Meet our Partner family Elizabeth who lost her home to 2019 Bushfires. Our volunteer Anne kindly wrote this story for us. Anne has been volunteering with us for over 5 years and worked on Elizabeth’s home.
Elizabeth has a new normal in her life. Just in time for Christmas. After losing everything in the devastating bushfires that tore through Balmoral in the Southern Highlands of NSW, almost exactly one year ago, in December 2019, she now has a home.
Once the final technicalities have been completed, like the electricity linked up and a new tank with pump installed alongside, she will move into the demountable provided by Habitat for Humanity Australia.
Delivered on the back of a truck it was freshly painted and made ready by several teams of volunteers on the Habitat for Humanity Australia Bushfire Recovery program. Although intended to be only temporary, until she can rebuild her house, it is light and airy, with a large, comfortable bed, a well-equipped kitchen as well as a shower and a proper toilet.
For the handover ceremony, early in December, Elizabeth had filled vases with flowers and put fresh bed linen on the bed and cushions on the chairs.
“I wanted all the lovely volunteers who were there, to see how nice it was,” she said. “To see what a difference it will make to me.”
Elizabeth wasn’t at home on December 19th when the wave of fire fronts raged through destroying ten homes in Balmoral. “I had evacuated,” she said. “I knew my place was a high risk and would probably burn down, watching the way the fire fronts were traveling… and the temperatures were up in the 40s and the wind was absolutely horrendous and erratic.”
Two days later, on the 21st, she was proved right. Her house, which she had bought 11 years ago as a “bolt hole” from city living, was razed along with most outbuildings when the fires again swept through. Her six acres of bushland, once teeming with wildlife, was left looking like a war zone; the earth scorched black, the charred shapes of giant trees, littering the ground and the skyline. No sign of life.
“The property was totally bush except for a little bit we’d cleared around the house,” she says. “I was running it informally as land for wildlife because I had an incredible variety of animals, birds, and plants”. And to her, that has been one of the deepest losses.
“Some of the bigger birds are starting to return,” she says. “But none of the little ones, so far. All the vegetation they needed had gone, although some is beginning to grow back.” Although she was ecstatic when she found a tiny possum exploring her shed – ”It’s going to be a long battle.”
Elizabeth had spent much of her life doing jobs that kept her linked to, and active in, the community, including as a teacher and social services worker. When the fire hit she was working one day a week as chaplain at a retirement village in Mittagong.
She was given compassionate leave for a couple of months and lived in a cottage there, but was eventually retrenched when they closed the main care branch due to COVID. Although offered the chance to stay in the cottage for longer if she wanted, she felt it was time to move back to her property, whatever the conditions there.
“I wanted to get back to the village, to the community,” she says. “Even when I was in Mittagong I was going back up pretty much every day, volunteering at the community hall which was the local recovery support centre; working with them to make sure people were getting the right assistance.”
So, eight months ago, “home” became the tin shed she had built ten years before. Despite its bushfire rating, all the back panels had been burned, all the gutters were useless, several of the windows were and the water tank rolled down the front of the building and was wrecked. There was no proper toilet or shower facilities.”
As well as helping her with repairs and restoration, the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, some of whom have been to her property several times, became friendly faces. The group’s chatter and laughter, alongside their hard work, a welcome distraction.
She said she was impressed by how skilled some of the volunteers were. And how keen and hardworking everyone was.
“One day, a group of them build a shed for storage, which was wonderful. I don’t think that anyone who is trying to help you in a disaster situation really realises how important having enough space to put things is. I’ve got a storage unit in Mittagong but you don’t want things like clothes and food a 40-kilometre round trip away.”
Does she feel the arrival of the demountable will mean real change to her life?
“To be honest, the feeling of relief that I will have at least a decent bathroom on-site, that’s probably the biggest thing of all, to just be able to go to the loo, and have a shower, use a sink inside to do the washing up in. Even though I have nice neighbours who help me, let me use the loo every morning and have a shower every couple of days, anyone who has not been through it cannot realise how having decent basics for living, make such an incredible difference.”
It will also provide her with a decent “base” from which she will be continuing to use her knowledge of “the system” and her great tenacity to lobby on behalf of bushfire prone areas in general, and Balmoral in particular.
She has already written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison asking that he maintain the $40,000 cash housing grants when it was going to be reduced. So far, it has remained at $40,000. But she will be writing again. “I am asking, on behalf of the people who have been hit by fires all around the state, not only to not reduce it but to raise the money.” She also wants to ensure that centralisation of decisions and financing does not diminish or ignore the considerable local expertise and requirements.
Elizabeth and I are talking over lunch in The Glass Café in Mittagong where her son, the self nicknamed Crispy, works in the kitchen. It’s alive with laughter and chatter. Afterwards, she is on her way to her first live music concert for “an age”. Both under carefully-curated COVID restrictions. A new normal, but greatly appreciated. Just like her new home where she will be celebrating Christmas.
Author: Anne Fussel