As the Bega Valley steps forward bravely in its recovery from the March 18 bushfires, the power of storytelling is coming into play with a new project aimed at capturing the history and humanity of this event.
The idea comes from people across the region who in some shape or form have been touched by the flames that moved through Reedy Swamp, Vimy Ridge, and Tathra on that Sunday afternoon and what has followed since.
Tathra’s John Plumb stayed in town that day fighting hard to save houses, he says he finds putting his experience down on paper to be very healing.
“For me, seeing my story on paper really helped my recovery,” he says.
“For many people, it might be too raw to tell their story now, but this project will take a while and might help people at different times as they begin to recover.”
About a dozen people have started to come together around the idea of gathering the personal stories of this event; with the working title of “Stories of March 18”.
Jan Harris from Vimy Ridge is also part of the group, her family home was one of the 65 destroyed.
“I am just one of many stories, I would love to see them all together – a treasure chest that will help us grow stronger,” Jan says.
“Hopefully by telling and sharing our stories we can come to terms with what has occurred and look to the future.”
The group is made up of people who all had different experiences on that day 15 weeks ago, including people whose homes were destroyed, people who stayed to defend their home and others, people who were evacuated to Bega, Bermagui and beyond, people called into the firefighting effort, and people whose homes were saved but are heartbroken at the impact this has had on the community and environment they love.
At this stage, the Stories of March 18 steering group is simply interested in collecting stories in whatever format people are comfortable expressing themselves.
Nurse Rhonda Bradford is part of the group, she is sharing part of her ‘Story of Mach 18’ as a way of encouraging others.
Rhonda’s Story of March 18
Home from camping, unpacked car, showered, power goes off.
From my unit on Andy Pool Drive, the fire was coming up beside and above. The helicopter water bombers were already circling above, I felt a spray of water from one.
I told mum not to be alarmed but that I think we need to leave.
With no power and limited mobile phone reception there was no evacuation message, so we listened to ABC on a battery radio but only heard a football match in Sydney.
As we headed out on our drive, fire erupted in the adjacent reserve.
We didn’t think we could leave via the Bega side of town, so we crossed the road to the caravan park to get our bearings in relation to the fire.
The manager at the caravan park advised us that everyone had been evacuated to the beach.
With my neighbour’s help, we got my 83-year-old mum across the sand. It was slow going, I didn’t want to rush her despite the urgency of the situation. Poor love would have already felt she was holding us up.
Once we were on the sand things went from bad to worse. It did not seem the best place to be, we found ourselves directly in front of the firestorm.
The wind and sand were cutting through, not just our legs but our whole body.
The smoke lifted occasionally to give some relief but would soon settle upon us again thicker than before. We began wetting whatever we could in the ocean, so we could breathe. We could see that the northern end of the beach was clearer of smoke and perhaps we could get out of the force of the wind.
We tried, as quickly as we could, with dear old mother shuffling along stopping often for her to rest from the pain in her body. During this trek, a stranger appeared out of the smoke and joined our little party. The young man was on his own and relieved to find others to join. He scooped mum up and carried her himself. I was so moved at seeing my mother so tiny and vulnerable; with phone in hand I took a quick photo.
As we moved along the beach other small groups bunkered down on their beach chairs offered mum a seat.
We kept moving only to realise more of the town was burning, we were just walking into more, and thicker, smoke. We could see nothing of Tathra. It was all smoke and spot fires along the beach. We thought the whole town was being consumed.
Another of our neighbours appeared out of the smoke at some point and remained with our little group – now five in total. We tried to make light of the situation with jovial chatter.
We had been on the beach for about an hour and a half when a man from the surf club came by in a buggy and advised us that everyone had been evacuated to Bega.
We now had to make our way BACK down the beach and hopefully find my car intact.
I ran ahead to check if car was still there leaving mum with the support of others.
The car being ok I headed back to the beach to signal to my group to keep coming this way.
As we drove past our driveway the smoke was so thick we could not see if our homes were burning, all we could see was a row of houses burning across the cliff top, above our homes.
Just “don’t look,” we said to each other.
We drove stunned and dazed to the Bega Showground, I don’t think we spoke much, can’t remember.
People are invited to make contact and, like Rhonda, share their story; a dedicated email address has been set up as an initial starting point – [email protected]
Each story will be held in confidence; a trove of experience, wisdom, grief, community, love, and more.
Storytelling nights, video, writing and art workshops, and oral histories are also being considered.
“We want this to represent and reflect the full range of experiences people have had, this experience has affected people in different ways, every story is valid,” John says.
“And I really hope by telling our stories we’ll help other communities learn from our experience,” he says.
For those not online, secure collection boxes can soon be found at Bega, Bermagui, Tura, and Eden Libraries and at Tathra Post Office and Tathra Doctors Surgery.
Each story will be treasured, with every contributor kept informed as the process moves forward during the months ahead.
“We aren’t sure what the end result will be, we are keeping an open mind at this stage and simply want to provide people with a safe place to express themselves,” Jan says.
The steering group plan on meeting regularly and will keep the community informed as the idea grows.
To share your story or idea or to find out more, email – [email protected] The group asks that you include your name and contact details with your contribution.
Declaration: Ian Campbell is a member of the Stories of March 18 steering group.