It took Allan Wallwork weeks to bring himself to light the match. He carefully gathered the blackened, scorched remains of trees in his yard ravaged by bushfires that tore through his Sarsfield property last New’s Year’s Eve and left them in a pile one afternoon in spring.
“I’ll do a burn-off this week,” he told his wife Lyn.
But day after day Allan stood staring at the pile in the yard, ashen-faced and trembling, before walking back to the shed he has been living in since his home was left a smouldering heap of charred bricks last summer.
“I just can’t do it,” he told his wife.
“He kept saying ‘I can’t light the match’,” Lyn says. “All the memories of that night came flooding back.”
The wafting smoke from a neighbour burning off is enough to drag the victims of last year’s bushfires right back to those hellish moments when the skies turned blood red, then black, and thousands of people wondered if they would live or die.
The bushfires were the worst since Black Saturday, killing 33 Australians and destroying more than 2500 homes.
But a year later, Victoria’s fire victims are still struggling to find their way. Many are hopping between temporary homes or living in sheds and caravans on their fire-ravaged properties.
As the anniversary inches closer, their grief is surfacing in myriad ways.
A few months ago Mark Brooks, who lost the home he built by hand as bushfires ripped through the upper reaches of the Murray River, felt a sharp pain and a lump in the right side of his stomach. He was told by doctors he had a hernia, likely brought on by the prolonged stress of trying to rebuild his home.
“I was working so hard to try and get things done that my liver started poking out of my tummy,” says Brooks, who sleeps in a caravan on the land he has lived on for 60 years.
“I’ve gone through a lot of shit this year. The fires hit. I got flooded four times. My car packed it in and I ended up just hitting the wall because I was checkmated. Then the depression hit.”
Trauma counsellor Victoria Shaw, whose Clifton Creek farm burned for weeks during the bushfires, says some survivors of the East Gippsland fires still sit in her office quietly shaking with rage.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world soon after the fires, they felt forgotten and angry. When Christmas drew closer, some started bursting into tears.
Trauma can take hold in sudden and unexpected ways, Shaw says: “It doesn’t usually kick in for adults until nine to 12 months after the event.
“But when it does, this is the time when you really start to see that chronic distress and the grief and the post-traumatic stress disorder really starts to creep in. People put it away, bury it, or maybe they haven’t dealt with it, but they can’t bury it forever. It starts to rear its head.”
Sometimes it is the smell of smoke or the way the dappled sunlight falls through the trees when the sky is grey. For others, the sound of the Vic Emergency App beeping on their phone is enough to trigger paralysing anxiety.
“I have spoken with firefighters who have taken a lot of abuse and continue to take abuse from people who say ‘well, why couldn’t you save my house? Why weren’t you there?’,” Shaw says. “One of the local fire chiefs has resigned from stress. He feels like he is to blame and can’t take it anymore. They’re holding him responsible for things that in actual fact he’s not responsible for.”
Shaw says just as they were emerging from last summer’s calamitous fire season the pandemic robbed people of human connection and solace. Free meals put on by volunteers and fundraisers to rebuild were swiftly cancelled.
“We are all still reeling,” says Jann Gilbert, whose Mallacoota unit was destroyed. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that we’ve been wearing face masks all year, long before COVID. For the first two months of the year we couldn’t breathe.”
Apocalyptic images of Mallacoota burning on New Year’s Eve were broadcast around the world as thousands of locals and holidaymakers sought refuge on the beach.
Parents clutched their children as they watched flames incinerate the town. Roads were cut off for weeks and those stranded were left for days until they could be ferried away from the town’s wharf to Navy ships in a mass rescue.
In this sleepy coastal town in East Gippsland, more than 100 homes were reduced to rubble. To date, just five have been rebuilt.
Gilbert has moved house six times this year and says many locals feel trapped living in caravans and sheds long after attention shifted to the COVID-19 crisis.
The marine biologist spent Christmas in a rental home after waiting until June for demolition workers, delayed by the pandemic, to clear away the wreckage of her home.
“It was just one delay after another and that gets fairly heartbreaking as well as frustrating,” she says.
Last Saturday afternoon, Mallacoota’s population of just over 1000 came together for the first time this year.
“It was just a gathering and there was music, food and all that good stuff,” Gilbert says. “It was the first thing this year that has felt normal.”
She says the pandemic and the bushfires have been the “biggest wake-up call for humanity”.
