Surreal Silence After the Chaos of Bushfires
Monday 23 March, 2020
Vinnies continues to support people recovering from the bushfires, even as the coronavirus crisis unfolds across the country. To date we have distributed more than $11.8 million in relief funds, and won’t stop until every last dollar donated to the Vinnies Bushfire Appeal is put to good use.
Warning: The below story contains some graphic details.
It might be comical if it wasn’t so horrifying: a full-sized horse standing in the middle of a living room, taking shelter from a bushfire with four budgies, two chickens, a rabbit, and their terrified owner.
That’s the situation Tinamaria Reberger found herself in on New Year’s Eve, as the Currowan Fire bore down on the South Coast town of Conjola Park.
Tinamaria and her beloved horse, Percy.
While the owner of the house and Tinamaria’s carer fought the blaze outside, she poured a nip of whisky each for herself and her horse, Percy. She figured they might as well have a toast to their final moments.
“The sound was really something that’ll stay with me forever,” Tinamaria says. “The intensity of it – I thought the glass door was going to buckle and explode.
“Sirens were going off in the house, all the alarms, and I just thought ‘oh, this is it’. We were surrounded like a moat of fire.”
Tinamaria is able to let out a chuckle as she says it was “a long day” – a classic understatement. Her account is nothing short of apocalyptic: pitch-black darkness in the middle of the day, the smell of burning, birds dropping dead at the window, and the sound of cows in the field next-door calling out before being silenced.
Photos taken from Tinamaria’s property during the fire.
Thankfully, everyone at Tinamaria’s property survived – pets included.
Cars, golf buggies, outbuildings, a water tank, and shelters for the pets were destroyed, and the edges of the house a little charred. Yet the home and its contents stand intact – a better fate than the 89 Conjola Park homes that were destroyed.
Situated on a hill above a lake, no one expected the town to fall victim to the bushfire in such a severe way. That was why Tinamaria and her household chose to stay and defend; the owner of the house is a former firefighter, and Tinamaria had survived a previous house-fire. They didn’t know they were up against something of unprecedented fury.
The terror of the fires wasn’t only felt by those in the middle of it. Tinamaria’s adult children live elsewhere and were desperate to find out if she was OK. The phone line had cut out in the middle of a conversation with her son, and conflicting reports came out of the area while the emergency was still unfolding. Her daughter Melody desperately tried calling her but couldn’t get through.
In the wake of the fire, Tinamaria’s daughter and son-in-law did something extraordinary: they swam across an inlet and then walked 10 kilometres to the Conjola Caravan Park to find out if she had survived. Once they received word she was safe, they returned home, only to come back with food, water and other essentials for the stranded locals. Tinamaria’s four children and their partners all pitched into the relief effort.
A photo taken by Tinamaria’s kids as they attempted to come to her rescue.
Tinamaria says that kind of determined generosity has been a common sight across the bushfire-stricken South Coast. The shared nightmare has brought the community closer together.
Locals aren’t just suffering due to the bushfire, but also its after-effects. Businesses have been gutted by the impact on the tourism industry.
“Everybody here holds their breath through winter to get to summer, to make their money to afford to pay everything to get through another winter,” Tinamaria explains. “That’s just the cycle down here because there’s not much around to do through winter with the tourist industry. So people will be hurting that way, financially.”
While she still has her home, Tinamaria is worried the fire has done lasting damage to her health. She already has severe arthritis, has endured spinal surgery, and is on a disability pension that helps pay for her live-in carer. Her lungs have been hurting since the fire, making it hard to breathe and talk – and to sing, one of the things that would otherwise bring her joy through such a difficult period.
Tinamaria’s carer and the owner of the property, taking stock of the damage after the fire.
This should have been a happy time of year for Tinamaria. She looks forward to the warmer months because the heat eases her arthritic joints. And this is her first summer in Conjola Park, since moving here in August 2019. Her horse had already been agisted on the property, and the owner generously offered for Tinamaria and her carer to move in as permanent house-sitters, free of charge. It was a dream come true – turned into a nightmare.
Yet Tinamaria doesn’t like to complain; she is grateful that she still has her life, her home and her beloved horse. She has also received financial help from Vinnies, after meeting our volunteers in the Ulladulla Recovery Centre. She’s using the funds to replace damaged carpets and repair other bits and pieces.
Fire damage at Tinamaria’s property.
“I’m really lucky, I’m really blessed,” she says. “I can tell you that prayers are powerful – that’s what got us through.”
The community is in a “surreal” phase at the moment, Tinamaria says. With the fires over, the bushland is beginning to rehabilitate, with shades of green poking through the blackened landscape. But it’s still “hauntingly quiet”, a stark contrast to the birdsong that used to ring out through the town.
People are starting to fall back into a routine, debris is being cleared, and repairs underway. Yet Tinamaria strongly believes that beyond the physical recovery, counselling will be needed for the whole community.
“I know I’m going to need to talk about it,” she says. “You sort of get along just automatically, and then when you start talking about it you notice that it’d affected you more than you know.”
She wants to be involved in the community’s recovery and hopes she can contribute through her music. She also hopes that by sharing her story, she can help Vinnies raise more funds to continue helping over the long months ahead.
Will you make a contribution to support bushfire recovery in communities like Conjola Park? Please donate today at www.bushfireappeal.com.au or over the phone on 13 18 12.