Home Health ‘I can’t give up’: Australian village scorched by bushfires struggles with loss

‘I can’t give up’: Australian village scorched by bushfires struggles with loss

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Ash Graham’s dog, Kozi, wakes him at 8am, eager for his morning walk.

Then Graham realises he was dreaming, and gets up from the one-man tent he’s been sleeping in each night since a wildfire swept through his village on New Year’s Eve.

Volunteer firefighter Ash Graham wipes a tear as he talks about his dog, Kozi.

Rick Rycroft

Volunteer firefighter Ash Graham wipes a tear as he talks about his dog, Kozi.

Graham, a volunteer firefighter, resumes his weary search for Kozi: hiking south down the dried-up creek bed, past the wallabies that were burned to death as they fled the fire, knocking on doors, trying to keep track of the grids he’s already covered.

Graham’s Austrian wife, Melanie, died from cancer a year or so ago, and his house burned down in the December 31 fire.

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His truck and his few belongings are with him in the yard of the fire station, the last place he saw Kozi. Graham had left his dog at the station and was driving around warning people to leave when 3-year-old Kozi bolted as flames approached the building.

“He’s my little man. He’s been there for me,” Graham said, his face crumpling. “I can’t give up, really, until I find him.”

Volunteer firefighter Ash Graham camping on the lawn near the fire station at Nerrigundah, Australia.

Rick Rycroft

Volunteer firefighter Ash Graham camping on the lawn near the fire station at Nerrigundah, Australia.

Graham’s tiny village of Nerrigundah in southeastern Australia has been among the places hardest hit by the country’s devastating wildfires, with about two-thirds of the homes destroyed.

A man in his 70s who lived near the village was killed in the disaster – one of the 27 lives claimed by the wildfires, which also have destroyed more than 2000 homes.

Ash Graham has lost his wife, house and dog.

Rick Rycroft

Ash Graham has lost his wife, house and dog.

Like many small communities in Australia that have been scorched by the wildfires, Nerrigundah will never be the same.

Once a thriving gold mining town with over 1000 people, the village, located in New South Wales state, has lately been home to just a few dozen who love the peace of the Australian bush, a place far from the bustling cities where dogs can run free.

Ash Graham holds a camera showing a photo of his missing dog, Kozi.

Rick Rycroft

Ash Graham holds a camera showing a photo of his missing dog, Kozi.

But now a landmark building that was once a store has burned down. The village’s old schoolhouse is also gone, and so is the building that used to be the church.

The wildfire caught Nerrigundah by surprise, after it was expected to hit a day or two later. And nobody could believe its ferocity.

Skye Threlfall talks about how she and her brother and sister saved their house.

Rick Rycroft

Skye Threlfall talks about how she and her brother and sister saved their house.

The Threlfall family home was one of only a half dozen houses to survive. Outside stands an exploded gas canister, its sides peeled open like arms seeking an embrace.

The stone sculptures made by Ron Threlfall, the fire captain, that depict people in anguish now have scorch marks running up their sides.

Siobhan Threlfall's photo of a fire threatening her home at the village of Nerrigundah, Australia.

Siobhan Threlfall

Siobhan Threlfall’s photo of a fire threatening her home at the village of Nerrigundah, Australia.

Skye Threlfall, 21, who was home for the Christmas holidays along with her two siblings, said she woke up at 4am on New Year’s Eve.

“My mum was screaming to us, and then we all ran out and looked up at the sky over here and it was just red,” she said.

Sandstone sculptures by local fire captain Ron Threlfall.

Rick Rycroft

Sandstone sculptures by local fire captain Ron Threlfall.

“You could see the flames up in there, and it was just roaring.”

She said the fire closed in like a storm. She screamed at her sister to come to the car, terrified she wouldn’t make it.

The tiny village of Nerrigundah in New South Wales has been among the hardest hit by Australia's devastating wildfires.

Rick Rycroft

The tiny village of Nerrigundah in New South Wales has been among the hardest hit by Australia’s devastating wildfires.

Across the other side of town, Lyle Stewart, 65, was retching from the thick black smoke as he tried to save his house by dousing it with water. Then his hose caught fire.

“I thought, ‘Time’s come,'” Stewart said.

Lyle Stewart stands in front of his destroyed home.

Rick Rycroft

Lyle Stewart stands in front of his destroyed home.

But he and his buddy made it to Stewart’s car. The air conditioning helped filter the gunk they were breathing.

It took them 90 minutes to drive the short distance to the fire station as they used a chainsaw to cut through a half dozen flaming trees that had fallen across the road.

Skye Threlfall and her sister also made it to the fire station. But inside, the howling winds buckled the roller doors off their supports.

Two brick fireplaces are all that are left of a historic town store.

Rick Rycroft

Two brick fireplaces are all that are left of a historic town store.

“Embers were just flying through,” Threlfall said.

Residents leaned up against the doors, trying to keep the fire out. Marilyn Brennan poured water on the embers as they blasted through, then retreated to a back room with some of the others.

“Down on the ground, hugging each other, hoping like hell we’d get out,” she said.

A truck parked outside the fire station at Nerrigundah, Australia.

Rick Rycroft

A truck parked outside the fire station at Nerrigundah, Australia.

Townsfolk credit the sprinkler system installed on the exterior of the fire station a few years back for saving them. Such sprinklers aren’t standard at rural fire stations, but the town had raised money for its own.

Residents are still coming to terms with what they have lost. Stewart, who moved here in 1985, had just finished restoring a caravan that has been reduced to ash.

A lawn mower is barely recognisable after the fire.

Rick Rycroft

A lawn mower is barely recognisable after the fire.

Then there are the thousands of comics his son had collected and that he was storing. What really irks him, he jokes, is the carton of Victoria Bitter beer he’d just bought and hadn’t taken a single drink from.

“This is everything we’ve worked for for the last 35 years, gone,” he said.

He doesn’t know whether he’ll return.

Colin Brennan stands in the debris of his destroyed house lost in the New Year's Eve wildfire.

Rick Rycroft

Colin Brennan stands in the debris of his destroyed house lost in the New Year’s Eve wildfire.

“My wife and I don’t want to leave here. But when you get older it’s a bit different, too. I’m not as fit as what I was when I was 35,” he said.

Brennan and her husband, Colin, said they’re planning to rebuild.

“I’ll be back,” Colin Brennan said. “This is home. This is where I live. This is me, here. I’ve got a life.”

The home of Colin Brennan is razed to the ground.

Sam McNeil

The home of Colin Brennan is razed to the ground.

Skye Threlfall said she hopes the community survives and rebuilds, but she knows that quite a few people won’t return.

“It’s just scary, because you don’t want to go through this again,” she said.

Graham said he plans to cut down some trees on his property to make it safe so he can set up his camp trailer.

He keeps meaning to leave from the fire station yard, although he can’t quite bring himself to do it just yet. And he said that Nerrigundah is home.

About two thirds of homes in the village have been destroyed and a 71-year-old man killed.

Sam McNeil

About two thirds of homes in the village have been destroyed and a 71-year-old man killed.

“I’ll never move,” he said.

But then he considers it a bit more. A roofer by trade, Graham worked all sorts of jobs before spending six years caring for his wife before she died.

He said maybe he could spend some time in Austria, where Melanie is buried, or maybe in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, where the air is cooler.

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