Last week, Brooke Robinson saw a koala and its baby in a tree near her home in Mallacoota. It made her day.
This weekend marks three years since the Black Summer bushfires ravaged the far east coastal town of Gippsland, burning surrounding Croajingolong National Park and the homes of 123 families.
Across Victoria and NSW, the fires scorched more than 24 million hectares, killing 33 people directly and nearly 450 others from smoke inhalation.
Scientists and Mallacoota locals alike feared the fire, and the heat was so extreme that bush and wildlife would not recover. Now, after the copious rains that happened to follow the fires, signs of a bush revival are positive.
However, with rising home prices and construction costs, there are lingering concerns for many families still struggling to secure permanent homes or complete rebuilding.
And while the community’s recovery efforts have been celebrated, locals are concerned about the lack of ongoing aid for those hardest hit by the fires.
“I don’t have a permanent home yet, but I’m excited to have the koalas back,” says Robinson.
A survey by East Gippsland Shire Council found that of the 123 families who lost their homes in Mallacoota and near Gipsy Point and Genoa, 79 are planning to rebuild but only 27 are finished.
Robinson, a single mother with two sons, is among those trying to rebuild.
After being left homeless by the fire, she transitioned from working at the Mallacoota Pub to living there temporarily.
“COVID and the problems of rebuilding were more traumatic than the actual fire incident.”
After four moves, she now lives in one of 15 modular homes that the state government has made available as part of a short-term housing scheme near its humble weatherboard.
Seaside Mallacoota is one of Victoria’s most remote communities. The distance and lack of local crafts make construction a lengthy process at the best of times.
Those rebuilding after the fire are doing so at a time when the construction industry is grappling with tremendous demand fueled by the Morrison government’s $688 million home building program, launched in June 2020, and rising costs a serious global shortage of labor and materials.
Some have had to bring in their own builders and pay for their accommodation in a tight housing market, exacerbated by the loss of homes to the fire on top of demand from out-of-town holidaymakers and COVID sea changers.
Robinson’s young new home may have a roof and a front door, but it’s awaiting plastering, plumbing, and wiring. Realistically, she says, completion is a year or more away.
The longer the wait, the higher the bill. Robinson now works in aged care, where wages are notoriously low compared to building costs. An estimate for windows alone rose by $5,000 in one month. The price of her favorite flooring doubled.
So she will do as much work as possible herself, for example painting, and will opt for cheaper materials. “What I could have afforded in the beginning, I can’t afford now. That’s one hell of a thing to do alone.”
After the hustle and bustle of the fire and aftermath, when the Mallacoota community was in full swing helping each other and the native animals, and the constant moving and worrying about shelter and work, Robinson is exhausted.
“It’s a matter of touch and feel as you go. I just do one thing at a time.”
On a bush block near Gipsy Point, about 12 miles inland, local architect Christy Bryar knows exactly how Robinson feels.
She and her partner Dave also now live in a modular home on the site of the bush lodge they once called home.
Bryar says these rebuilds are doing so at the “worst time ever.”
The combination of waiting months for council approvals and finding a contractor resulted in Bryar’s plan blowing the bid by $100,000. The dilemma for the rebuilders, Bryar says, is whether to redraw their plans or somehow find the money to cover the extra costs.
Though the couple have been ready to start construction since mid-year, Bryar now expects to wait until next year to start work.
She notes that the first COVID lockdown of 2020 came just a month after the one road to Mallacoota reopened, which had been closed for more than a month for safety reasons.
“COVID and the problems of rebuilding were more traumatic than the actual fire incident,” she says. “People are tearing up”
“People are tearing up”
Community leaders say the ongoing stress experienced by those hardest hit by the fire highlights weaknesses in the response to recovery.
Carol Hopkins, chair of the community-elected Mallacoota and District Recovery Association, says many of the mental health and other services designed to help locals are now being withdrawn precisely when they are most needed.
“It’s harder than ever for the people who haven’t rebuilt because they’re just exhausted and dejected now,” she says.
Hopkins says some people are only now coming forward to seek help. “One of the psychologists at these services says they’re busier than ever.”
According to Hopkins, too many professionals who work with organizations that provide services, including the Red Cross, Royal District Nursing Services and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, have short-term contracts of just six or 12 months.
“All these temporary contracts really aren’t appropriate for post-emergency,” she says.
This weekend, three years after the fires, Mallacoota is now buzzing with Christmas and New Year celebrations. The city is full of vacationers.
Locals and campers are also excited about the return of the bush and animals.
“We’ve had pretty ideal growing conditions since the fire,” says Hopkins. “So we’ve been lucky in that regard.”
Brooke Robinson’s voice brightens when she talks about the animals. At 18 she moved to Mallacoota to be close to the ocean and the bush.
“The koalas and kangaroos are coming back. I’ve seen lyrebirds and lots of wombat droppings. They are rebuilding their lives, as are we.”
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https://www.smh.com.au/national/victoria/people-are-at-breaking-point-still-waiting-for-a-home-in-mallacoota-20221230-p5c9f8.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Still waiting for a home three years after the fires