Wye River six months after bushfires

RACV RoyalAuto Magazine

On Christmas Day 2015 Andrew Hack, a volunteer CFA member, drove from house to house turning on sprinklers and knocking on doors making sure everyone in Wye River had left their homes. In the shrinking distance roaring flames and aggressive black smoke turned the day into night and edged closer towards his small coastal community.

At lunchtime Gordon McComb left the dining table of his family home and paced the floor anxiously watching TV reports of the impending disaster hoping his Wye River holiday house of 42 years, a fibro shack with many precious memories, would survive. It didn’t.

Later that day Mark and Maree Salanowski received a text from the CFA confirming they’d lost their holiday property too.

Bushfire crosses The Great Ocean Road

The bushfire had climbed out of a deep, dense and almost inaccessible gully and burned all the way to the waterline crossing The Great Ocean Road.

Months later the scars are still highly visible. Scorched and blackened trees, some with fresh shoots, dominate the landscape, empty tracts of cleared land exist where houses once stood, and large unstable eucalypts in need of felling bear a large painted yellow “X”.

Mr Hack said only recently have people started coming to terms with what happened.

“To some extent the firefighting was the easy bit… it’s a challenging time right now. The holidays are over, the kids are at school and the full gravity is starting to dawn on people,” he said.

Carolyn Tatchell, a local CFA volunteer, agrees.

Community faces challenges

“At a community meeting one woman was finding it hard to open up about losing her holiday home because another woman was talking about losing her only home,” Mrs Tatchell said.

“We desperately need help,” she said.

Local and state governments have pitched in with financial aid and access to health care providers who will assess all property owners’ mental health and other health needs. Several community groups in Lorne have also contributed money including the Lions Club, which gave every family that lost their permanent home $2000.

While kindness is helping people deal with the fire’s devastation, there is still anger and division over what caused the fire.

A report by Emergency Management Victoria, handed down 36 days after the fire started and two days after it was brought under control, cleared fire authorities of causing the blaze through back burning. A coronial inquiry is now underway.

Bush attack level

There’s also stress in the community over the new Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) building code. All new homes in Wye River and Separation Creek have to meet the BAL codes according to the rating placed on their property. The higher the rating, the more criteria owners need to meet to make their homes safer. It can all add up to higher building costs.

Mr Salanowski said the BAL ratings would impact on rebuilding affordability, and he feared new developments would change the character of the town from one with small holiday shacks to large fortresses.

“The fire has brought people together and that’s good but I’m worried about the community being divided by people who can afford to rebuild and those who can’t,” Mr Salanowski said.

Emergency Management Victoria’s Commissioner Craig Lapsley, who helped oversee the Black Saturday bushfire recovery, said he would work with the community to see how it could better manage the fuels that feed fires so that properties could potentially migrate to a lower BAL rating.

“The new standards are all about getting the major part of the fire to pass over the property and for the house to withstand the fire for 30-40 minutes so that anyone inside would be able to survive,” Mr Lapsley said.

People’s behaviour important

“But it’s not the silver bullet because it still relies on the behaviour of the people and the design of the building,” he said.

While the Commissioner acknowledged there was a small group of people who needed extra care and longer-term help with their mental health, he said residents of Wye River and Separation Creek were handling their circumstances well.

“Overall the community is coping extremely well because people haven’t had to deal with death or injuries,” Mr Lapsley said.

Community recovery

The fact Wye River’s pub, surf-lifesaving club, caravan park and general store all survived unscathed is helping the community’s recovery.

For some people the cleanup is too. Grocon has been clearing destroyed trees and homes. Its CEO Carolyn Viney said the company wanted to help the communities get back on their feet.

“For those properties where the clean up has been completed already, there seems to be relief and a feeling of being able to move on to the next step in the rebuild process,” Ms Viney said.

Mr McComb is one of those people keen to move on.

“It was heartbreaking to see my land cleared. There was one tree left,” he said.

“But I am going to plant more trees and rebuild… My house was beautiful and it will be again.”

RACV Helped

Gordon, an RACV gold member, and Mark, an RACV silver member, lost their holiday homes but were happy with the service they received from RACV Insurance.

RACV used a drone to assess Mark’s property.

“RACV decided that our house was definitely a complete rebuild… our insurance was paid out very quickly… We are able to move forward and we are already starting to look into our building options and that’s really nice,” he said.

Gordon called the RACV on Boxing Day to make a claim and was paid in full within a week.

“The RACV also offered assistance through their rebuilding program,” he said.

Written by Verica Jokic, Photos Reg Ryan
June 02, 2016