It has been two gruelling years since Craig Elliott lost his livelihood — and almost his life — in an apocalyptic bushfire. Finally he can see the green shoots of regeneration amid the charred trees of the thick forest encircling him.
Mr Elliott and his wife, Linda, bought a holiday park near picture-perfect Lake Navarino, 120km south of Perth, on Christmas Eve 2015 — days before a fireball tore through the parched region and reduced the park to a smouldering ruin.
The fire also razed the nearby timber-milling town of Yarloop, where two men were killed and 180 houses lost.
For Mr Elliott and many others in the area, it’s been an arduous road to recovery.
“It was totally gut-wrenching, to the point where you actually feel like you want to vomit,” he told The Weekend Australian during a break from rebuilding cabins at the holiday park ahead of a busy summer holiday season.
On the night of January 6, Mr Elliott and his wife narrowly escaped the blaze by speeding away as flames encroached on both sides of their car. When they returned several hours later, buildings and equipment worth an estimated $2 million were gone.
Rather than give up on their “tree change” dream, the couple lodged the insurance claims, cleaned up the rubble and eventually reopened.
There were plenty of tears along the way. “We’ve had our highs and lows, including periods of deep depression but the support we’ve had from the people around here has been amazing — the sense of community is really strong,” Mr Elliott said.
Another local businessman, Drakesbrook Wines owner Bernie Worthington, said he had been overwhelmed by support from the community, including volunteers who helped repair fencing and companies that donated goods, including truckloads of compost, to enable him to continue.
Mr Worthington lost most of his vineyard in the fire and was initially unsure whether he had the energy to start again on what had been a labour of love since he bought the property in 1999.
Many vines have grown back and he recently reopened his cellar doors. Now he is hoping for his first vintage since 2014, despite admitting to jitters over the threat of bushfire this summer. “It will happen again,” he says. “It’s just a matter of when and how bad.”
His anxiety is justified. A recent report by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre forecast an “above-normal” fire risk for the tinder-dry southwest of Western Australia.
In Yarloop, 16-year resident and mother of nine Tracy Osborn, whose old timber home burnt down in the fire, is weeks away from moving into a new brick house, ending two years of frustration with what she and many locals say has been a slow clean-up and rebuild. “I’m just looking forward to having my own place back, but I’d still rather have my little shit box and all my memories in it. I lost nine kids’ worth of baby boxes, their first shoes and photos that can’t be replaced.”
Shire of Harvey president Tania Jackson said 20 houses had been rebuilt in Yarloop and several public buildings were close to completion.
Dave Gossage, head of the WA Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades, said most people affected by the fire had proven resilient but some were still waiting for help that would not come. “There needs to be an end to recovery. We’ve had all the support we’re going to get, so let’s get on with it.”
ANDREW BURRELL | The Weekend Australian