When the tight-knit community of Wytaliba was decimated by bushfires in November 2019, the residents suffered unspeakable trauma and loss.
While support from a range of government and non-government organisations, including The Salvation Army, has been forthcoming, recovery has been a slow process further hindered by the remoteness of the community. On a recent trip out to Wytaliba, the Salvos Bushfire Recovery Teams (BRT) saw first-hand the devastation caused by the fire-storm as they sought to gather information to provide ongoing assistance.
Set-up as a multiple occupancy community in the 1970s, Wytaliba is a large area of remote privately-owned bushland 40 kilometres east of Glen Innes, and home to around 100 residents. Living mostly off-grid, the community is spread out among the dense bushland, living in homes and shelters they have constructed themselves over the years. When the fire-storm descended upon the community, it left little standing in its wake.
While the community received plenty of media attention in the weeks after the disaster and assistance arrived not long after, clean-up and long-term recovery has been challenging.
With poor service so deep in the bush, staying connected via telephone or email has been difficult for Salvos Bushfire Recovery Teams as they work to assess individual claims for assistance. Further complicating the process of verifying claims, the homes were not registered as separate addresses, unlike other bushfire-impacted communities.
“The problem was the documents – they couldn’t actually get any documents to prove there was a loss of dwelling compared to a dwelling that was registered. They’ve just built up their dwelling by themselves,” says phone assessor, Leah.
When working with a unique community such as this, a unique approach had to be taken. After planning and creating working templates to gather the information they needed, a team of eight Salvation Army workers – made up of assessors, outreach workers and financial counsellors – set out in the mobile recovery Winnebago to spend a week with the people of Wytaliba.
Recovering after trauma
Bushfire Recovery Team leader, Shane Mehew, says the experience of visiting the impacted community, getting to know them on a personal level and seeing the damage and trauma caused by the fires, was eye-opening.
“I was listening to a lot of trauma,” says Shane. “One guy there was crouched down in a concrete structure with his missus and his dog and a wet blanket over him while the flames were just going over the top. He tried to get out, but his car was melting – he showed me all the damage.”
Shane says that while the man loves being connected to the bush, he has since chosen to permanently move out of the community and is now renting a house in town – a move some others have also chosen to make. As such, his recovery needs will differ from members who are choosing to stay on and rebuild.
“His recovery support will be more mental health, dealing with his trauma, financial help to get back on his feet and help with rent,” says Shane.
Despite the trauma experienced by the community, the recovery team were struck by how warm and welcoming they all were as they shared their experience and took team members to survey the damaged properties.
“The people there are amazing,” says Leah. “There’s all different types of houses, there’s shacks, people lived in tents – this is even before the fires. But some people built their houses out of beautiful wood carvings. It was just incredible.”
She says one man who lost his entire home had built it all himself and lived there for 40 years. While he is planning on rebuilding, he is having trouble with council approvals due to the proximity of trees and getting in an arborist to make the property compliant is incredibly expensive.
But what really struck the Bushfire Recovery Team was how connected the people of Wytaliba were to the bush and wildlife.
“[The area] was really beautiful,” says Leah. “It was really peaceful. The amount of land they had was just enormous, so much greenery and so many animals that were there before the fires. People had kangaroos living on their lot. What a lot of people say to me who are from that community is that the biggest loss was the animals and the wildlife. They think they probably lost about 90 per cent of the wildlife.”
Leah says the feedback from a lot of community members has been that they can’t rebuild yet because of delays in council approvals.
“The rebuild process is completely not straight forward,” she says. “There’s a lot of different people who they need to go through. Even getting contractors out there to have access to their lot, given how much debris there is laying around. There’s just no tracks anymore because everything is everywhere.”
Another obstacle in the process was the urgent need to clear asbestos waste, but the clean-up company needed clear access to get through. Until everything was tested, any further recovery work was put on hold.
For many who have chosen to stay, it is still a long road to recovery. While they are in the process of getting organised to rebuild, they live on their properties in tents, caravans or recovery pods.
BRT get assessments on track
Due to the condition of the tracks around the Wytaliba property, the Winnebago used for bushfire outreach and support in rural communities, could only go so far. So, the Bushfire Recovery Team hired all-wheel drives to gain better access to each property being assessed.
While the main purpose of the team going to Wytaliba was to connect with the community as it was so difficult to get in contact with them, in so doing, they have been able to spend meaningful time with them and better understand their recovery needs.
“My impression was that the community has suffered a great loss,” says Leah. “It’s really real once you’re there and see them face-to-face and when you go to people’s properties. It really changes your perception rather than being on the phone.”
From there, the recovery team has been able to put together documents collected, photos taken and any further information gathered, to process around $160,000 worth of assessments in Stage 2 recovery grants. This is in addition to the $90,000 provided through Stage 1 recovery grants.
“There was no phone reception, there was no internet, so we had to do all the assessments on paper and basically gather all our information and then come back,” says Shane. “We spent a week there and after we came back, we had to spend another week putting the assessments together – so it was a huge job.”
Leah says they recently received a call from a grateful Wytaliba resident who had received a Stage 2 grant. “He was just so appreciative and saying how much it helped in their rebuild process. It gives them an opportunity to finally start getting things cleared and rebuilt so they can settle.”
But for many, the road to recovery after the fires has not been an easy path – there have been unforeseen detours, hold-ups, and emotional and physical obstacles to overcome along the way.
“[And] not just in Wytaliba,” says Leah. “I’ve talked to people even now who are just coming forward for assistance because they just went ‘I can’t deal with this right now’. Now they’ve sort of come back and are like ‘I have to deal with it, it’s been a year later, I can’t run from it, I need to deal with it’.”
For those just beginning their recovery journey and those who are further along, The Salvation Army Bushfire Recovery Teams are there to provide support based on individual needs through financial assistance, outreach and financial counselling.