“Enough to stop us going under” – Community Support in the Bushfire Crisis

07 Apr 2020

Steve Hillyar’s home was destroyed during the recent NSW bushfires. Photo credit: Toby Zerna and the Daily Telegraph.

By Emily Ferguson

Fresh Hope’s 2020 bushfire appeal raised $52,141 to assist families and communities in NSW impacted by the recent bushfires.

More than half of these funds have already been distributed, with $16,614 sent through Bowral Church of Christ to fund rebuilding in the Southern Highlands region and $19,000 through Nicole Gorzalka, chaplain at The Glen, Fresh Hope’s aged care facility in Batemans Bay, for locals who need to rebuild their lives.

“The destruction in Batemans Bay is incredible,” said Nicole. “There are places nearby that look more like a bomb has gone off than a fire has come through. Nearly 400 homes have been lost. I personally know at least 20 families who have lost their home.

Steve and Mandy Hillyar and their children, who lost their home at Mogo, south of Batemans Bay, are one family the appeal has been able to support.

Photo: Mandy and Steve Hillyar’s home prior to the bushfires.

“Around 5pm on New Year’s Eve, my husband walked in, all black from fighting the fire. He just looked at me and said, ‘It’s all gone’,” said Mandy.

“I had to close down our business, a childcare centre, for a while because we had no food or power. And my husband hasn’t really gone back to work as it’s pretty much dried up with everything going on.

“So, it meant so much when Nicole said she’d put in for assistance for us. Getting that little bit extra was enough to stop us going under. It’s helped us buy new clothes and keep on top of groceries and fuel and paying some of our bills. It’s really helped our family and we’ve appreciated it so much.”

As well as supporting those who have lost their homes, Nicole has been caring for many others, including residents of The Glen after fire came to within 20 metres of the facility on New Year’s Eve.

“New Year’s Eve felt like an apocalyptic day,” Nicole said. “The Clyde Mountain fire had flared up and it was enormous. At 6am it was 30 kilometres from my home and by 8.30am it was just one kilometre away. It had become a firestorm. Flames were 60 metres tall.

“I phoned The Glen and found out the 90 residents and staff were all moved to the middle level where it’s safest, which meant all wards together with beds in the hallways. The fire brigade stayed all day.

“The pastors at my church were away so I was ringing everyone and doing checks with those I thought might not be safe, like a single elderly lady who had the fire come across the road from her house.

“The next day I went to The Glen and did visits with people, and they seemed pretty calm. Residents were being cared for on the middle level where they stayed for a total of three days, and the facility was using their generator for power.”

But the crisis was far from over because the surrounding bush kept flaring up at night.  Amanda Ackerley, The Glen manager, worked night and day for nine days straight to reassure residents who struggled with being moved out of their comfort zones.

The local community was locked in. No one could get out and authorities struggled to get food, supplies or petrol in. There was no power. Four-hour waits at cash-only supermarkets and two-kilometre queues for petrol became a reality.

During those days, Nicole’s family had a constant stream of people coming through their home because they still had the resources to cook.

“We’re still finding out about people who haven’t had support,” said Nicole. “Lots of people who stayed to fight are experiencing post-traumatic stress; they might have been prepared physically but not mentally or emotionally.

“I’d be lying if I said I was peaceful through the whole time and I don’t think I’m doing quite as well as I thought I was. But, through it all, listening to the whisper of God helped me hold my peace, and I’m so grateful to Richard, Taksan and Marianne at Fresh Hope for their support.”

“Recovery from the damage caused by bushfires is a long-term process,” said Fresh Hope Engage Ministry leader, Richard Reeves. “Fresh Hope Engage will continue to work with those impacted by the bushfires to provide further relief as and when required.”

Find more stories of Fresh Hope here.