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A year on, bushfire rebuild and prep ramps up

02:07pm November 19 2020

Australians tell their stories about how they’re rebuilding their homes and lives post last summer’s devastating bushfires. (Josh Wall)

Lyn Grey surveys the picturesque, but scarred landscape of forest and rolling hills with mixed feelings. 

Sitting on the land where her house of 25 years previously stood, the experience of last summer’s bushfires remains raw for the resident of Lake Conjola, a small town on the south coast of NSW about three hours drive from Sydney. 

“They were all houses up here before,” she tells Westpac Wire this month, pointing up the hill where fires ripped through the area. “Now, I don't know, there's only about three of them rebuilding. Some people are struggling even to come in on the turnoff (to town). There's a couple of people that haven’t been able to drive back in.” 

But Mrs Grey, who Westpac Wire first met in January after losing the home her family built themselves, also remains hopeful that she might see some progress on her block by the end of the year.  

“I hope by Chrissy, contracts are signed, plans are back from council and I'd like to see a slab,” Mrs Grey says with more than a hint of the resilience Australians from the regions are famous for. 

A year on from one of the worst bushfire seasons in the country’s history, many people are in similar positions as they continue to be impacted by the fires that wrought so much devastation. According to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which reported last month, more than 24 million hectares of land was burnt, 33 people tragically killed, 3000 homes destroyed and nearly three billion animals killed or displaced. Westpac quickly responded with a bushfire recovery support package, which included paying customers’ mortgage repayments for one year if they’d lost their principal place of residence (up to $1200 per month). 

Ahead of the official start of summer next month, many Australians continue to feel a heightened sense of unease about what may lie ahead. 

Last week, Westpac launched a Disaster Help Hub to help Australians prepare, respond and recover from natural disasters, providing tools, guides, and check-lists so they can start to plan ahead. It followed The Australian Banking Association’s backing of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, saying banking services should be recognised nationally as “critical infrastructure” and included in planning and preparation efforts alongside governments into the future. 

“The most challenging conversations we've had is hearing from people that have lost everything. But it goes beyond just financials,” says Ross Miller, Westpac’s chief customer engagement officer consumer. 

“It's really encouraging our customers to consider all the learnings out of both the royal commission and what we saw play out last year to have a plan around their safety, their financial well-being, their personal wellbeing, and obviously a fire plan.

“So, we're really proud of our step forward to launch the Disaster Help Hub.” 

Down the road from Mrs Grey in Lake Conjola, Jodie and Steve Hawken opted to rebuild and have become the first to complete their new home since the fires. They say that while COVID-19 slowed the rebuild and several other people remain unsure about rebuilding, they ultimately went ahead because of their love for the area. 

“I think there's a lot of people that are too scared to rebuild, too scared just to start again and yeah, they're grieving, grieving for what they've lost,” Mrs Hawken says. 

“It's like half and half, do you rebuild, do you not? (But) we love it out here.” 

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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