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Malua Bay residents rebuild their lives two years after bushfire hit small NSW town

By Tim Swanston, Wednesday December 29, 2021 - 23:50 AEDT
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Judy Smith spent New Year's Eve 2019 huddled on the beach with family. - ABC

All around Judy Smith's new property are reminders of the devastating blaze that burnt her family home to ashes.

"It's there at the back of my mind all the time," she said.

"We've still got dead trees, we've still got the unit block behind us which is like a war zone.

"Every now and again I'll look out and think, yeah, that's what happened."

Like so many residents of the NSW South Coast, Judy spent New Year'sEve 2019 huddled on the beach with family, unable to escape as fires hemmed them in.

She'd helped defend a friend's house she was staying at in the morning, before evacuating down to the Tomakin boat ramp.

"We just watched the fires burning everywhere ? what we didn't realise was all this time our house was in danger."

She and her son found a way closer to their South Coast home in Malua Bay, running into a police barricade crowded by other locals.

Her neighbour's daughter approached her, delivering the news.

"She said 'Miss, your house is gone'.

"We stood there and we could still see the flames in the distance, but that was it, we knew it was gone.

"Our next door neighbour who had lost his wife just a week before, his house was burning too ? so I just couldn't imagine what he was going through."

Dozens of homes were destroyed that day in Malua Bay, just south of Batemans Bay.

Some residents remainedafter the evacuation order as long as they could, wetting properties and putting out spot fires before the flames became too intense.

Today, construction hoarding is a key feature of the quiet beachside town.

While some, like Ms Smith, have rebuilt, other properties lay almost untouched and some have been cleared to be sold off.

"That's what I hold on to now, the fact that yes, it was the most awful experience ? but now we are so lucky," Ms Smith said.

"We're so fortunate that we're in a beautiful new home ? we can actually see a bit more of the sea, which is lovely."

A few houses up the road, Julie Gercken and her husband Russell were much more fortunate.

The back of their property and their caravan was destroyed, but the house was spared.

"it's just unbelievable how it affects different people," she said.

The memory of evacuating down to the water as embers began falling has stuck with her, two years after the disaster.

"I couldn't walk down to the beach for about three months.

"One day I didn't realise why my hand was hurting and my fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands without me even realising.

"Sometimes you come over the big hill to go down to the beach when you're driving and it still flashes back every now and then ? I think that will be there forever."

Ms Gercken believes that finally, a sense of normality is returning to Malua Bay.

"With COVID, you just keep getting knocked down and knocked down, we had the floods, we had the fire ? but we're getting there and the visitors are starting to come back now."

At the centre of Malua Bay, the clack of bowls is accompanied by the whirr of construction.

Overshadowing the bowling green, the rebuild of Club Malua is well underway, to be completed in 2022.

Out of a marquee, Club Malua operations manager Manuela Littek has been hosting events that bring the community together.

"It took something away from the community, a place where everyone would come, socialise, mingle, celebrate," she said.

"Not having that after such a traumatic event of the bushfires, it wasn't just people's houses, but their entire routine ? so not only did they lose their own home, but also the place where they would usually come and socialise."

"It took its toll on people's mental health."

Ms Littek said many in the town were eagerly awaiting the reopening of the new club building.

"We have so many people calling us asking, 'when is the grand opening date?'", she said.

"We have people driving up the driveway just to do a sneak peek and see how far along we are at this stage. I think there is a lot of excitement."

Closer to the beach, the staff at Raymonds at Malua Bay are run off their feet with a busy Christmas season.

The Chinese restaurant moved out of the Club Malua location after it burnt down, bringing longtime restaurant owner Raymond Ng and his whole family together to set up the new restaurant.

Raymond's daughter and restaurant manager Emily Ng said a lot of people dine at the restaurant when they visit Malua Bay to see the recovery process.

"I couldn't have asked for a better opening given the circumstances of the bushfires and COVID, but we've had a massive, really nice community response," she said.

"We're like a big tourist destination ? we are really looking forward to how busy it will be over summer."


© ABC 2021

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