As we approach the one year anniversary of the Gospers Mountain Fire, Cathy MacNamara from Clarence reflects on her experience of the fire and the process of recovery in the year since.
Cathy and her family are members of the Clarence/Dargan Community, a community that was badly impacted on Saturday December 21, 2019.
The weeks leading up to that day were a stressful time as residents prepared for the potential of the Gospers Mountain fire reaching them.
"It's hard to believe that a year has gone past already," she said.
The fire which began in the Wollemi National Park in October was out of control and there was only bush between them and what became a mega-blaze.
"We were all well versed in how to prepare for a fire, we live in the mountains knowing that the threat is real and that the likelihood of a firetruck being at our property as the fire impacts is low," she said.
"Last December, it seemed the entire East Coast of Australia was ablaze and resources were stretched thin, amazing work was being done by firefighters in multiple locations across NSW and Victoria.
"These firefighters and emergency responders had been hard at work for two months by the time the fire reached us."
Cathy said that at their house they raked, cleared and watered.
"We put gutter plugs in the gutters and filled them with water, it was drought time, tanks were low, but we put about 30,000 litres of precious water into our gardens and around the house leading up to December 21st," she said.
The neighbours were all making similar preparations.
"We moved our pet chickens to another location and thank goodness, as that chicken cage is no more," she said.
"I fear the trauma for my daughter would have been so much greater if her beloved pets had died in the inferno. My heart breaks for others who did lose animals in the fire.
"I am eternally grateful to my neighbours Darlene and Garry who topped up the water in the gutters on my house after we left and before the power went out on the Friday, it helped to save my home."
The fire hit Clarence from multiple fronts and went right through Cathy's property.
Apparently her neighbours who stayed to fight looked up and saw Cathy's place engulfed in flames and thought 'Cathy's place has gone' and went back to their own brave battle, to save their home and stay alive.
"Somehow, when the smoke cleared, my house was still standing. Burnt, damaged, everything on the seven acres destroyed except the house, it really seems a miracle," she said.
"What I have felt this last year is gratitude that my home, whilst damaged, did survive.
"I still feel such sadness for so many of my friends and neighbours who lost their homes and everything they own and how we as a community need to support them to rebuild their lives."
Cathy said she was sad at how the whole area is still so changed by that day in December.
"Blocks of burnt land where homes once stood, neighbours who have left and will not be returning, bush so burned that it is struggling to regenerate, a greatly reduced number of birds, insects and animals," she said.
"I feel gratitude to the RFS and brave neighbours who stayed to fight the fire and who undoubtedly stopped the destruction of Clarence, Dargan and other areas from being even worse."
Cathy said that she was humbled by the kindness and generosity of people and strangers who all just wanted to go something to help after the fire.
"The people from Wires brought bales of hay and food for starving wildlife on our properties, donated water stations for the kangaroos, installed possum boxes for survivors," Cathy said.
"The local charities who were so quick to offer assistance made such a difference and community meetings to share information were helpful.
"It was a good opportunity for locals to gather together, hug each other, cry and offer support."
In the days and weeks after the fire, Cathy said she felt a sense of grief and sadness which was interspersed with moments of joy.
"Finding frogs which survived in the burnt out septic tank and lizards who somehow found shelter from the inferno," she said.
"The relief of counting species of birds returning to my property, like I was doing a roll call to see which creatures who had called my garden their home for 19 years had somehow made it as everything burned and some were coming home.
"Almost a year on, I have now had 38 species of birds back in my garden. The numbers are lower than ever, but they give me hope."
Cathy said despite preparing her house as best she could, she still had anxiety not knowing what was happening.
"Hearing that structures were on fire, fearing many of my friends and neighbours had died, not knowing, not having communication was horrible," she said.
"Then not being able to get back into the area for two days and fearing my home would be burnt down after the fire from the smouldering surrounds was so awful, I just don't think I will be able to leave next time."
Cathy said she felt for everyone in the community, including those who stayed to fight the fire, those whose family and friends waited for news, those who had to be evacuated or rescued and those who lost everything.
"So much of what we treasure is not replaceable, the item a grandparent left you, the drawing your child did in Kindergarten, that loss is, I imagine, is a sadness you carry forever," she said.
"People say 'it's just a house, you have insurance, you can rebuild' but your home is more than just the four walls.
"Emotions are still raw almost a year later."
Cathy said this year everything has felt like a battle.
"Assessing what was lost, dealing with insurance companies, trying to clear burnt dangerous trees, clearing away the burnt debris which was once building and sheds, homes and possessions," she said.
"I still have a fire damaged roof that lets in rain but that is nothing compared to my neighbours trying to rebuild their entire house, it is exhausting and a global pandemic did not help."
Cathy said that while she knew how to prepare in the lead up to the fire and what to do during the fire, she felt completely unprepared for what to do afterwards.
"I think we were all in shock and just had no guidance in what to do after the actual impact of the flames.
"We need, as community, to have a disaster response plan, so we can hit the ground running immediately, not try to work out what to do the stress of the moment after the event, because this will happen again."
Cathy said the greatest miracle was that no-one died in Clarence, Dargan, Bell, Newnes Junction or Lithgow on that day.
"Our brave RFS, especially the Clarence/Dargan Brigade, and emergency services should be very proud of this," she said.
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