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Voice of Real Australia: Bushfire communities still struggle a year on

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OVERWHELMED: Wytaliba RFS brigade did its best to battle last year's devastating Kangawalla fire, and saved many houses and lives. But most of the community burned to the ground. Photo: Wytaliba RFS

OVERWHELMED: Wytaliba RFS brigade did its best to battle last year's devastating Kangawalla fire, and saved many houses and lives. But most of the community burned to the ground. Photo: Wytaliba RFS

A little over a year ago, the skies turned black across Eastern Australia.

Australia's worst-ever fire season is now called the Black Summer bushfires, but for Northern NSW the battle started far earlier.

For two small, isolated communities in the New England region, it hasn't ended yet. Residents say they're struggling to rebuild - and in some cases, even to breathe - months after the fires were extinguished.

As a reporter at a one-journalist local paper, the Glen InnesExaminer, I was the first media on scene at the evacuation centre where victims fled.

I went back to the communities a year later for our Voice of Real Australia podcast to see how the bushfire survivors still living in the devastated communities are living and rebuilding after the worst day of their lives.

On the blazing hot, windy afternoon of November 8 2019, twin bushfires tore through the villages of Wytaliba and Torrington.

CHOKED: Glen Innes covered in bushfire smoke. Photo: Andrew Messenger

CHOKED: Glen Innes covered in bushfire smoke. Photo: Andrew Messenger

It was the busiest day of the nation's largest ever bushfire season. Some 17 emergency-level fires burned at once. RFS and other emergency services were forced to spread firefighting resources thin.

In Wytaliba, there was no warning. Just two RFS trucks joined the local brigade to hold back a massive wall of flame charging at the speed of a freight train that afternoon.

Most of the community burned to the ground. Famously the mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council Carol Sparks lost her own home badly damaged in the fire. Her son-in-law was among a dozen injured. Two locals were killed.

An evacuation centre was established that afternoon in nearby Glen Innes for the bushfire refugees.

Schoolchildren from a primary school that had burned to the ground still wore their uniforms. Fortunately, they had left class early that day - the fire hit just after 3pm.

Two people died in Wytaliba in last year's blazes. Photo: David Pieters

Two people died in Wytaliba in last year's blazes. Photo: David Pieters

Residents were gradually coming to terms with suddenly becoming homeless. Others asked around for information on friends and family; there was no clear death toll for days with the road back blocked.

Local Red Cross volunteers I knew personally provided aid and emergency housing. Over the next days, the Glen Innes community spontaneously filled up the building with charity, everything from a donated change of clothes to food and drink. Some travelled hundreds of kilometres to help out.

Meanwhile Cr Sparks ignited a national war of words by using the tragedy to demand action on climate change, telling the world the scale of the unprecedented rolling natural tragedy could only be explained by a warming planet.

But a year on many residents of the two settlements of about 100 now feel they have been forgotten about as they do their best to rebuild and recover from the deadly fires.

Government aid has been limited - though the ruins of their homes were cleared up for free by state government contractors in an epic effort several months' long.

Residents still live in tents or their cars, or temporary pod accommodation. Some have left their communities entirely. Many are underinsured, more are uninsured entirely.

Others are still experiencing the long-term health effects of the twin horror bushfires from November last year. The toxic thick bushfire smoke may have gone, but the health effects have lingered.

The biggest concern of all is that communities are not much safer now than they were in 2019. Trees still surround Torrington. And climate change continues apace.

It's likely that, for both isolated communities, the black summer won't be their last fire season.

In the prescient words of Red Cross CEO Judy Slatyer, who in Glen Innes in August last year essentially predicted the 2019 fire season: "I've probably just been through the coolest summer I'll see for the rest of my life".

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