Marking the first anniversary of the vast and long-running Yankees Gap Bushfire west of Bega takes in a few different dates.
The fire started on Yankees Gap Road at Bemboka on August 15, 2018. Warm gusty winds stirred a smoldering pile burn that had been ringing alarm bells in the week before. September 15 was another bad day with communities closer to Bega and even Bega itself put in harm’s way when the fire had a second run.
The fire fighting effort on land, water and in the air lasted and exhausting 44 days. At 4 pm on September 27 the Rural Fire Service declared the fire ‘under control’.
The community breathed a sigh of relief.
During those 44 days, four homes were lost, over 20,000 hectares of bush and pastures burnt out, hundreds of kilometers of farm fencing were destroyed and an unknown number of livestock were killed.
Not to mention the anxiety and stress caused to the communities of Bemboka, Numbugga, and Brogo who lived alongside this volatile situation in their beloved bush for an extended period of time.
Janet Reynolds was one of those left homeless by the flames of Yankees Gap. She moved to her piece of paradise 26 years ago, “I arrived in the Bega Valley to see a friend and thought – oh this is nice! And I ended up buying 100 acres of bush,” Jan laughs.
“I grew up in the industrial midland of England, in Spondon, within spitting distance of the power station.
“The air used to rot the curtains but I remember going to my father’s allotment and thinking – one day I am going to live in nature.”
Jan was there the day that the nature she loves turned on her and destroyed the home and environment she tended to.
“August the fifteenth, I was there watering my orchard, it was a bit smokey and hazy but I hadn’t heard any dire warnings,” the almost 75-year-old remembers.
“The police arrived and said – you have to go now!
“That was an enormous shock, it just took my breath away, I threw a few things in the car, jumped in and left.
“The place went up like a nuclear explosion. I went to neighbours and watched the fire race through the forest towards my place. It was pretty overwhelming.”
Jan, a long-serving but now retired (only in recent years!) school teacher from Cobargo Public School, built her stand-alone home at the end of Desert Creek Road from scratch and beams as she speaks of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoos she shared the land with.
Artefacts collected from her life in Africa were all destroyed, along with photos of family and friends and “love letters and drawings from children I had taught, letters from my parents, even love letters from my youth!”
Even now, 12 months on Jan is ‘discovering’ possessions she no longer has, a cruel twist of habit and memory.
This “little piece of paradise” was ready for fire, while she loves the bush Jan is realistic.
“[The bush] was practically swept clear, the gutters were clean. People say I should have had a sprinkler on the roof and I say – 130 km/hr winds I don’t think a sprinkler is going to do much.”
While optimistic and positive about her future, one of the deep scars Jan still feels 12 months on is a sense of being forgotten by the government agencies that had such a high profile in the response to the Reedy Swamp, Vimy Ridge, and Tathra Bushfire just five months prior.
Sixty-five homes were lost in and around Tathra on March 18, 2018. In the 10 days that followed, the NSW Government committed $10 million to the early cleanup phase, “The quicker the clean-up is completed, the faster the community can heal, and people can get on with rebuilding,” Member for Bega and NSW Transport Minister, Andrew Constance said at the time.
The resources of a number of state agencies, private contractors, and Bega Valley Shire Council were deployed to clear blocks and dispose of the ruins that remained.
Side by side with that effort, Mayor Kristy McBain launched an appeal that attracted over $1.5 million in donations from around Australia, including $160,000 that was raised at the Band Together concert which attracted the likes of the Hoodoo Gurus and 1927.
Regrettably, those funds could not be used to help those impacted by the Yankees Gap Fire.
“The Mayoral Appeal funds were donated specifically for Tathra and district and according to ATO legislation, it cannot be used for those impacted by the Yankees Gap Fire,” a spokesperson for Bega Valley Shire Council told Region Media in May this year.
Speaking of her experience now, Jan says, “nobody seemed interested, apart from the good community.”
“I found that quite saddening and disappointing and I do hope it doesn’t happen for other people.
“I did have insurance and that insurance will go a little way towards what I have to do now, but the best thing would have been if somebody in council had said – hey let’s help you to clean up.
“Instead of having to go for seven months, day after day with bags and shovels, being confronted with the ‘the body’ – shoveling up the remains of your life.”
Click play to hear Jan’s story in her own words…
Jan is hopeful the response next time will be different and applauds the establishment of the council-run Bega Valley Disaster Relief Fund so that an easily accessible pool of money is available for when disaster next strikes.
The Band Together Two Music Festival on November 30 is the start of that fundraising effort.
“Wonderful neighbours and friends” helped get the job done for Jan in the end. “Now it’s down to earthmoving, knocking down dead trees, and clearing tracks,” she says.
Rebuilding her home is part of a future Jan looks forward to, but for the time being, she’s enjoying living in Bega and not being so isolated from people and events.
“Kevin McLeod [of Grand Designs fame] I read yesterday says you should spend three years thinking about your house before you build it,” Jan chuckles.
“Even though it was devastating and it still is devastating when I think of certain things, you have to choose your attitude and I don’t have enough years left to be miserable.”
People and services still available following the Tathra and District and Yankees Gap bushfires:
- Bushfire Recovery Psychological Support Service runs until March 2020, providing free face to face counseling support. Find a free counselor near you HERE.
- The Chaplaincy Network is also still at work through the Anglican and Uniting Church of Tathra and Bega. Offering pastoral care to individuals, couples and families; caring for people as they seek to rebuild their lives and homes. There is also a support group that meet at ‘Blend @ Tathra’ on Tuesdays at 10 am, lead by Sherryn Burrop. Contact details: Rev. Capt. Stuart Haynes on phone – 0421 170 071 or 64925 555 or email – [email protected]
- Bega Valley Shire Council’s Recovery Support Service, led by Anne, June and Caralyn, is available Monday to Friday. Contact details: Recovery Hotline – 6499 2475, or email [email protected]
- Red Cross Emergency Service team is always available to provide psychological first aid at events. They also carry stock of printed resources which might be useful reading as you, your family and community continues this journey. Contact details: Sandra Arnold, Response and Recovery Coordinator on phone – 0466 502 211 or email – [email protected]