“What we’re trying to do is change the way people look at the beach,” he said.

“We’re saying ‘let’s reclaim our beach, let’s talk about it in a positive light and make sure it is that space where you can enjoy the ocean and be with your loved ones.'”

This is the first time WOW has worked with a fire-affected community and Mr Pilgrim said it has been a success.

“People have shared some challenging things,” he said.

“We’d love to be able to create this in more spaces.”

‘Not the greatest summer’

Eleven-year-old Kaleah Matthews attended the WOW sessions with her siblings Piper and Taya.

“Yes it’s really nice to go out there in the waves and enjoy yourself,” she said.

“We’ve had a rough experience down here because of the fires, but we had a really good time today.”

Unya Boadle is in fifth grade, and also attended WOW.

She thinks there needs to be more activities like WOW organised, to help the locals process their emotions.

“We’ve been down poo road for a while,” she said.

“It’s really nice and comforting to go surfing and all these activities.

“It’s not been the greatest summer, we had the fire and then almost a flood after the fire, and now this is just fun.”

Returning to school

School went back last week, but it has been a slow start.

Many of the students lost their uniforms, books, laptops and stationary to the fire.

Mallacoota P-12 Year 11 student Tash Clarke said many students still have not returned to town after being evacuated.

“It’s been so different compared to a normal start of the year,” she said.

“It’s weird to get back into the gist of things.”

The main school buildings were saved from the fire, but one building, and some fencing and gardening equipment were lost.

Mallacoota P-12 principal, Tim Cashmore, said despite the traumatic bushfire, the students have made a fantastic start to the new school year.

“We’ve had a lot of counsellors here, support teachers, a couple of clinical psychologists,” he said.

After the fire, trauma psychologist Robert Gordon came to Mallacoota, and advised the school community about working through the complex emotions.

“He was very calm, didn’t have overheads or handouts, he just spoke to us calmly and gently,” Mr Cashmore said.

“He told us every narrative is allowable. If a child wants to keep drawing, or if they want to keep talking, let it all happen.

“Once that happens, it’s about reassuring them that today they’re okay, ‘today you are alright,'”

Thanks to support from various agencies and the Department of Education, every student will have a laptop by the end of this week.

Confronting reminder

Authorities have estimated that more than 120 structures in Mallacoota were destroyed, including at least 100 homes.

The debris has not been cleared away yet, which is a tough and constant reminder for residents about that horrible day.

The company Grocon has been contracted to clear away the debris, and it attended an information session last week to start the process.

Leo op den Brouw is the Mallacoota SES Unit Control.

After a month of long days supporting other agencies, he has given his crews some well-deserved time off.

“It’s been really tiring, you didn’t have time to think about much,” he said.

“I’ve heard people say there’s anger [in the community] but people are just bewildered, trying to understand what’s happened and trying to work out where they’re going to next.

“We’ve got a long way to go still, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mallacoota.”

Slowly rebuilding

Sue Shaw is part-owner of the Mallacoota Bakery.

Business has been slow since the tourists were evacuated, but she is confident the town will be fine.

“A lot of them will come back, so hopefully Easter will be very good,” she said.

Geoff Belmore lost two houses in the fire, but has since been donated a caravan from Tasmania through his church community.

“It’s got everything!” he said.

“It’s got linen, pots and pans, toilet paper, it’s good.

“It feels like it’s been owned by my grandparents.”

Processing tough emotions

Mr Belmore is conscious he is still processing some tough emotions, and he is determined not to make any big decisions for a while.

“I’m staying up in NSW but I will come back to go through the property so I can hopefully find some personal items; pins from my grandmother, war medals from my pop,” he said.

“In a way I feel like a minimalist. Nothing owns me anymore. I’m free. So that’s good in a way, but you’ve got the emotion of the history of what you’ve lost.

“Obviously I’m going through the emotions of that, and that’s a good thing.

“Blokes need to cry and be real.”

Donald Ashby is another resident who lost his home, but he and his family have already decided they are staying in Mallacoota.

“We lost our house and my partner’s mother-in-law’s house. But my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s house is still standing,” he said.

“Basically I’ve been staying in a little bedsit that [was] attached to my house. But I’m spending my days at the relief centre.

“We’re going to have to wait until our block gets cleared of debris, and then we’re going to have to set up a camp on that I think.

“I’ve put a deposit on a tiny house that we can use as a core for our little camp on our old block. A friend of mine has given me a shed, and we’re picking up a caravan on Thursday, so it’s going to be a little gypsy place to live.”








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