Time starts to heal wounds for St Pat’s Day fire victims – one year on

Helicopters were well utilised to control the peat fires in the district.

WHILE the devastation which was the St Patrick’s Day fires remains fresh in the minds of locals, so too does the resilience of those residents who have begun to rebuild their lives.

This weekend is likely to be a trying time for the numerous district residents impacted during the fires which swept through the area a year ago this Sunday.

St Patrick's Day fires - one year on
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The fires, which began at Terang, Gnotuk and Garvoc have left an indelible mark on the community.

More than 25 homes, 60 sheds, thousands of livestock and 40,000 hectares of land were lost to the blazes.

St Patrick’s Day 2018 was described as the worst case scenario for fire conditions with hot winds and temperatures bearing down on the community.

Residents were warned to be prepared but, for the most part, what came as darkness descended outstripped anticipation as the first blaze broke out at Terang at about 9pm on Saturday night.

Following the initial fire, fires continued to break out across both Corangamite and Moyne shires, with a reported 60 incidents listed on the Emergency Victoria app in this region alone at one point.

Speaking with the Cobden Timboon Coast Times following the fire, Carpendeit CFA member Brad Paton described the conditions on St Patrick’s Day as a “disaster in the making”.

He said despite the heavy property losses it was “remarkable we didn’t lose more”.

“To come out to a job like that and have no injuries or loss of life was remarkable,” Mr Paton said.

Elingamite North’s Neil Podger knows only too well the devastating impact of the night.

He, with the support of son Leigh and family friend John Adams, stayed at his former car wrecking business to defend the family home.

Armed with a 1000 litre water pod on the back of a ute with a $300 Gerni and the torch lights from their phones, the trio did their best to fight the “monster” fire front.

Mr Podger, who has extensive experience with the CFA, said the three of them were able to save the house and workshop.

Unfortunately, the yard full of cars – which became veritable missiles when they caught fire – was all but wiped out.

Mr Podger said an estimated 80 per cent of the vehicles in the yard were destroyed in the blaze, with the intense heat from the fire front seeing glass windshields literally melt over steering wheels, car floors and gas tanks explode and wheels shoot skywards.

In the months following the blaze, with the support of Leigh, he began the heartbreaking task of clearing his life’s work.

“It’s been a very much full-on year,” Mr Podger said.

“I’m still nowhere near cleaned up, I’ve just found that I have had to walk away from the basic year to do other things to get my mind elsewhere.

“We were lucky in one way that we did have an overseas holiday booked and paid for before the fires. That gave us a break from everything.”

As the year mark approached, he said the family continued to take it day by day, but said “we’re cruising along pretty well”.

However, he said days where hot and windy conditions were present – like those which sparked the Gippsland fires earlier this month – were sometimes a challenge.

Mr Podger said he could empathise with the victims of the Gippsland fires.

“I try and not stress out about it, I just put it in the back blocks, but it’s there,” he said.

“You know what they’re going through, it’s just so close to our date as well.

“I just try and put everything behind me.”

The community support for the victims flowed into funds and requests for help without question.

Mr Podger was thankful for the assistance from the wider community in the months following the blaze.

“The support we have had is fantastic,” he said.

“The shire has been excellent.”

Just around the corner from the Podgers, Tara-Lee Salau and partner Adam Rowe were not as lucky, with the family home razed to the ground.

The family, who were renovating their house, had been to Melbourne earlier in the day.

“We were buggered when we got home from Melbourne,” Ms Salau said.

“We were in bed and Adam’s phone was beeping. He was trying to go to sleep and was ignoring it.

“Our power had been flickering so I was looking for CFA updates on Facebook and there was nothing.”

A short time later a phone call from a friend in Terang saw news filter through a blaze had broken out at the power station and was moving fast.

“I went outside and the sky was orange, Terang was lighting up,” Ms Salau said.

“We evacuated ourselves, we just left. We grabbed a few belongings and clothing.”

Not long later the family returned to the property to get the caravan so they had somewhere to sleep.

While there Ms Salau said the couple turned the electric fences off so the cows were able to get out if they needed to.

It was a decision that helped save much of their stock as the blaze swept through.

Rumours had circulated their home had been lost to the fire, but it was not until the next morning it was confirmed.

“I can’t even explain how I felt about hearing that,” Ms Salau said.

While the months following were difficult, the family have a new home currently being built and a future to look forward to.

The family has lived in Camperdown since the St Patrick’s Day fires and are looking forward to returning to Elingamite.

“We’re definitely excited,” Ms Salau said.

“We can’t wait to get back out there. We’ve been significantly inconvenienced by being in Camperdown.

“We’re looking forward to a new beginning.”

The wider community has helped ease the burden for the family, and all those impacted in the fires.

Ms Salau thanked all those who have contributed in any way following the blaze.

“Only a couple of weeks ago we received a donation,” she said.

“We haven’t forgotten the fires and we still haven’t forgotten the people who supported us.

“We appreciate it so much.”

While time does not erase the memories, it can make it easier to bear as not just the fire victims themselves, but the landscape starts to heal.

Ms Salau said it was time to look ahead.

“We’re over looking back, we just need to look forward,” she said.

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