With summer underway and fears for another horrific bushfire season starting to surface, we talk to a couple about their experiences of the Tathra fires in 2018 – and discover their healing journey.
Two years after nearly losing her house to the Tathra bushfires that claimed 69 homes in this tiny New South Wales coastal town, the thing that still rattles Jane Andrew most is the ‘disaster tourists’.
“We’d have a queue of people at the end of the street, waiting to drive past slowly and gawk at us,” she says. “I was already feeling so exposed from losing the bush around me. And they still sometimes do that.”
School teacher Jane and her husband Nick Graham-Higgs, who runs an environmental planning consultancy, have learned a lot since that hellish day in 2018 when they faced down a fire front to defend their house and became separated from their children.
For their son Joey, who was six at the time, it was all an adventure, but for Jasmine, who was 11, it was traumatic in a way that is unique for children: her anxiety around each year’s fire season is of being separated from her parents.
“Jasmine’s 2018 experience was horrific,” says Nick. “She saw the fire front and then she’s being driven off to safety by one of our neighbours, leaving her mum and her stepdad behind. So the 2020 fires were very stressful for her, particularly because there was a long lead-up. Day turned to night, and for Jasmine, it really kicked in her fear. Often she pushes against me, but during the 2020 fires she was my shadow. She was very, very anxious.”
Dealing with the anniversary
Having experienced the anniversary of the bushfires twice now, Nick and Jane have seen people react very differently to stress, and note that different people will be at different stages in terms of the recovery (both physically and emotionally). When fire season approaches, Jane is reluctant to leave home. Last year, she cancelled a Christmas camping trip with her sisters at the last minute.
She’s noticed that she’s gone from being more productive in the community in the first year – such as taking part in a local art response group – to wanting to retreat and stay at home as a family, particularly because she knows that having a secure attachment to Jasmine is vital for her daughter’s recovery.
Other people get bursts of productivity and the desire to organise events and efforts in an attempt to regain some feeling of control.
In the first year after the fires, Nick and Jane noticed that those who had been directly impacted tended to want to talk frequently about the traumatic events that unfolded that day – but only with others who had experienced the same.
To that end, Nick and Jane have been impressed by the work of Deb Summers and Dave Newell, who led the Cobargo recovery with their Catch-up sessions. These started as a chance to share stories and grew into practical applications such as a tool-swap program, building a memorial site and planning a bushfire refuge.
“That’s community-led resilience and healing,” says Jane. She does appreciate the fact that the National Bushfire Recovery Agency brought in psychologists to talk to the Tathra townsfolk, but felt that more community conversation and collaboration could have been beneficial.
Personally, Nick and Jane have focused on exercise and diet to manage their wellbeing – and their resilience is obviously attracting others. During the 2019-20 fires, six families who’d had to evacuate wound up staying with them.
“They thought, ‘These guys have done it before,’” Jane laughs.
Nick says that the best advice they were given was to not try to fix everything at once. Their house was fire damaged and parts destroyed, so rather than immediately attempt a rebuild, they decided to focus on the garden - something achievable that would also go some way to reclaiming the natural beauty of the bush that had been lost. They were working with a steep, dusty slope, so they brought in good soil and granite boulders. They planted herbs, fruit trees and native species to attract birds.
In August 2019, Tathra hosted an Open Garden day, and Jane and Nick’s property was once again inundated with people, but this time checking out the blooms.
“We had so many people come,” says Nick. “It was funny – we had this amazing garden in front of a house that was falling down.”
The biggest change, though, has been internal. As Jane says, they’ve switched their focus to being adaptable.
“I was focused on the emotional healing part and I don’t think I thought about, ‘Well, how do I survive this and then thrive?’” she says. “If you spend too much time in that healing part, you’re not getting to the learning part.
“I suspect the future’s got more in store for us, and being adaptable is going to be one of our key healthy features. It’s now the attitude of, ‘We’ve done this, we’re resilient, and we can do this again.’”