One year ago, almost 200 homes were lost to devastating bushfires in the Blue Mountains.
Joel Hollier, from Winmalee was one of the unfortunate ones who lost his family home on that day.
‘Our house is gone, completely,’ Joel told Hope 103.2 at the time. ‘It was quite sobering to rock up there and see that so much of where we’ve grown up is just flattened. The walls that are left are tilting and very precarious. There may be a few bits and pieces left there, but it’s not worth the risk of trying to get in.’
Joel and his family were able to save very little, other than a few flash drives, some photo negatives and one or two home DVDs. ‘It all happened so quickly,’ Joel explained. ‘We found our Christmas tree. That was a little bonus that at Christmas time we got to have our Christmas tree back.’
Like many others in the area, his family were unable to rebuild on their land, as new building codes left them short-changed from their insurance payout. His family have now moved into a beautiful new home, and are enjoying the family portraits organised as a gift by Hope 103.2.
Rural Fire Services (RFS) firefighter David Boxwell rushed home from Parramatta to help fight the fires, but by the time he arrived his street was already blocked off by police. ‘I showed my RFS card and said ‘Look I need to get through.’ I drove down the road and was just absolutely amazed by what I saw. A hundred metres down the road, there were houses gone, smoke everywhere, power lines down, red and blue lights from police and fire brigade, and the further I drove down our road, I fully expected not to find our house, but when I got there our house was still standing. The garden, which was right up to the house, and the bridge over the fishpond were gone.’
David spent the next couple of hours working on his own to put out fires around his house, but later discovered that the house his sons were renting further up the road had been totally destroyed.
‘I’ve been in the RFS for nearly 30 years now and this was the worst I’ve ever seen,’ David says. ‘I didn’t realise how much it was affecting me at the time. You go to work, you go to the shops and everything’s normal, and then you drive back home down your road and everything’s just a holocaust. Trees, houses, everything’s just gone, the whole lot.’
David later realised he was experiencing ‘survivor guilt’ and sought guidance from a Salvation Army counsellor. He also said that the support of the local churches was encouraging as they helped him rebuild his garden.
Long-term local resident, Natalie Maddock is a high school teacher at Wycliffe Christian School in the lower Blue Mountains, where the kids are celebrating by contributing to a sculpture memorial and reflecting on God’s blessing over the past 12 months. ‘It has been a very positive time,’ Natalie says.
‘Some people are still struggling with some very real issues, but there’re some great things to celebrate too. One of our colleagues just got the keys to her new house just yesterday and her mother and children and grandchildren were all able to enjoy that moment.’
When asked how the community is coping now, Joel Hollier says that there are many who still don’t feel ready to attend commemoration or celebration events, as their living conditions are still uncertain.
‘To lose a home, that’s one thing, but realistically you look around the world and there’s so much suffering and you recognise it as humanity. We’re all in this together. We’re all stepping through life, plodding along, just trying to find our way. And for me, God has used this story as one of many to shape me and shape our community and we’re starting to see some of those shoots of hope starting to come though now.’
AUDIO: Hear Joel Hollier talk about how he, his family and his community are feeling now, one year on from the fires.
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AUDIO: Hear RFS firefighter, David Boxwell, reflect on his memories of the day and how it has affected him since.
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