Long road to recovery for fire victims
Long road to recovery for fire victims

In the hills of Kelmscott and Roleystone, a cover of green has been slowly moving over the scars left by the fires that swept through the area a year ago.

After this day last year, on streets that resembled a charred moonscape, it seemed like nothing would ever grow again.

For those who lost their homes, clearing away the rubble and starting again felt like an impossible task. Today, new leaves shoot from blackened trees and from the scorched earth.

Only a couple of homes have been replaced but elsewhere, there are empty blocks awaiting new houses and the skeletons of those in progress, as well as a smattering of For Sale signs.

It continues to be a long road for those rebuilding.

Many are struggling with under-insurance and unexpected bills, some in the tens of thousands of dollars, for site work and electricity connections.

The approach of the anniversary of the fire was "gut-wrenching", one victim said.

But what had also emerged during the tumultuous year, said community leaders, were the lasting bonds forged in the flames of the area's worst natural disaster.

The anecdotes of how people pulled together were numerous: the towering New Zealander who became known as "boss man" at the evacuation centre because he insisted everyone who came through the doors ate something.

The countless cars that pulled up, laden with donations, even after there was no more room.

The fire victims who lost everything, yet asked authorities to help others first. The family who offered their granny flat to strangers, a single mother and her son, whose home was destroyed.

Armadale mayor Linton Reynolds was in his last year of a 22-year stint with the council and preparing to retire as he battled multiple sclerosis.

But on February 6, the bushfire control officer phoned him to give him the "horrendous" news that about four houses had been lost.

"By the time I got there, he told me it was significantly more than that, that it might be as many as 40," Mr Reynolds said. "Then it was 60-plus houses gone and thousands of people being evacuated.

"It was surreal. You think it can't be happening but it is."

As the fire roared through the hills, the Rev. Jan Boyle, from St Matthew's Anglican Church in Armadale, helped set up the evacuation centre at Armadale Arena, carting mattresses, blankets and food.

"The saddest part was when people started to come in, we had no hope to offer them," she said. "But it was good for them to be together.

"People who didn't know each other, who had only seen each other down the shops, all of a sudden they became family. As people walked in, other people were hugging them and the tears were rolling steadily."

Over the following days, from the public rollcall of destroyed properties to people's first glimpses of their ruined homes, Mrs Boyle counselled countless residents.

"It was the same as with all disasters," she said. "Losing your home is like losing someone you love. I recognised in the people who were there the same thing I recognise in someone who has lost a husband, a partner, a child. It was overwhelming, the sense of grief.

"There were people distressed whose homes had been saved and there was a sense of guilt.

"It came from the other side too, where a lot thought 'why did my home go when theirs didn't?' It was extreme sadness and extreme elation and how you balanced those two feelings was very difficult."

Once the fire was put out, the work really started for Mr Reynolds and his team.

The city hired retired engineer Ken Brown to oversee the demolition of 60 houses. Affectionately dubbed Father Christmas because of his white beard, he "had the happy knack of being able to talk to people about the experience and how he could help them," Mr Reynolds said. Another staffer's full-time job was to catalogue donations and offers from companies to fire victims.

In October, Mr Reynolds retired, after the "privilege" of helping his community through the fire.

Mrs Boyle said the fire continued to haunt some more than others.

"Some are really looking forward to moving into a new home, some are still saying 'we lost everything' and others are moving on.

"Some will take years and some will never learn to live with it. Some will always live in fear.

"One lady, when we had horrific winds the night before, told me she didn't sleep, she was too frightened.

"But the community is wonderful and we have grown into a place of beauty. You can look at some of the faces now and you know their lives have changed.

"There's a lot of empathy in the community now. They have a sense of relationship that I think is missing in a lot of our neighbourhoods."

'Losing your home is like losing someone you love.'" Rev. Jan Boyle

The West Australian

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