'Waiting and waiting': Lives in limbo on the border as bushfire trauma continues

In the final installment of The Lost Coast series, we meet those living in the picturesque communities near the NSW-Victorian border. Cut off from the rest of the country for weeks, they now face a long recovery. 

On the highway south of Eden is the blink-and-you'll-miss-it general store at Kiah. In the shed next door, Trevor and Sue Jones are operating the tiny relief centre, which is still full of donated goods. A couple of men are picking up supplies.

Around here, dozens of homes were lost to the Border Fire, so named because the blaze marched up from East Gippsland after wreaking havoc on Mallacoota on New Year's Eve. Not that you'd know flashing past on the Princes Highway. Wonboyn on the coast got most of the attention.

"They lost four houses, we lost 48 or something, just around here. From Nullica Road to the Victorian border, we lost 78 houses," says Trevor, whose own home three kilometres north of here was destroyed on January 4.

A church in Kiah, south of Eden was destroyed in the Border fire which roared north in the southerly change on Saturday, January 4. Photo: RFS

A church in Kiah, south of Eden was destroyed in the Border fire which roared north in the southerly change on Saturday, January 4. Photo: RFS

"I've got a crook heart so I decided it was best to get out. I came back and she was all gone. Not many people did stay. A mate of mine stayed but said never again. He tried to get out but in the end he couldn't get out so he had to stay but he said it was pretty bad."

One of the men picking up groceries who lost his home at Timbillica, right down near the border, tells us he can't get to what remains of his property because the bridge is out. Trevor is frustrated because there has been no start date on the clean-up of his block - he's been told it could be up to 12 months.

"I can't see it happening for a long time and that is the problem, just waiting and waiting. You can't do anything until it's cleaned up. So you're just sitting around doing nothing," says the retired 62-year-old.

It's been tough all round for the couple, who owned the store until seven months ago.

"He was pretty upset about it," says Sue. "He disappeared on me for half an hour, I didn't know where he was.

"I have my little moments. We were down at Eden Wharf when Sunrise was there doing the weather a couple of weeks ago. They did a little interview with a few of us from around here and I think that was the first time I actually shed a tear."

Trevor and Sue Jones at the tiny relief centre at Kiah. The couple are keen to rebuild. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Trevor and Sue Jones at the tiny relief centre at Kiah. The couple are keen to rebuild. Picture: Sylvia Liber

In the same week they lost the house, Trevor's elderly mother succumbed to a brain tumour. Yet, somehow, the couple is both philosophical about their predicament and confident they'll be able to rebuild.

"I was pretty upset for the first week but you sort of get used to it after a while," says Trevor.

"It's hard but there's not much else you can do. You've just got to keep going. It'll be a lot better once we get these blocks cleared up. Once we get our blocks clean it will feel like we're going somewhere."

Their desire to rebuild is explained when we visit the home site. Beyond the rubble, the ashes of treasures such as Trevor's lifelong collection of underwater photos and his cameras, a couple of rare motorcycles and thousands of dollars worth of tools, is a stunning outlook over the Towamba River. It's easy to see why they chose to live here in the first place. It will again look like like paradise when the black reverts to green.

"I figure if we rebuild, we'll be all right for the next 20 years," says Sue.

We head south towards the border, through countryside bruised by logging then battered by fire. At the border, a road sign is blackened right down the middle. It points to Genoa, and the road to Mallacoota.

This is where the New Year's Eve inferno caught the world's attention with the image of the young boy in the gas mask on the boat and photos of thousands of tourists huddled on the foreshore under a blood red dawn.

That attention is long gone. There's a trickle of returning holidaymakers, including a pair of Spanish surfers in a van who have been accompanied by fire since setting out on their road trip from Byron Bay a couple of months ago.

On the beachfront, there's a mournful clacking sound - it's the blackened boughs of dead trees knocking together in the breeze, a requiem for a lost forest.

Gail Hodgson inspects the ruins of her Mallacoota home.

Gail Hodgson inspects the ruins of her Mallacoota home.

Gail Hodgson has just returned after seven weeks in Melbourne, where she sought refuge with her son. She's come back, like many others, to a home destroyed in the cruel ember storm lottery.

As the fire edged closer to Mallacoota, she had a premonition she'd lose her house. When tourists were told it was their last chance to leave, she and her son jumped in his car and drove via Bega, Cooma and Tumut to join up with the Hume Highway into Melbourne. It took them 13 hours. When they woke the next day they realised the fires had followed them up the coast and through the Snowy.

"The fire was just behind us all the time and it was so eerie because there was no one else on the roads," she says.

The road back to Mallacoota was closed for six weeks but Gail had already seen photos of the ruins of her home.

"My big double decker bus and everything was gone, my 1963 Morris panel van. I'm a collector. I had a beautiful Tibetan frieze. A friend of mine was a journalist and he covered the Chinese invasion of Tibet and managed to get these beautiful friezes out. They were stunning and totally priceless. Of course, there's nothing there now."

During her exile in Melbourne, she stayed in touch with friends isolated in the town. "It was very tough for the people here. Everyone's going through so much emotionally. I've had cuddles with people and they've been trembling in my arms."

Gail says the town is still coming to terms with what it's been through.

"It's been really hard. Everybody's grieving and it comes out in different ways. Some people are angry and pointing fingers and other people are just hiding away. A whole gamut of reactions and all of them normal."

Leanne Phillips, who helped run an impromptu evacuation centre at the Mallacoota IGA at the height of the emergency.

Leanne Phillips, who helped run an impromptu evacuation centre at the Mallacoota IGA at the height of the emergency.

One resident who's taking a positive approach is Leanne Phillips, who runs the local IGA. She kept the store open all through the New Year's Eve drama, which intensified the day before, as thousands of tourists huddled around the foreshore and main street. Powered by its own generator, the store became an impromptu evacuation centre.

"We stayed open all night and when the fire hit in the morning there were people just still coming in. We'd had one family who were in here, they had kids, their dog, all laying on the floor. We had a lot of staff members in here for the night."

Leanne says the evacuations and extended highway closure hit the town hard but she's confident things will bounce back by Easter.

"We're hoping a lot of people want to come back to Mallacoota. Especially come in and give us a big hug and a big smile and we'll hug you back," she says.

Adrian 'Big Ado' Rennie, who produced a hip hop track about Mallacoota's day of reckoning.

Adrian 'Big Ado' Rennie, who produced a hip hop track about Mallacoota's day of reckoning.

Her son, 20-year-old Adrian Rennie, spent New Year's Eve in the shop. "At 7.30am it was just starting to get pitch black, like it was 11 o'clock at night. Eight o'clock, sirens started, the warning call for everyone to get to the evacuation points. Eight-fifteen, the skies were already starting to turn orange," he says, the events still fresh in his mind.

Wanting to express his feelings about the day, the hip hop musician put together a track.

He wanted the song to reflect the apocalyptic drama of the day. "I think a lot of people don't know how it went down. What we all went through was pretty powerful."

He says Mallacoota faces big challenges to get back on its feet. The loss of the abalone factory in the fire has meant many townsfolk have lost their jobs as well as their homes.

"Seeing people I consider as family whose houses have burnt down, it's just an incredibly sad sight."

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