“If the government doesn’t make the necessary changes to accept climate change, then this will be for nothing,” she says.
“The two major catastrophes that happened this year were both human-induced. The bushfires were fuelled by climate change, then we had a pandemic, which is also fuelled by the way humans deal with their environment, animals and wildlife. My hope is that in the new year people will start waking up.”
But Bairnsdale Rotary Club president Pearl Findlay-James says that one year on, some of those affected by the fires are “still living in Third World conditions in a First World country”.
“What we are finding is that we still have homeless people,” she says.
One woman with serious health issues has no sanitation or fresh water at her fire-damaged property. “When we became aware … we gave her a donated caravan and she has since had to move into a caravan park so she could have access to showers and fresh water,” Findlay-James says.
She says the rotary club is also helping set up mental health programs across East Gippsland.
Some Melburnians are even revisiting Mallacoota to mark the anniversary of the fires.
“They say they want to go back to the place it happened for closure,” she says.
In the farming community of Wairewa, between Bruthen and Orbost in East Gippsland, the process of rebuilding seems a long way off for some residents, as does any healing of the emotional wounds.
Wairewa recovery committee secretary Julie Saunders says the heroic efforts of a neighbour saved her house, but many were not so lucky. Eleven houses were lost out 24 at the northern end of the community. Only one has been completely rebuilt.
Signs of trauma linger near the surface for those who survived. Many locals huddled together in the town’s hall as a ring of fire roared around them.
One man staggered into the hall the morning after the fires, his face covered in ash and soaking wet. He had spent the night in the creek. He drank an entire bottle of water without taking a breath before he could speak a word.
Even now, a casual conversation between neighbours can quickly become an overwhelming experience. “They well up and you see the lump in their throat and they say ‘I just can’t keep going’,” Saunders says.
After the fires there were regular community breakfasts on Saturdays. They brought people together, allowing them to check in on one another, before heading out to work on their farms or otherwise getting on with their weekend. But when the pandemic hit the breakfasts had to be scrapped.
‘There was this weird determination to stay’
A vegetable patch was the only thing that survived when fire tore through Joshua Collings’ Cudgewa property.
Just hours before the fires destroyed his home, Collings and his partner Kate Crowley packed some possessions and food in their car and returned to the festival where they had spent the day to pack up their campsite.
A group of about 30 people gathered in the safety of Collings’ gallery in the small town. “As it went on the fires were getting closer and closer,” he says. “You could hear the gas cylinders popping off and shooting into the sky. We found out about our house from someone sending us video footage of it burning.”
Despite losing his home, Collings insists he feels positive about the future. He recently signed a contract to build a new house on his property.
While there have been some lingering doubts living in a bushfire-prone area, Collings believes they have made the right decision.
“Straight away there was this weird determination to stay. We’ve definitely had thoughts about whether this is the best place to be. But we’re pretty committed to the town.”
Both the fires and the pandemic have inspired Collings to help establish a market garden cooperative growing vegetables so the town can be self-sufficient if it is ever again cut off.
“We need to actually be able to take care of ourselves. Every regional town should be growing their own food and providing their own electricity.”
The prospect of starting over somewhere else never crossed Mark Brooks’ mind. His heart feels anchored to the land in the Upper Thowgla valley, near Corryong.
“It’s the only place on this earth that is my home,” he says.
He is also in the process of building his dream home, a dome-shaped beehive house that will have hexagonal windows from floor to ceiling. It will run purely on solar power, with tinted glass that changes colour in the sun: “I plan on being a modern-day hippie.”
Like many of those who lost their homes, Brooks cannot imagine where he would be without the kindness of his community and strangers who are now friends.
Since the lockdown was lifted in Melbourne, 20 men have been driving up to the Brooks property, their utes filled with steel and timber, volunteering their time to build him a one-bedroom cottage until his permanent home is finished.
“They heard a bloke might need a hand, then all of a sudden they come up one weekend with all the plaster and all the steel,” he says. “They haven’t stopped coming. They are so beautiful and helpful. I have often said if I make it through this year I am going to be bulletproof, but I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Back in Sarsfield, Allan Wallwork finally did light the match.
A few days later, after months unable to leave his shed because he thought he might break down if he ran into someone he knew, he gathered the courage to face the outside world. The 72-year-old grandfather of 10 caught up with friends from the local collectable car club.
The slow march to emotional recovery had begun.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.
Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.