Six months ago, bushfires cancelled New Year’s Eve celebrations for grief-stricken Cobargo residents. Now COVID-19 has wiped out Christmas in July.
The Cobargo Tourist and Business Association had planned to hold a Christmas in July event on 25 July, but has been forced to make the tough decision to postpone it because of COVID-19 restrictions.
A pipe band was going to travel from Sydney to Cobargo to play Christmas carols. Busloads of people were expected from across NSW. An invitation had even been extended to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, despite the chilly reception he received from locals back in January.
Cobargo Tourist and Business Association vice-president Janet Doolin told Region Media the event would have been a much-needed boost for people in the area, whose lives have been on hold as the town slowly rebuilds from the bushfires.
“We were going to have people coming from all directions, but we just don’t have the resources to make it happen,” she said.
“We just can’t risk people’s health. It’s so sad as it would have been really good for the community to come together.”
The event is on hold until current COVID-19 restrictions ease, however there are plans for another event in September – the Fire Up Cobargo Rebuild Festival, which is being organised by a band of people who are determined to get the town back on its feet.
Six months on from the bushfires, Ms Doolin and Cobargo Tourist and Business Association president Andrew Hayden said the mental health of people in the area is their biggest concern. The town has received media attention from around the world, but people who lost their properties are still living rough in makeshift accommodation donated by the community.
“Everybody is exhausted from working on rebuilding their lives seven days a week,” said Mr Hayden. “You’d have no idea what we went through unless you were there. You can’t even describe it.”
He talks about a town in France, Villers-Bretonneux, where two soldiers from Cobargo died during World War I while trying to defend it.
“The people there got together and raised $30,000 for Cobargo so we’re going to put that into restoring the RSL club,” said Mr Hayden.
“It could be anywhere between two and 10 years before we completely rebuild the town.”
Ms Doolin said some people were just too traumatised to ask for help.
Anglican priest and chaplain, Reverend Tim Narraway of Bermagui, has been visiting people and business owners on a daily basis.
“Being winter, people are still out there living rough and, unfortunately, there’s not much more that can be done to make their lives a little bit easier,” said Ms Doolin.
“The Red Cross, Anglicare and Reverend Tim have been doing an amazing job. Another person has come in to give him a hand because he’s worked tirelessly for the past six months.”
Three people died in Cobargo and 466 homes and approximately 1000 sheds and outbuildings across the Bega Valley Shire were lost in the flames in December, January and February.
Bega Valley Shire Council (BVSC) Mayor Sharon Tapscott says the past six months have been a “long, emotional and complex bushfire recovery journey”.
READ MORE: Six months on, bushfire scars remain
BVSC has also taken the lead on coordination of other recovery agencies and services as well as advocating to the state and federal governments for unmet needs and streamlined processes.
“One of the issues we are seeking to have addressed is the disposal of the large amount of burnt material such as fencing waste and vegetation that falls outside of the scope of the current clean-up,” said BVSC general manager Leanne Barnes.
The NSW Government says most of the clean-up should be completed by the end of July. BVSC has also engaged architectural design consultant Tim Lee from the NSW regional branch of Australian Institute of Architects, who will work with the community to lead the design and redevelopment process of projects such as the Kiah and Wandella halls and the Cobargo public toilet.
But while the bushfire impact is obvious across much of the region’s landscape, the economic impact – valued at more than $250 million in the Bega Valley – is also significant.
READ ALSO: South Coast businesses rolling with the punches
“At this point in our journey, it’s also important to thank those among us at places such as Kiah, Towamba, Wyndham, Bemboka, Quaama, and Cobargo who have stepped up in the midst of their own pain to help others,” said Mayor Tapscott.
A website, Bega Valley Together, has been established as a go-to place for bushfire recovery news, information, support and community.