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Singed Sisters almost a sell out as lessons of bushfire are shared

By Jesse Rowan 20 January 2019
The Singed Sisters celebrate in style with cake and champagne. Photo: Grace Costa.

The Singed Sisters celebrate in style with cake and champagne. Photo: Grace Costa.

Bushfire is such an ever-present fear and risk across Southern NSW and the ACT.

The experience of those who have been through such an experience is priceless to those who have not. Do you know what you would do or how you would react?

And then comes the recovery and the rebuilding of lives and homes.

Learning the lessons from people who have seen, heard, smelt, and had to react to the intensity of bushfire is so important.

Everyone’s journey is unique and for some, the experience will remain an ongoing challenge.

The Singed Sisters know all too well the overwhelming feelings associated with rebuilding their lives and homes after a bushfire, particularly the Canberra Firestorm of 2003.

Their book, Tears, Laughter, Champagne has been part of their own healing but has also inspired and educated communities far and wide. The first edition of the book is almost a sell-out with no guarantee of a reprint.

The Singed Sisters are eight women, some of whom lost homes in 2003, but all have been impacted by those events.

Sue Kukolic was President of the Orana School P&C and significant in organising immediate and ongoing support within the Orana community.

Orana’s school newsletter invited fire-affected parents to an informal chat at a local coffee shop. Out of this, the Singies began meeting regularly to sustain each other through the difficult tasks of helping their families to put their shattered lives back in order, and rebuild their homes. Through these years they forged special friendships by sharing food, recipes and chores, and talking taps, toilets and handles as homes were rebuilt.

In 2017, using crowdfunding, the group published their book, a collection of recipes and experiences, in the hope that others might understand and be better able to support those going through a disaster recovery journey. It’s an example of the healing power of being able to talk about fire experiences, be listened to and understood, and help each other, which is also empowering in itself.

Tears, Laughter, Champagne, is written and published by one of the Singed Sisters, Karen Downing and is a recipe book like no other.

The Singed Sisters are eight women whose homes were lost in 2003. Photo: Jesse Rowan, Canberra, 2003.

The Singed Sisters are eight women who have all been impacted by 2003 bushfires. Photo: Jesse Rowan, Canberra, 2003.

As well as simple and nutritious recipes for survival times, comfort foods to nurture hungry families and celebration foods, it demonstrates recipes for kindness and support through the small (and great) acts that many people carried out to help in whatever ways they could, like hanging out washing, looking after children, helping pack to move house and organising offers of help.

When two of their members found they had cancer, the group rallied around them, bringing ‘chicken soup for the soul’ and other sustaining tasty dishes with great love.

Their advice to those who have been devastated by a natural disaster? Alison Mills sums it up, “take time, don’t make decisions quickly, think about your options, they may be limited but you still have choices and deal with one thing at a time and try not to be overwhelmed by the big picture… you have to find a place where you are not bitter… be kind with yourself,” she says.

The group takes inspiration from Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon:

“Life is mostly froth and bubble
Two things stand like stone
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.”

As each of the new homes was built, the Singies would celebrate with champagne and lunch, bringing food lovingly prepared. These shared meals helped heal their singed souls.

The book charts their journey as they moved beyond tea and tears in the months following the firestorm, to champagne and laughter as they celebrated the small steps of rebuilding their lives and shared the wisdom they had learned.

The men in their lives didn’t have the same support network, being busy as the main breadwinner or the builder, but as they observed their wives enjoying the company of the Singed Sisters, the boys were brought together too, and not to be outdone, offered to cook for the group of beloved women in their lives. Thus, the Burnt Blokes were born.

The first edition of the book is almost a sell-out with no guarantee of a reprint.

The first edition of the book is almost a sell-out with no guarantee of a reprint.

Author, Karen Downing sent books to the Tathra community following their devastating bushfires in March last year. Copies have been distributed to the Recovery Centre in Bega, Bega Library, Red Cross, and Candelo Books. The book has also been shared with fire affected communities in California, via US Congressman Mark DeSaulnier.

The kindness the Singed Sisters received in the aftermath of the Canberra Firestorm is being paid forward in this heartfelt book. To date, the YWCA has received just under $5000 in proceeds from the book, which will be used to address the shortage of affordable housing options for women in Canberra.

Tears, Laughter, Champagne: A story of friendship forged through fire and food by Karen Downing is available from selected bookshops and online via Obiter Publishing – but be quick!

Jesse Rowan is based in the Batemans Bay area and also publishes to the Lace Age Girl blog and is a survivor of the 2003 Canberra Firestorm.

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