From heart break to hope
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2020
Four months after fire tore through the Clarence Valley in northern NSW, Susan Chenery finds a community offering each other hope and slowly healing and rebuilding together.
Susan Chenery
They could hear the fire coming an hour before it arrived, “roaring like an aeroplane taking off,” says Bob Gorringe. “You can hear things exploding at other properties – gas bottles, trees – these loud bangs as it is coming up the valley on the other side of the hill. It is loud, it is hot, it is dark.” With an 80kph wind behind it, 12km across the front and 120 metres high, the fire roared through the Clarence Valley in northern NSW, leapt across the Nymboida River and came straight for Bob’s house.

“Hell, it was hot. The wind is rushing in at about knee height to feed the fire. It tips you over – your legs are going one way and your body is going the other. It’s almost impossible to stand up.”

Realising they wouldn’t be able to defend the house Bob, 60, who is ex-Air Force, and his wife, Narelle, had to get out fast. But the cars were stalling. “There was no air to run on. The fire followed us all the way.”

The next day, when he came back, Bob’s house had “vaporised”. All that was left of his contented life in this densely forested wilderness were brick stumps and a pile of tin. Months later, Narelle still wakes in the night unable to breathe, thinking there is smoke. She couldn’t return to look at the wreckage of her home. “She didn’t feel safe.”

There are still crashes in the night as dead, hollow trees fall.

Nymboida in the Clarence Valley, 44km south-west of Grafton, was a beautiful place – lush, fertile and green; the clear river, trees tangled in vines, gullies of rainforest teeming with birds and wildlife. It attracted people like Laena Stephenson, a marriage celebrant, who came to bring up her children in nature.

“When we came here, we were all young,” she says of the group of families who settled in the district 33 years ago. “We started our families together, had babies together. We helped each other build our houses.”

All that is left of Laena’s house are the remnants of walls, the twist of metal that was the television, broken crockery and a melted Rayburn wood stove in what was once the kitchen. It was a pretty mudbrick house, covered in climbing vines. She and her former husband had built it.

“I massaged every brick in that house, I hammered in every bit of that earth floor,” she remembers solemnly. “I dug rocks out of the ground with a crowbar. I couldn’t walk into that house without loving it.”

She keeps remembering things that are gone: “Oh, my grandfather’s banjo mandolin, oh this, oh that.” One of her four daughters, Kaya Jongen, owned the house next door. That’s gone too, and Kaya is now living in a tent. “There were many beautiful owner-built homes in Nymboida,” Laena says sadly, “homes made of mudbrick, rock and timber – really beautiful bespoke houses.”

Now, for miles and miles, there are just burned, black, skeletal trees, sticks and scorched earth – an empty, desolate landscape. Twisted metal where 101 houses used to be. The fires roared through 51 per cent of the Clarence Valley, taking three million hectares. It’s deathly quiet now. There is no birdsong, no animals anywhere.

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