From paradise to a horror movie

1 February 2020

On a sunny weekend, families tow their boats down to Lake Conjola and set them out into the gentle water. Kids run down to the shoreline shouting with glee. There are picnic blankets and beach umbrellas.

It’s a far cry from the scenes of horror that unfolded here on New Years Eve, though you only have to look across the lake to be reminded. There lie rows upon rows of scorched trees, charred trunks leading up to auburn leaves that could almost trick you into thinking it’s autumn.

This lake probably saved Ken and Lorraine Bone’s lives. By the time any news or emergency warnings came through to the area on 31 December, it was too late to leave – they had to find shelter as flames rapidly approached.

Communities Stronger Together

You hear one thing repeated over and over again on the South Coast: that getting through the bushfires was a community effort. There are so many stories about the kindness of strangers and neighbours, and Ken and Lorraine’s story is no different. Their neighbour took them out onto the lake in his boat, along with two other people and a dog. They sat in the middle of the lake for three hours, at times unable to see the shore through the smoke.

“It was just like sitting in a 3D movie, it was just so thick with smoke and explosions,” Lorraine said. “You're hearing explosion after explosion, and we knew we had gas bottles at our place, and just thought, is that our place going up, or is that our car? 'Cause it just went on and on and on for so long.”

By the late afternoon, 89 homes in Ken and Lorraine’s small town of Conjola Park had been lost. When the couple could finally come home, they found an utterly different town to the one they’d left just a few hours before.

“We just couldn’t believe it when we came back,” Lorraine said.

“Drove up the street, and just not a house,” Ken added.

Yet amongst it all, their house was still standing – although seriously damaged. For Lorraine, whose parents had built the home based on a design by her brother, it was both a miracle and a relief.

Despite still having part of their home, Ken and Lorraine have been unable to return since the disaster; the house is too unstable to safely live in. They are staying in a villa provided by their insurer, where they expect to be for at least half a year.

Vinnies Here to Help

While the bushfire has shaken them to their core, it has boosted their faith in their community. Ken has spent the last three years volunteering as a local Vinnies member, devoting his days since retirement to looking after people in need. Now it’s his turn to receive some of that care and support, and Vinnies has given him and Lorraine $4,000 to help them back on their feet.

“Vinnies as an organisation has really - I mean, they're great. You can't speak highly enough of them,” Lorraine said.

The couple are no strangers to tragedy. Almost 20 years ago, soon after they moved to the Shoalhaven, their son passed away in a house fire. They got to know the local Vinnies group shortly after, when our members stepped in to help cater for the funeral and offer their support.

Now, as they reel from the effects of another fire, Lorraine and Ken find themselves reliving that past tragedy. They’re not the only ones who say the bushfires have reopened old wounds.

“The trauma we’re seeing, there’s still people in shock,” said Col Billett, Vice President of the Vinnies St Mary Star of the Sea Conference, which is leading our local relief effort.

“There’s still people who aren’t able to get out because their cars have been destroyed and things like that. Their habitats have been destroyed, their livelihoods have been destroyed, that piece of their life has been ruined and for some, I don’t know if they’ll ever recover.”

Col has been leading a group of volunteers, both local and travelling from Sydney and beyond, to give support at the Ulladulla Evacuation Centre and Recovery Centre. In the first week the Recovery Centre was up and running, Col’s team helped about 25 families per day and distributed almost $250,000 in urgent relief payments.

“It’s going to take a long, long time for a lot of people to ever recover to what they would consider normality,” Col said.

Ken and Lorraine agree – for now they’re taking it day by day, trying not to get overwhelmed by what lies ahead.

One thing is certain: Vinnies will continue to be there, our volunteers standing by their own communities as they rebuild and recover.