The Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020 started as early as September 2019, and over the intense months that followed – NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia were consumed by fire. Salvation Army Emergency Services (SAES) and local Salvos were positioned at firegrounds and evacuation centres, supporting the immediate needs of emergency personnel and impacted communities with meals and refreshments, emergency funds and vouchers.
It was at an evacuation centre in Taree, NSW where Brian Nixon and his wife Karen first came into contact with The Salvation Army and connected with Salvo officer, Bruce Harmer. Chatting with Bruce at the time, Brian shared his immediate experience of evacuating his property and the reality of discovering the loss of his home and belongings.
“We heard that our home was burnt out, and even had photos sent to us so we knew what to expect,” Brian had shared. “There was only a bit of our bedroom not burnt, so I could get a few clothes full of ash, but everything else was gone.”
Taking part in The Salvation Army’s bushfire response in Taree, Bruce recalls their first exchanges.
“Brian and Karen had been evacuated to a motel on the edge of Taree because they had lost their home in the fires. They had a few items with them that they had grabbed on the way out the door and that was all. I can only imagine what feelings they were processing in those very early days of such personal loss. I would chat with Brian and Karen often at the motel and struck up a friendship that remains today.”
Salvos support on the long road to recovery
Almost a year on, Brian says the road to recovery has been slow and difficult. The clean-up of his six-acre hobby farm in Rainbow Flat alone has been a massive job.
“In the beginning, it was the rain and the weather,” says Brian. “Then the house had been demolished and the shed had been demolished and everything had been taken away. That was done probably within three months. But they only took the house and shed. All of the burnt trees and burnt fences were still left, so we’ve had to pay for that, which I think was $11,000.”
While they had house insurance, the estimated bill for clean-up and rebuilding has been far greater than the insurance company’s payout. Brian says he is grateful to have received quite a few grants from The Salvation Army and other charities to assist with different stages of the recovery process.
These grants enabled Brian and Karen to address their immediate needs in the beginning – such as buying some extra clothes and household items, as nearly everything had been lost in the fire.
The grants have also helped with the extra clean-up of the property – a necessary step towards attaining a fire rating from the council, which will then allow them to apply for planning and building permits. While the fire rating is still pending, any plans to rebuild are stalled and, at this stage, Brian believes it will be another 12-18 months before they can even begin construction.
Additional hardship has also created further setbacks for the couple. Soon after the fires, Karen was hit by a car while driving which injured her knee. And, most recently, Brian suffered a workplace head injury resulting in a concussion and required cat scans and an extended period of rest – further delaying recovery efforts and his ability to earn a much-needed income.
Enduring friendship through tough times
Knowing that the recovery journey for people impacted by the fires is different for everyone, The Salvation Army remains committed to working alongside those affected – by providing practical and emotional support for as long as it takes.
For Brian, the shock of what happened didn’t hit him straight away – as has been the case for many others in his community. “That was our home, we’d been there for 25 years. I’d put a lot of work into that place. In my shed, I had forty years-worth of stuff. I had a lot of motorbikes and tractors and buses. I had a caravan. All that just got melted down.”
He says the ongoing friendship, advice and support he has received from Bruce has been great in helping him deal with a number of challenges. “Bruce has been really good to me. He’s a very supportive person. If I need advice or something, I’ll ring Bruce.”
With Bruce based in Melbourne and state borders closed due to COVID-19, regular contact through phone calls has enabled him to continue supporting Brian through the difficult times, but he is hoping to be able to visit Brian and Karen before Christmas if restrictions ease.
“My wife, Carolyn, and I were able to visit Brian and Karen at their temporary accommodation three months after the fires, delivering a hamper to help them through and spending time to just listen and encourage,” says Bruce. “I look forward to the day when I can visit them in their own home. We will continue to call each other and when possible catch up in person”.
Brian and Karen have lived through an unimaginable year of heartbreak and loss, compounded by personal injury and setbacks. While the road to recovery is still a long one, support from Bruce and The Salvation Army Bushfire Recovery Teams will continue now and into the future, as the couple work to re-establish themselves on their property.
“We are so thankful and everyone has been so helpful and supporting each other,” says Brian. “It’s a bit overwhelming though; nobody thought it would be like this. If there’s one silver lining, it’s the friendship I built with Bruce – I may have lost everything else, but I gained a great friendship.”