Helena and Justin built their home over 20 years ago. Locals in the small, tight knit Southern Highlands community watched with interest as the land they were building on had been unoccupied prior to them arriving.
Due to the tough terrain and unforgiving Aussie weather, one neighbour even placed a friendly bet that they ‘wouldn’t last a few months.’ But they fell in love with the area. Their home was nestled in the trees that they shared with sugar gliders, and they had amazing clear sky views of the constellations above at night.
Son, Gabriel is now 17 and has spent his whole life living on the land that his parents discovered while touring the community on a motorbike many years ago.
But in December, their home was destroyed, along with 40 others in a community that only had 140 homes to begin with. While their home had survived three fires previously, this time they weren’t so lucky.
In the immediate aftermath, they met many neighbours for the first time. They shared the same traumatic feelings of shock and mental anguish, but they never once considered moving.
Helena said, “My wish is to regenerate this land. Already I can see the diversity in the flora and fauna has changed since the fires.
I am very excited for what’s possible here,
Gabriel prepared the water hoses under smoky, red skies. They spent each hot night just waiting. And then on December 21, they could see flames across the edge line of the gulley next to their home. Helicopters circled, and they heard gas tanks exploding like bombs on a nearby property.
They repeatedly soaked the decks, but when trees in their backyard started to burst quickly into flames they rushed indoors. Embers fell from the sky. They equipped themselves with gas masks and face shields. Getaway cars were ready in the driveway.
They all heard a huge crash inside the house. A fireball had ripped through fireproof, double-plated glass and hit a wall of the house. Their table and chairs had disintegrated in just seconds, and the wind carried it away. Their home was built to withstand fires, but this was unprecedented.
“Gabriel was incredible,” said Helena.
“He made sure I was safe, then ran outside towards the cars. Not only did his shoes melt, but the first car didn’t start as it too had ‘melted.’
The family fled in the second car as flames surrounded them. They couldn’t see the sky and had nowhere to turn so drove in a straight line where they hoped help would be waiting.
Looking in the rear view mirror they saw a ball of flame chasing them, but thankfully up ahead they saw the yellow helmets and flashing blue lights of the fire fighters.
When they reached the fire evacuation centre, there was eerie quiet inside, but swirling winds and smoke outside. They then couch surfed from friend to friend before renting a granny flat. Weeks passed and the family’s resilience and determination got them through the hardest moments.
Gabriel is a member of the Sydney Children’s Choir who gave a surprise visit to the community. The choir, led by Gabriel, sang an impromptu song in front of what was the family home. This lifted their spirits, but they knew the way forward wouldn’t be easy.
“We’ve always stood on our own two feet, but we realized that rebuilding our lives was too big for just us. This is when Habitat ‘dropped out of the sky’”, said Helena.
As she told me this story, teams of volunteers were working tirelessly, achieving in a couple of days what would have taken the family months. Thanks to donations from all around the country, the volunteer program will run for months to come.
“The psychological impact of seeing paths and new plants is enormous. We work from sunrise to sunset, but there’s only so much we can do ourselves. You’ve cut short what would have taken us months. You are amazing!
But there are still so many hurdles ahead,” said Helena. There is urgency for additional help. Between now and the end of the year we need to chop and clear burnt trees, as there is a deadline for burn-off before the next fire season starts.
“Habitat offers something that no-one else does – the help of the community has overcome our feelings of being overwhelmed and abandoned.
As Helena finished telling me how cathartic it was sharing their story, one of the Habitat volunteers came to say goodbye. She mentioned that she had grown up in the village, leaving at 10 years old, and wanted to come back to help out. The Australian community spirit was alive and well.