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Cruel reality of life in ‘wiped-out’ town

When embers the size of footballs began to rain down on Balmoral, many had given up hope.

Over three days of "hell on earth" last month, the village - nestled deep in the bush of the NSW Southern Highlands - was torn apart by a fire so ferocious that many feared it had been wiped off the map.

Flames soared more than 200m above its treetops as the town was smashed 10 times and ran out of water over those three days - leading the NSW Premier to declare there was "not much left" there.

Three weeks later, there are messages scrawled onto corrugated iron boards leaning on the gates of homes that now look almost alarmingly intact among their blackened forest surrounds.

Out of 140 homes in the village, 20 were destroyed.
Out of 140 homes in the village, 20 were destroyed.

The black spray paint words spell simple praises to the Rural Fire Service for what its volunteers did when the Green Wattle Creek fire hit, but they also subtly let passers-by know there's a living, breathing community picking up their lives among the ashes.

At the epicentre of this community, there's a village hall that narrowly escaped burning down.

The colonial-style wooden building appears to have copped a giant ember that clung beneath one of its windows, but somehow it survived despite nobody being there to save it on the day the fire wiped out 20 homes.

The village hall appears to have been struck by an ember, but it survived the fire.
The village hall appears to have been struck by an ember, but it survived the fire.

Now the town's meeting point is overflowing with food, water, clothes, bedding and toiletries that have come from across the nation.

There's a quiet buzz of residents coming in and out to pick up a couple of things or just to have a chat with volunteers Kerrie O'Grady and Kim Hill - who have been working day and night to sort through a tsunami of donations.

They tell me it has been a whirlwind of emotions for the 400 people living in Balmoral.

Mrs O'Grady said many residents had "triggers" that brought flashbacks to the moment the fire swept towards their homes.

The Country Women's Association volunteer broke down into tears when she spoke of what reminded her of the chaos that gripped the town.

"There were two young guys killed at the end of my street," she said. "I drove past there this morning and there's still blood on the road.

Kerrie O’Grady and Kim Hill have been working day and night to sort through donations.
Kerrie O’Grady and Kim Hill have been working day and night to sort through donations.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'Why won't the bloody rain wash it away?' So, I've got that trigger and they've got lots of triggers too."

They added that children had been hit hard by the mental torment of the disaster.

"We've got one little girl who won't come out of the cupboard," RFS volunteer Mrs Hill said. "Every time she hears a helicopter she screams, 'Mummy we're going to die, it's coming again'."

"It's been bloody hard and it's going to be bloody hard for a long time to come," Mrs O'Grady said.

Her husband Kevin said men, in particular, had difficulty accepting the charity of others.

"Some have said they feel ashamed to take things," he said. "Even though we've been so badly hit, they still feel as if there are people worse off than us."

"You've got people, especially the men, who are too proud," Mrs Hill said. "They say, 'I've got to be tough', and when we say we've got all of this for you, they just break down."

She said it was often the "little things that get people".

The village was smashed 10 times in three days by fires last month.
The village was smashed 10 times in three days by fires last month.

She gave an example of one resident who'd lost everything but shed tears of happiness when he found an old cigarette lighter his grandfather had given him among the ashes of his home.

"It's about trying to connect all these people who have lost everything back together, bringing them out of their shell and talking about what they've been through," Mrs Hill added.

Because the village was hit so badly, Mrs Hill said the recent weeks had been extremely tough on the RFS volunteers too - as the adrenaline of fighting the blaze turns to feelings of guilt.

"It's later on, when they see someone down the street and they think, 'I know who they are and they've lost their house', and then they've got that guilt that they've let them down," she said.

The NSW premier said there was ‘not much left’ of the town after the fires.
The NSW premier said there was ‘not much left’ of the town after the fires.

"These are all the things that come out afterwards, and there's so many mixed emotions out there.

"People will be fine one day, but they'll hear a sound or someone will make a comment and it will trigger a thought or memory they thought they'd been able to cope with."

A veteran of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria and the village's Rural Fire Service brigade captain, Brendon O'Connor, said he had never seen anything like it in his 21 years as a firefighter.

"The embers coming down were football sized," he said. "It was like hell on earth, and a lot of firefighters are going to be living with that for a long time. For many of them, it was their first fire."

The village’s Rural Fire Service brigade captain Brendon O’Connor said the town ran out of water in the middle of the fire. Picture: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
The village’s Rural Fire Service brigade captain Brendon O’Connor said the town ran out of water in the middle of the fire. Picture: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

To make matters worse, the town, which is reliant on a water tank, ran dry in the middle of the firefighting effort.

Luckily, a member from another brigade spoke to his boss and managed to get a truck into the town in time to save homes.

But looking around at the town now, Mr O'Connor says his team still wonders how they did it.

"There were a lot of prayers going up to the good Lord that day, and that had to have some part in it," he said.

"We shouldn't have saved what we saved. There were so few of us here and so many homes under immediate threat.

"Losing 20 homes is obviously terrible, but we should have lost a lot more."

Luckily, he said, the village was empty by the time the fire hit.

One of those forced to frantically flee his home was Lou Amato, a state member for the area, who only managed to grab some photos and paperwork before making a mad dash.

Lou Amato said everyone in Balmoral had lost something in the fire.
Lou Amato said everyone in Balmoral had lost something in the fire.

"We lost everything sentimental that belonged to my parents and grandparents, things for the kids when they were little. All those things that mean something to us have all gone," he said. "So that's hard."

But comparatively, he has been lucky. Two of his neighbours lost their homes entirely, and one had only moved in three weeks before.

"People are going up and down continuously because it happened at a really bad time of the year," he said. "So, no one's had a Christmas and New Year's and they're now having to go back to work with the stress of dealing with insurance companies, having to remove all the debris and rebuilding their properties.

"It's going to take a long, long time before we're back on our feet."

Benjamin.graham@news.com.au



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