The Lost Coast: Remote towns living on the edge of darkness in fire's wake

Mark Canaider thought they would lose their beloved 1873 vertical slab farmhouse they'd owned since 1992.
Mark Canaider thought they would lose their beloved 1873 vertical slab farmhouse they'd owned since 1992.

For two months, remote communities near the NSW-Victorian border were threatened by two massive fires. John Hanscombe reports on their recovery in this instalment of The Lost Coast series.

On the road to Rocky Hall, west of Merimbula, we're stopped at a bridge undergoing a maintenance check. On traffic control is James Knox, who tells us for the past few months he's been fighting fires all the way from Lismore in the NSW Northern Rivers region to the Victorian border.

"Once a fortnight if I could. Others have been out day in, day out," says the 27-year-old, who's been a Rural Fire Service volunteer for eight years. It's not over yet, he tells us. Indeed, the fire flared just the day before we meet along New Buildings Road.

James says he volunteered with the RFS to give back to his community. Like so many others in south-eastern Australia this summer just gone, he's seen enough fire to last a lifetime.

James Knox, on the bridge over the Towamba River, has fought fires from Lismore to the Victorian border.

James Knox, on the bridge over the Towamba River, has fought fires from Lismore to the Victorian border.

We've arrived via Candelo, picture-book pretty amid fields of emerald green. There is no obvious sign of fire here and you could be forgiven for thinking the drought is over.

However, Leanne Fraser, who works in the general store, tells us looks can be deceptive, especially after recent rains.

"It rained, it flooded, sent a wall of water to Bega," she says. "Look at the creek now - the water is barely running. It's contaminated and the drought is certainly not over."

The fire might not have directly hit the town but its indirect effects were felt as tourists and day-trippers stayed away.

Remote communities near the NSW-Victoria border spent two months living under the threat of massive fire fronts.

Remote communities near the NSW-Victoria border spent two months living under the threat of massive fire fronts.

"We're surrounded by mountains. People evacuated three or four times. The cafe suffered because tourists stayed away. We usually get lots of visitors from Merimbula," she said.

Our plan had been to drop into Tantawangalo but the road is still closed because of fire damage, so we head south towards one of the coastal valleys Bega MP Andrew Constance tells us he's particularly concerned about.

"We can put as much focus on the big places that have been burnt out but there are these localities, where people are on larger parcels of land and in many cases they just want to go back to their block and rebuild but they're the ones we've got to try to give the most hope to. People west of the highway, people in the valleys," he says. These are the people of "The Lost Coast".

Leanne Fraser says business has taken a hit at Candelo, even though the town itself was not directly impacted by fire.

Leanne Fraser says business has taken a hit at Candelo, even though the town itself was not directly impacted by fire.

Jodie Dickinson runs the tiny preschool at Rocky Hall. When we arrive, she's looking after five children and is only too happy to share her community's experience.

The preschool has doubled as a community relief centre since shortly after January 4, when the Border Fire reared up out of Victoria. On that day, as fires roared from Kangaroo Valley all the way into Victoria, she heard helicopters and went out the back to investigate. They were water bombing the fire just over the ridge from the school.

The fire was huge and people evacuated up to five times. Families were displaced, people were having to find places to put horses and pets ... and then the floods came.

With fires to the north and south, followed by floods, the isolated community has been on the edge of darkness since, at times cut off entirely from the outside world.

"Everyone's been traumatised," she says. "Some people have been isolated in properties, not being able to get out because of floods."

There's no phone - landlines have been out for weeks and there is no mobile service. "We've got a clunky old satellite dish that we rely on - that's all we have for communication."

When one of the bridges was damaged by fire, locals detoured through the dry creek over which it ran. Then the rains came and that detour was lost. "People were stuck, which was OK until you had an emergency. You can't ring, you can't do anything."

She was particularly concerned for one family, who had a member with bone cancer requiring regular treatment.

Jodie Dickinson has been running the relief centre at Rocky Hall Preschool since early January.

Jodie Dickinson has been running the relief centre at Rocky Hall Preschool since early January.

"The fire was huge and people evacuated up to five times. Families were displaced, people were having to find places to put horses and pets and things like that each time they had to evacuate. And then the floods came. We're all exhausted. Tired, headaches - everyone totally done."

Jodie says the relief centre has helped people get assistance from St Vincent de Paul.

"We've providing food and water, toiletries, for families to take and vouchers, and we provide the full kitchen."

Drinking water is an issue. There's a supply of bottled water in the preschool car park, which people are free to take. The centre has also become a drop-in place where people can share their stories. And Jodie has been helping people lodge applications for assistance.

"The feedback that I have is that charity is not easy to ask for. So if we provide it here there's more trust and confidentiality. They trust us, we don't judge, they can take what they need."

Despite the patches of green grass in places, the fire-damaged district is still affected by drought.

Despite the patches of green grass in places, the fire-damaged district is still affected by drought.

She knows only too well how hard it is to put one's hand out after disaster. In 1992, she lost her home to a bushfire in the same district. "It's humiliating to go and ask for help," she says.

There's another relief centre at nearby Wyndham but members of the Rocky Hall community would much rather deal with people they know. "People out here are very private. That's why we live out here."

Jodie says there is a sense the Rocky Hall community was forgotten as attention settled on bigger communities during and after the disaster. "If we lived on the coast, we would have been treated differently, I feel. Because we're out here, there can be an attitude that you choose to live there so bad luck."

The community certainly had to rely on itself during a flare-up at the end of January.

Mark Canaider examines one of dozens of ceramic pieces in the ruins of his shed near Wyndham.

Mark Canaider examines one of dozens of ceramic pieces in the ruins of his shed near Wyndham.

Caught between the Border Fire to the south and the Big Jack Mountain Fire to the north, Mark and Sue Canaider thought they would lose their beloved 1873 vertical slab farmhouse they'd owned since 1992.

"On the day of blackness and the night of Vesuvius up there," says Mark, pointing to the range to the north.

The house was saved by what Mark calls poetically the "sons of Wyndham", young men in utes with 1000-litre plastic water cubes, pumps, hoses and a tonne of courage who stepped in when the RFS was occupied elsewhere.

"They did it in the dark," says Sue. "These boys were fearless and did what they had to do. They were amazing. They saved the majority of the houses along New Buildings Road."

"Because it worked, it's a feel-good story," says Mark. "If it didn't work, if it had gone tragically the other way so easily, and coroners are involved, no one's looking for heroes, everyone's looking for someone to blame."

"The message from me is that fire is part of our future, no shadow of a doubt."

"The message from me is that fire is part of our future, no shadow of a doubt."

The fire took out a loft-style shed Mark built and with it Sue's lifelong ceramics collection and their son's memorabilia from his time in the navy. "We told him to keep it here because it would be safe," Mark says.

As we talk, helicopters are water bombing the hills behind us, trying to extinguish another flare-up.

The flames burnt the steps off the home's veranda and even melted the downpipes. As he rakes through the ruins of the shed and the wrecked ceramic pieces, Mark wears the mournful look of so many touched by fire. "Each of these represents a moment in your life," he says.

The fragments of china are part of a lost past but Mark has one wary eye on the future.

"The message from me is that fire is part of our future, no shadow of a doubt."

He says there is a need to factor people like the "sons of Wyndham" into the community's capacity to deal with future crises, the young men who risked all when the firefighting resources ran out.

Our special series The Lost Coast continues next week as we take you to meet the people on the coastline whose lives have been changed forever by one Australian summer.

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