“It’s all gone” Henry’s long road to recovery

Henry Sonogan had spent 40 years building up his farm at Buchan, near Bairnsdale, but it took only one night during New Year in 2020 for a ferocious bushfire to wipe it out with the indifference only nature can inflict. 

He was in Melbourne visiting family at the time and the impact of the fire on the 250-acre property Henry has owned since 1974 was confirmed in a phone call from one of his siblings who lives locally. “It’s all gone Henry, you’ve lost everything,” his brother told him. Henry had to wait a further week before he was finally allowed back to his home to view the destruction for himself.  

“The roof of my house was lying in the front yard, having been lifted up and dumped there by the force of the blaze. I built the house myself in 1994. It was double brick, with all the gutters cleaned and surrounds cleared and prepped for fires, so it was devastating that it all went up,” says Henry.  

Tree stumps kept burning, glowing into the distant night, for months afterwards, he adds. 

Almost unbelievably, it was the second time that fire had devastated Henry’s life. When he was 19, the home he had shared with his parents and eight siblings on the family’s Narre Warren farm was burnt to the ground due to an electrical fault, and they were lucky to escape with their lives.  

And now at 72, losing his own farm under similar circumstances seems a punishing way to bookend his life. “Yes, I’ve been through it all before,” he says, his voice cracking.  

Starting from scratch again at his age is a profound challenge of physical and emotional perseverance, but one year on from the horrendous fires that ripped through eastern Victoria and so many other parts of the country, Henry’s resilience is something to behold.  

“I put so much into the farm, it was my life’s work, but there were people worse off than me. I’m still here. I’ve still got the land, there’s grass growing everywhere now,” he says. “I’ve got no major health issues. The physical work keeps my mind active, so I just keep going.” 

Along with his home, he lost a shed with a lot of machinery, but one shed survived that fortunately housed his tractor, so he was able to begin the clear-up himself soon afterwards. “I think I would have collapsed if my tractor had gone too,” he says. 

Henry received a recovery grant from Vinnies, along with kitchen supplies and clothing, including all-weather gear. “The Vinnies grant was marvellous because I’ve needed so many bits and pieces, like a microwave, washing machine and then fencing material,” he says. 

Henry hopes to return the farm to income generation at some point, but for now he’s focused on rebuilding sheds and accommodation, although his insurance claim has not been enough to rebuild something comparable to his old home. “The fencing was the first priority, so I can get the animals back.” He now has two paddocks ready to restock, when livestock prices get a bit lower, because demand is high while other affected farmers in the area are also trying to restock. 

“The small grants have really helped because I’ve had to put in a septic tank and do lots of plumbing. It’s taken most of the year to get a plumber in to get a shower and toilet going,” he says. “But the donations have made a real difference, especially knowing they came from the public who wanted to help.” 

Progress on building new accommodation has been slow, because of the high demand for builders and the impact of COVID-19 on supplies. Henry, who is still living in a caravan, has finally been able to contract a builder who will begin on his accommodation in the new year, now that planning and building permissions have been recently finalised. Before that though, tradesmen have to extend the existing shed that will be used to house building supplies.  

There were only two horses on the property at the time of the fire, which amazingly survived, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for wildlife, including a 20-strong colony of koalas that lived on Henry’s farm. “There was total destruction of wildlife. For a long time, I’ve seen not one lyrebird, not one wallaby, not one kangaroo,” he says.

But there are glimmers of renewal, Henry adds, having sighted a couple of kookaburras in recent weeks, and he is expecting to receive a government biodiversity grant to rebuild the koala community’s habitat. Meanwhile, the zucchinis in his new vegetable garden “are going mad”. 

Henry says he is fortunate to have support from siblings in the area, and the help of a family friend’s son. His determination and spirit is an inspiration, but Henry’s story shows what a long road recovery is for people affected by the fires. “I don’t think it could have been done any sooner with the wait to get builders and the pandemic. It’s the volume of work that’s creating the delays because there is so much infrastructure that has to be replaced in the area,” he says. 

Having been a regular customer at the local Vinnies Shop over the years, Henry was aware that our volunteers have long been part of the town’s fabric. 

“Oh yes, I know Vinnies Bairnsdale,” he says – and that we will continue to be here for the community as the recovery continues.