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Real Life

Real life: The Cobargo NSW bushfires destroyed my home

As Australia prepared to see in 2020, Cobargo residents faced the fight of their lives…

By Brittany Smith
There's not a single Australian who hasn't had their heart broken by the horrific bushfires that have swept our nation. Yet, remarkably, from the ashes – with much of Oz still on the frontline – the spirit of Aussies has shone through stronger than ever as people from every walk of life band together.
During this time of destruction and devastation, love and kindness is keeping hope alive to help Australia heal from fires that would have brought many other nations to their knees.
The road to rebuild will be long, but as a nation we will – brick by brick, fence by fence.
Starting this week across Bauer Media titles, we are launching a campaign to help our neighbours in their time of need.
Each week, in Take 5 and at Rebuild Our Towns we will shine we will shine a spotlight on one of the affected towns, informing our generous readers on ways to help, from the best fundraisers to donate to that benefit the locals, to products you can buy to support small businesses.
Maybe the farmers need fencing supplies or those who run the community hall need a hand to get back up and running so locals can gather and support one another. It could even mean planning a getaway to the region when the time is right, to bolster the local tourism industry.
Helping doesn't have to cost a fortune and many hands do make a difference to those doing it tough. Our thoughts go out to every person, but actions speak louder than words, so join us to make a lasting difference.
This week, we focus on the town of Cobargo in NSW…

Barbara Rugendyke, 66, from Cobargo, NSW, shares her tragic true life story;

Steam rose from the mug my hubby, Dave, 66, held gently in his hands."Here's your cuppa, love," he beamed, pecking my cheek.
We always woke at 5am and had tea in bed – it was the calm before the storm of our busy lives.
Before long, we heard footsteps coming down the hall.
"Here we go," I laughed.
Our daughter Sarah, seven, burst into the room and climbed into bed for a cuddle.
Although Dave and I were retired, we were far from empty nesters.
After having five children of our own, we wanted to help other kids doing it tough. After all, we 
still had so much love to give.
So we became foster parents and soon welcomed five-month-old twins into our home.
We were thrilled to give the babies the stable, loving environment they deserved.
Thirteen years later, we'd fostered more than 300 children in our Canberra abode.
When Dave retired from his job as a police officer, we bought a small, three-bedroom cottage in the quiet town of Cobargo, on the south coast of NSW.
With a population of less than 800 people, the community was brimming with classic country hospitality.
Dave and I.
Photo credit: Ben Marden
To make room for the kids, we renovated the house into a six-bedroom property with a granny flat out the back. It was a hard slog, but well worth it.
Dave loved the small community and signed up to volunteer for the rural fire brigade with our son Jay.
Our kind neighbours gave me a hand looking after the kids whenever the men were called out.
"This really feels like home," I sighed happily.
When our children moved out and started families of their own, we all remained close-knit.
After another 10 years passed, we'd cared for well over 400 kids and even officially adopted four.
Our budgets were tight, but we always made do. Sometimes Dave and I went without so we could spoil the kids and our 25 grandchildren.
We even managed to save up for a piano for Sarah.
A few days after Christmas, I checked the Fires Near Me website, which was run by the Rural Fire Service.
Fires had been blazing around NSW and Victoria for a month and I wanted to keep an eye on where they were.
Dave, me and the kids.
Photo credit: Ben Marden
I felt so sorry for the people affected. I couldn't imagine losing my home.
Looking at the incident sites, my heart skipped.
"Fires have spread to Bega," I told Dave.
It was just 34km away. I hadn't expected it to get so close.
Although Dave and I had a fire plan, I was sure we wouldn't need it. Surely the fires wouldn't go any further…
The day before New Year's Eve, they'd inched towards us, but the fire alerts website assured me we'd be safe at least until morning.
So that night, while Dave volunteered at the fire shed, the kids and I went to bed.
Just after midnight, there was pounding on the front door.
I answered, still groggy from sleep.
"What are you still doing here, Mum?" Jay, who lived nearby, asked, eyes wide with panic. "Look outside!"
My heart leapt in my throat as I stared down the street.
Me with Sarah.
All I could see was red. It looked like an apocalypse.
Thick, black smoke clouded the air and a thunderous roar filled my ears. It was the sound of fire speeding towards us.
The wind had changed direction and now we were right in the path of an inferno!
Jay and I quickly woke the kids, urging them to pack a bag and race to the car.
There was no time to grab any of my belongings or photo albums. If we didn't leave now, we might not make it out.
The kids, aged seven, 13, and 17, were nervous, but I put on a brave face.
"There's no fire where we're going," I soothed. "We'll be okay."
Dave was already out there somewhere and Jay insisted on staying behind to help out.
"I'll save our homes," he promised.
With a heavy heart, I drove off with the kids to my daughter's house in Narooma, 35km away. Three hours later, Jay called.
My legs buckled at the sound of his depleted voice.
"Mum, I tried so hard," he choked. "But embers got under the wooden deck and I had to get out."
I swallowed my sobs.
"I love you," I said. "You're safe – that's all that matters. I'd never live with myself if anything happened to you."
The ruins of our home.
Afterwards, I broke down, unable to believe our lives had changed so quickly.
When I told the kids, we huddled together in tears.
Everything we owned, our family home, belongings, all our treasured photos… it was all gone. We'd escaped with nothing more than our lives.
Next day, it was pitch-black outside. There was no power or phone reception.
I had no idea where Dave was or if he was okay. No-one could get in touch to tell me.
Each hour that passed was agonising, but I had to stay strong.
"What about our Christmas presents?" Sarah asked me in tears. "And my piano?"
It was heartbreaking. All we had now were our happy memories.
"Remember when Dad dressed up as Santa for everyone in town?" I said, forcing a chuckle.
They smiled at the thought, even if just for a second.
Later that day, my phone buzzed.
"Hi love, it's me," Dave said.
Hearing his warm voice again filled me with relief. I finally felt like I could breathe.
Dave dressed as santa with the local firefighters.
Since then, Dave has spent weeks volunteering with the fire brigade.
He's taken the occasional day off, but only to regain his strength so he can fight the blazes all over again.
Cobargo is still too dangerous to return to, and with summer in full-swing, there's no telling when fire conditions will become hazardous again.
We're still gutted over the loss of our house, but we've fared better than others.
Many of our poor neighbours lost everything and weren't insured.
Others, including people I knew well, have lost loved ones.
Jay still thinks he failed me, but he's my hero.
He spent his 21st birthday fighting fires, and if it wasn't for him waking us up, we might not be alive.
We're surrounded by devastation, but our town has rallied together and everyone's looking out for each other.
We won't leave anyone behind.
We'll rebuild after this terrible tragedy and we'll do it together.

