My stepfather built the home in 1972. My parents separated when I was young and my mother and stepfather amalgamated our families. In that instant we were blessed with the family home at Wye River. My earliest memories are of this magical place and all it had to offer. At that time it was our holiday home and a place of dream like summers and weekends spent around bonfires. It was a Wind In The Willows existence that I never took for granted.
The day after I finished school I moved to Wye River as it felt like home. I have lived in many houses at Wye River over the years and had my first son there. The long winters soon got the better of me and I decided to head North to raise my children. We came home every summer and many times throughout the year.
Once you have been a local in Wye River, you are always a local. The same familiar faces provide a sense of predictable reassurance in an often chaotic world.
I moved back south 12 months ago to care for my very ill mother. Caring for Mum in a nearby town, I have sought and found much solace in Wye River. Everyone knows Mum down there and offered endless support.
It was less than a couple of weeks ago, whilst sitting on the verandah of our home, staring across the ocean that I said to my girlfriend that I have never taken for granted this exact spot. The world there made sense to me.
A world filled with my neighbours of over 30 years, my friends and the stunning environment around me. I had planned to move back to the house permanently at the end of January in an attempt to reconnect with myself, write a book and indulge in all that Wye had to offer.
All of that changed on Christmas day.
We were aware of a nearby fire threat in the days leading up to Christmas and there had been meetings at the CFA reassuring us that all was ok. Knowing the Otways well and the significant lack of rain this year, I was not reassured. On Christmas morning I woke early and went for a walk on the beach. There was a howling Northerly. It was 6am when I rang my brother and said, “This is it. We’re in trouble!”
I had no idea how accurate my prediction would be. In an uncanny turn of events, we were not spending Christmas at Wye River as Mum was in no condition to travel. It was decided we’d stay in Torquay so that we could share our last Christmas with her.
As the day progressed we clung to our phones, listening for updates, watching Facebook and receiving messages from frantic friends on the ground. At 11.30am, a friend, one of the last to leave Wye, posted a photo of the fire tearing up over the hill. It was terrifying. Then all went silent. As there was no one left there to update us, we had no way of knowing what was happening. It was a sombre wait and not much was said over Christmas lunch. Although Mum had joined us, she was unable to get out of bed and didn’t seem to be able to comprehend what was happening. This created another layer of despair. At one stage I looked across the table at my ashen-faced stepfather. What was going through his mind? He was about to lose the home he had built and the love of his life. Furthermore, there were my children and my brothers’, totally bewildered by all that was going on around them. They too, had spent much of their lives at Wye.
At around 6pm the CFA posted a map of the hardest hit areas. It didn’t look good. It wasn’t until Boxing Day morning that an aerial photo confirmed our worst fears. I stared in disbelief at our street – it was diminished to a pile of dust and tin. There are no words to describe this feeling. There was no feeling. The one thing that we were all able to draw strength from, and still do, is that there were no lives lost. In a small community or any community this is everything. This was a tragedy but it was not ‘Black Saturday’.
My brother and I headed to the relief centre in Apollo Bay to reconnect with friends, find out who had lost what and who needed the most help. We climbed aboard a bus that ferried us all back to Wye so we could see the damage first hand. I can only liken it to walking in to a war zone. Nothing was able to comprehend what I was seeing. The rubble in front of me was so different from the house I knew and loved that I could not equate that they were even the same thing. In all honesty, I still can’t.
The days that followed were a blur of sleepless nights, media, unpredictable emotions and total confusion. The hardest thing was, and still is, not being able to be together as a community. Everyone is still scattered and we are not allowed back as yet. The hardest hit were those living there permanently who lost everything. There are many of them, including my two neighbours. We are all motivated to get these people back on their feet as soon as possible.
I keep thinking that if we quickly rebuild that all can return to normal, but I am slowly coming to understand that this is not going to happen. The time I spent there is now only a memory. A household of over 40 years holds more memories than one can ever retain. For us, it’s our closest link to Mum as the place was so her. The timing of all of this is just bizarre and maybe time will help us make sense of it.
As much as there is an intense sadness that is felt with this loss, I have also experienced incredible gratitude. No one died. The local CFA stuck to the plan they had for 20 years to ensure this would be the case. The nuts and bolts of this town are still in tact – the pub, the shop, the surf club and most importantly, the people. It’s still home in so many ways. In saying that though, a part of me feels lost. Somehow, over the years you permeate the walls of the place you live and when that goes, a part of you goes with it. It’s still early days so I don’t know if it returns.
I do know there is now a definitive line in my life… life before Christmas 2015 and life after.
If you would like to help the community, visit www.donateplanet.com and check out the Victorian Bushfires WYE River & Separation Creek Community Appeal.