Listen: Margi O'Connor talks to Hope 103.2 Breakfast hosts Sam and Duncan
By Clare BruceTuesday 4 Feb 2020
Cobargo is a town still reeling.
Only today, hundreds of townspeople gathered at the southeast NSW town’s Catholic church for yet another bushfire-related funeral—this one, for 84-year-old Ross Rixon.
A beloved local identity and bushman, Ross died in hospital on January 18, as a result of severe burns he suffered while trying to defend his home in the New Year’s Eve inferno.
- Bushfire Trauma – 12 Expert Tips for Helping Someone Who’s Struggling to Cope: “We Need to Rally Together”
After the funeral, resident Norm Pearce described Ross as “a true dinkum Aussie bushman” and “terrific guy”, who “loved his timber, chainsaws, loved his posts and his family and his dogs”. Movingly, a ‘chainsaw salute’ was given at the funeral in Ross’s honour.
Sadly, there’s hardly been breathing-room between funerals: only 11 days ago the district gathered for the heart-wrenching, combined funerals of Robert Salway and his 29-year old son Patrick.
Both were tragically killed trying to save Robert’s property from fires in nearby Wandella. And to add to the family’s loss, 30 hours after the pair died, Robert’s mother Edna – a woman loved by 36 grandchildren and great grandchildren – also died, peacefully, in Bega.
Everyone Knows Someone Who’s Lost Everything
Seasoned journalist and local resident Peter Logue has summed up the town’s fire-battles, reporting that in Cobargo and nearby locales, over 110 homes have been destroyed.
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On top of that, at least 3,000 cattle have been lost, and at least 300 other properties damaged. Keep in mind the area is home to only 3,500 or so residents; in other words – everyone, knows someone, who has lost everything.
“It’s almost impossible to find anyone in this area untouched by the disaster,” Logue writes. “There are so many stories of heroes and narrow escapes and tragedies, and so much hurt around. And yet there is laughter (often at very dark humour) and self sacrifice and generosity, both physical and emotional.”
Last week, the community was once again on tenterhooks with emergency crews at the ready, as bushfire, winds and high temperatures posed yet more threat.
Needless to say, after weeks of protracted trauma and tension, people are worn out.
In an interview with Hope 103.2 today, one resident who’d just been at Mr Rixon’s funeral sounded nackered, saying she’d be off-grid for the next few days: she’s heading north, to rest and recover.
Survival and Miracles
Amid the tragedy and exhaustion, though, there’s recovery – as kids go back to school with their new, donated backpacks, local businesses open doors again, and the stories of survival, escapes and miracles continue to emerge.
One of the many survival stories, an almost comical one, comes from a resident closely involved with Cobargo Folk Festival.
As Peter Logue writes: “I love the story of one friend and festival stalwart, who slept through as the fire front raged over his house. He and his wife escaped without injury but his house and plant nursery were burned.”
Another of the survival stories, quite miraculous, comes from Cobargo residents Wayne and Margi O’Connor. This couple were well prepared for the fire season, having cleared all dangerous undergrowth, and with a sprinkler system installed into the wraparound verandah of their fire-retardant timber home.
“New Year’s Day, we came back to find… the house was still standing. It was a miracle.” ~ Margi O’Connor
Speaking to Hope 103.2’s Sam and Duncan, Margi described the frightening days of the fires.
“We set the sprinklers going and left, because there were two fire balls approaching, and we didn’t feel safe,” Margi said. “We got as far as the next-door neighbour’s place, which is a kilometre away, and he’s 78 and was going to stay. So we stayed for a day and a half and protected his house, not knowing whether ours was still standing.”
Margi said she and Wayne stood from a distance watching the fire engulf their property, and fully expected their home had been destroyed.
“Bruce [our neighbor] lives above us, so he looks down on our property, and our whole property was alight – seriously alight… It was just a ball of flame,” she said.
But the next day, they were astonished to find the house intact.
“New Year’s Day, we came back to find that it was still there,” she said. “We’d run through a tank of water, but the house was still standing. It was a miracle. And when you see the trees around it, they’re just like match sticks, really.”
“It Was Like There Was a Blanket of Protection”
Margi and her husband, who are Christians, believe God was protecting their home, and that its survival was no coincidence.
The couple are active members of Cobargo Community Church ( which sadly burnt down in the fires), and happen to be the custodians of a large wooden cross, used by the church at Easter time each year. The shed in which the cross is stored, was right in the line of the fires—and by all accounts, should have been destroyed. Instead, it was saved.
“The fireball was heading towards the cross first,” Margi said. “That was the first thing it met—and not even the tyres on the tractor behind it got burnt. It went around the cross. The paint on the cross didn’t even get peeled.
“The fire went around the house, around the shed, and we’ve still got green trees around the house. It was like there was a blanket of protection over the home. It’s amazing.”
While their pipe work was burnt, their tank water all used up, and their pumps burnt out, those things can be replaced. “We’re just very thankful,” Margi said. “We’re surviving, we’re doing okay – a lot better than a lot of other people around.”
Meanwhile, Margi’s 95-year-old father and 94-year-old mother, residents at the local nursing home, were evacuated when the home came under threat. Margi’s frail dad didn’t fare too well, coming down with pneumonia and a blod clot as a result of the upheaval.
Margi’s hoping the fires don’t flare up again and force another evacuation – she doesn’t think her Dad would make it through the trauma: “I don’t think he could cope.”
While the O’Connors are just as worn out as everyone else in town, they know they’re very blessed and lucky: they have their home—and each other.
How to Help Cobargo – Support and Help Info
- To support the Cobargo community directly, please donate to the Cobargo Community Bushfire Recovery Fund, a local fund that is directing support to where it’s needed most.
- For a list of other ways to help bushfire-affected Aussies to recover, please see our article, Helping in the Bushfire Crisis.
- For ideas on how to support someone who is traumatised by the bushfire season, head to Bushfire Trauma – 12 Expert Tips for Helping Someone Who’s Struggling to Cope: “We Need to Rally Together”
- If you or someone you know is struggling to cope, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Australia’s Suicide Callback Service, on 1300 659 467.