Earlier this month Habitat for Humanity South Australia mobilised volunteers in the Bushfire Recovery program to help Sinclaire and Janet clear debris left after the fires.
After driving through a police barrier at 5am on the morning of December 21, Sinclair and Janet feared the worst.
Both cried as they inched closer to their home.
“It was apocalyptic. Fires were still alight in the trees and spot fires were in the paddock. Everything was black,” Janet remembered. “We broke down when we saw the tip of the roof as we knew at that moment that the house had survived.”
The day before they had prepared the house the best they could for what was to come. The sprinklers were turned on, the barbecue gas bottle removed, and cattle hand watered and walked to the dam for safety.
The home was quite clearly a labour of love for the couple, both in their 70’s. Having invited me in for a cuppa, they spoke from the heart about what the house meant to them.
“We’ve been here for 37 years, when we were in our 30’s. Since then we have poured our heart and soul into this place, and any extra money we had.”
After 53 years of working life, Janet had only just retired in November and was ready to put her feet up…sort of.
“When you live with Sinclair putting your feet up in impossible!” she laughed.
So when the impact of the fires dawned on them, it was overwhelming. A studio to the side of the house had been badly damaged, a caravan was destroyed, and the fencing and pine trees were reduced to blackened sticks.
“We just didn’t know where to start. Physically, in our 70’s we haven’t got the energy we used to.”
With their children and six grandchildren helping, they have pulled together by dividing weekends to clean the property. But it wasn’t until the Habitat volunteers showed up that they could see light at the end of the tunnel.
“The team of volunteers cut and piled up dead trees, carted wood and removed the damaged fencing in a matter of hours.”
Sinclair proudly walked me to the huge pile of debris that had been stacked, ready to be removed, dragging an errant branch behind him. Seeing him standing next to the pile hit home just how long this would have taken him without the support of Habitat supporters like you.
“We think we’re lucky but it really gets to you. I was crying for a couple of days after the fire. You don’t know where to start.
This was the first time we’ve ever needed help. We’ve paid taxes and looked after ourselves, but we really needed help. And organisations like Habitat for Humanity were here for us. It’s not just the work you do, but to know that morally, someone is helping us is overwhelming.”
Walking back to the home, there was a narrow wooden bridge, leading to a small grassy island, sitting in the middle of a dried up creek bed. It was a miracle it had survived when there was so much around it blackened, including the huge, haunting pine forest in the background.
Sinclair and Janet had built the bridge with their own hands – another real labour of love. They’ve spent many happy times on the island having lunch and high tea, with their dog Tuva.
It was heart-warming to hear the couple tell their stories, and I understood what it meant to them that there would be so many more memories made there.
“We’ve got kids in their 40’s who will benefit from this place. All the bits and pieces we do here are to help our kids in the long term. That’s why it’s so important we restore everything we can from the fire.”
Janet expressed how much she valued the support of Habitat and the volunteers helping out.
“I really got a taste of the other side of volunteering. They were so respectful and didn’t make us feel disadvantaged for asking for help. We are very grateful.”
One volunteer in particular was special to Janet. A 15 year old volunteer said at one stage on the day that she felt useless. Janet spoke with her to say “We value you just for being here. From then on she was beaming.”
As I left Janet said thank you again, and to reiterate that she thought ‘so many others were more deserving.’ I politely disagreed.