The facts

NSW
  • Twenty people dead.
  • Almost 5 million hectares burned, which is greater than the size of Belgium.
  • 1687 homes confirmed destroyed; 771 in 2020 alone.
VIC
  • Four people dead.
  • Approximately 1.4 million hectares burned.
  • 872 homes, buildings or businesses confirmed destroyed.
SA
  • Four people dead.
  • More than 495,000 hectares burned.
  • 161 homes confirmed destroyed.
QLD
  • 5 million hectares burned.
  • 50 homes destroyed.
WA
  • 2 million hectares burned.
  • One home confirmed destroyed.
TAS
  • 30,000 hectares burned.
  • Two homes confirmed destroyed
NT
  • Five homes confirmed destroyed.
Barbara and Sarah

How you can help

DONATE:
Bega Valley Community Disaster Releif Fund is taking donations:
BSB: 633000
Account: 157357567
International donations: IBAN number for Bendigo Bank is: BENDAU3B
Cobargo District Emergency Hay Fund
Many of the area's farmers have lost nearly everything and still need to feed the livestock they have left. This fund is to donate hay, chaff pallets and more. Bendigo bank kicked off the fund with $10,000, but further donations would be a huge help to the community.
BSB: 633000
Account: 171138555
WIRES
It's impossible to estimate the number of native animals that have perished in the fires or the impact that food and water shortages, as well as habitat lost, will have on the wild populations. In December, WIRES recieved more than 20,000 calls and volunteers attended more than 3300 rescues.
To donate directly, click here.
Take an empty esky on your next road trip
A campaign has been circulating to encourage Aussies and tourists to book a road trip along the south coast. Take an empty esky, empty car boot and low fuel and spend money or stay a night in the towns affected.

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