26 February 2021

'Do you remember when the roads were on fire, mum?'

| Albert McKnight
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Cobargo Preschool children watching firefighters; images of the preschool's bushfire damaged playground.

Left: Children from Cobargo Preschool watch on as emergency service personnel arrive at their preschool after the bushfire. Right: Two images of the damage the bushfire caused to the preschool’s playground. Photos: Supplied.

Many of Cobargo Preschool’s families lost their homes when the 2019 New Year’s Eve bushfires devastated the region, and the preschool itself was only saved by fast-acting neighbours.

All of the preschool’s children suffered trauma from the disaster, with some losing animals or property, and all feeling the loss of the landscape and town they knew.

But one year on, the preschool is being transformed into a space for the children and their families to recover and heal, and a fundraiser has been launched to help rebuild its playground.

During the bushfires, while the preschool’s playground and neighbouring homes burned, its building was saved by two locals who kept the fire away without water by beating out the flames.

Preschool parent Steph Dummett said she had two children and was 10-weeks’ pregnant when, at 1.30 am on that New Year’s Eve, she received a ‘take shelter’ text message while at her Quaama home, near Cobargo.

“We jumped up and could see the fire everywhere,” she says.

Cobargo's main street during Black Summer bushfires.

Cobargo’s main street during the Black Summer bushfires. Photo: Josh Mead.

Steph and her children fled south to Bega, while her husband, Tim, stayed behind and managed to save their house.

But she says while at first she did not think the fire had badly affected her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, it later became clear it had left an impact.

“Even now, when we have to drive to Bega she will say something such as, ‘Do you remember when we had to drive to Bega and all the roads were on fire, mum?'” says Steph.

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“They have lots of questions about what happened during the fires. A lot of her friends, their homes completely burnt down, which was a big thing to explain to her.”

A Cobargo Preschool spokesperson says all of the children suffered trauma, upheaval and loss from the disaster after experiencing repeat evacuations and fear and stress in their families.

The preschool’s director, Christine McKnight, says many children only started to show signs of trauma towards the end of last year.

Steph Dummett

Left: Steph Dummett and her eldest daughter. Right: One of Steph’s children looking out the window during the Black Summer bushfires. Photos: Supplied.

“This was evident in their play, artwork and conversations,” she says. “Initially, it was really important for the children and their families to have the security and familiarity of preschool. We provided a safe space where the children could play and their families relax. This is still important.”

Steph says during the past year the preschool received a lot of outside support about how to deal with the trauma, but straight after the bushfires she was keen to connect with families and the close community it provides.

“All around the community, things had burnt down and all I wanted for my kids was for them to connect with their friends,” she says.

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“When [the preschool] opened up again, it was so good to have a positive space where they could connect. The adults also had that space because the preschool was so welcoming of the adults, too.”

Now, Cobargo Preschool’s playground is being rebuilt with an emphasis on nature play among productive gardens with an orchard and chickens, and a community garden is being created where families can meet and spend time together while growing food.

The preschool offers art projects, habitat box building and nature activities to support children and their families to heal and build resilience.

Cobargo Preschool during Black Summer bushfires.

The 2019 New Year’s Eve bushfire surrounded Cobargo Preschool. Photo: Supplied.

Christine says as part of the recovery process it was important to see things being rebuilt and restored; places to come together for friendship and sharing; and a renewed sense of moving forward and appreciation of their environment.

“As we continue to restore the playground and make it even more beautiful, the children and families see, in this small way, that there is recovery and that we can, as a community, make our place better,” she says.

“It is part of a healing process to come together as a group and restore some beauty, work together and have a place where the children can feel secure.”

An online raffle has been launched to raise funds to finish the playground and build the community garden.

Prizes include an accommodation voucher at Mystery Bay Cottages, and a family photography shoot on the NSW South Coast with photographer Nikki Bragg.

To buy raffle tickets, click here. The raffle will be drawn on 2 March at 12pm.

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