Looking Forward After Losing Everything

14 February 2020

Vinnies is continuing to support people impacted by the devastating bushfire crisis by distributing relief funds, emotional support and providing food, water, clothing and other essentials.

Every day we are working with communities to help people get back on their feet. This is Al and Storm’s story of how they are rebuilding from the fires that swept through Wytaliba last November.

The unpredictability of bushfires means typical stories are rare, but Al Bacon shares an experience common to many survivors: his home, contents and outbuildings were all destroyed in the blaze that engulfed the Wytaliba community late last year.

The picturesque Northern Tablelands town, spanning 3,500 heavily-treed acres, became popular with alternative lifestylers several decades ago. Aspiring to an idyllic life, they built their own homes, established a collective, and in time had enough kids to warrant the opening of a government primary school. It’s easy to see how the beauty of the Wytaliba landscape would draw in those who came.

The Scenic Wytaliba Landscape

Al and his partner Storm – whose gran Carol is the Glen Innes Shire mayor – moved to Wytaliba three years ago, and now have a boy Zeke, aged 13 months. Al, a hard-working jack of many trades, is a skilled concreter and builder. When not doing paid work outside the community, he helped locals with repairs and maintenance.

Then, on 8 November last year, fires swept along the valley, fuelled by a 70-kilometre-per-hour wind and drought conditions that had turned the eucalypts into a time bomb. Only 18 of Wytaliba’s 70 homes survived, with sheds, vehicles and in Al’s case, two banks of expensive solar storage batteries also destroyed.

Al standing with the burnt remains of his Wytaliba home

Few community members had insurance on their homes or possessions, and as Al said, most were living “off the grid” and had no spare funds.

Most tragically, lives were lost, including that of Al’s close neighbour, 83-year-old George Nole, who long ago worked at NASA. George died in his car, having sought refuge from the flames. In attempting to rescue him, Al suffered extensive burns to his arms and face that would necessitate four trips to the burns unit of Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital. Caused by thermal heat, rather than direct flame, his burns have healed remarkably well and one day he will be building a new family home.

When the fire passed, the extensive destruction of Wytaliba was clear to see. The rebuilding process will be slow, expensive and emotionally gruelling, although positive signs have emerged: the public school was repaired in time for the start of this year’s term 1. The occasional wallaby edges nervously towards patches of grass regrowth, although the toll on the once abundant wildlife was massive. 

“Slow Down – precious creatures”, reads a handmade road sign with a drawing of a lyrebird 

Before they can clear and rebuild, they’re awaiting an asbestos all-clear from council’s hazmat unit, as traces were found on their property, possibly from one of the sheds built by a previous occupant. As Al picks through the rubble of the family’s belongings, he speaks of their determination to return to Wytaliba, intending to “change the landscape” with a dozer, then begin with a garage and verandah before starting on the house proper.

Like so many bushfire evacuees in eastern Australia, Al, Storm and Zeke are living in rental accommodation in town. Vinnies was the first organisation to help them, providing $4,000 in total along with clothing and other essentials to replace what was lost. Since speaking to the ABC about their ordeal, the young family have been supported by several other agencies and community organisations.

“Vinnies has been brilliant,” Al said. “The initial emergency funding came through quickly, and the ongoing support has been so important to helping us get through. The personal support is vital and really appreciated. The fires have been demoralising for so many people, and it’s important for them not to feel they have to face the future alone.”

Al with his partner Storm and baby Zeke receiving assistance from Vinnies volunteer Kerry

Our volunteer Regional President, Kerry Muir, has met with more than 50 fire-impacted households so far, most from Wytaliba. Kerry managed the allocation of $161,000 in Vinnies Bushfire Appeal funds to the local community within a month or so of the fire’s occurring.

“Kerry’s a gem… I’ve known him since he was one of my teachers at school,” Al said. “He’s very well connected in the local community, which is a great asset.

“Thank you Vinnies for helping us and so many others at this terrible time.”

If you have been affected by bushfires, call us on 13 18 12 to see how we can help.