In late 2019, devastating bushfires ripped through eastern Australia, destroying 35 million hectares (86.5 million acres) of land, displacing tens of thousands of people and destroying almost 3,000 homes.
More than two years later, the communities that were hit hardest by the fires are still struggling to get back on their feet, held back by bureaucracy, the rising price of building materials, and a lack of skilled construction workers.
Laura Gillies, a resident of Quaama in southern New South Wales (NSW), with her husband and two children, wants her new home to be made of mud brick, so the process is slower but she says many of her neighbours are struggling even to put up a conventional home.
Many are still “living in shipping containers and caravans and things like that”, she said, unable to even get started.
Part of the problem is that there are not enough builders and other construction specialists to meet the demand.
“You have to wait… at least six months to get something done,” Gillies said. “…they have so much work that it’s a juggling act trying to make everyone happy.”
Her boss has only just managed to start rebuilding the sheds in which they originally had their offices. Earlier on in the year, excessive rain held them back. Now, they are finding it hard to line up tradespeople to keep the job moving.
“Say the plumbing needed to get done so that the [electrician] could come… but then the digging couldn’t get done because of the rain and the electrician [says], ‘Well, I’ll push you back on my list and I’ll do other people’s stuff,’” she said. “Then when finally the digging gets done… instead of you being next on the list… you’re…10 down.”
Mallacoota-based carpenter, Farrell Spence-Henderson knows this issue all too well.
He has work backed up, he said, and “they’re bringing in a few other [tradespeople] from as far as Melbourne” 515 kilometres away.
“Everyone’s got that much work on, they can’t keep up,” he said. “[They] have to bring in outside help.”
Rebuilding efforts have also been slowed by a shortage of construction materials, including steel, and prices are rising.
“[It’s] from COVID and from the ties with China breaking down and now with Russia as well,” Spence-Henderson said. “It’s changed the demographic of all the pricing and all the materials because everyone’s cutting each other off. It’s just getting harder and harder.”
The relationship between China and Australia has deteriorated over several issues including Canberra’s demand for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic to concerns about foreign influence campaigns and the detention of Australian citizens in China.
Beijing has blocked imports from key Australian industries and trade ties between the two nations have declined.
Although there are hopes for an improvement under the new Labor government, there has not yet been any major change.
There has also been a lot of red tape for people to navigate, according to Spence-Henderson, even if they can find a tradesperson to work on their build.
“[At the moment I’m] rebuilding a house… that got burned down,” he said. “She’s been living in a portable [house] for the last couple of years… [it has] taken that long to get it all sorted out.”
“The plans and permits are taking a long time to go through,” he explained. “Everyone’s been pushed back. Nothing’s getting rushed. It’s been really tough for everyone.”
The requirements for building houses have changed since the bushfires because the BAL rating, a standard for measuring the risk of a home’s exposure to fire, has become more strict. The number of people applying for permits has also created a backlog.
Meanwhile, there is a growing shortage of rental properties available for locals to live in while they rebuild, partly as a result of the boom in the market for second homes.
“A lot of people from the city bought all the houses so there’s not much for sale any more, and everything’s become holiday houses,” said Spence-Henderson. “There’s nothing for residents.”
Spence-Henderson himself has not been able to rent and is staying at a friend’s house.
“He had his house burned down so he’s got a portable,” he said, explaining that a “portable” is “a house on a steel frame [that] they brought down on a truck and then just move it into place and put it back together”.
According to him, portable homes are common in Mallacoota.
“That’s the quickest and cheapest way to get a roof back over your head,” he said. “It’s just dependent on how many people you’ve got, whether you can have one or two bedrooms… if you haven’t got enough people then you’re only allowed to have one bedroom.”
‘A different home’
Many residents are also struggling with the mental scars of what happened during and after the fires.
Firefighter Dave Rudendyke was on the front lines in Cobargo in southern New South Wales when the fires hit at the end of 2019.
“The beeper went off… a bit after midnight on New Year’s Eve. So I hurtled down to the fire shed,” he said.
The firefighters went out to Wandella, he said, evacuating residents and sending them back to him at the fire shed.
“I cooked whatever I could find, put the kettle on and that sort of thing,” he said. “… I just recorded who they were and where they came from.”
As day broke the next morning, the sky was a dark red and the air was thick with smoke, he said.
“We lost a lot,” he continued. “While I was down at the fire shed I heard that an area close to where we live was going up. So I sent my son up to check the house and it was very close to our home.
“My boy Jay tried to fight the fire with my little 1,000 litre fire tank. But it overwhelmed him very quickly,” said Rudendyke.
Rudendyke’s wife Barb says that she has not felt the same since.
“Before the fire, I felt that I was younger and stronger and happier,” she said, “and I don’t know, it just seems to have aged me or something. I feel older.”
The Rudendykes acted quickly and were able to rebuild back in late 2020. “We were one of the first people back… in a house,” she said.
Her new house, while “lovely”, does not feel the same.
“You don’t care as deeply about things anymore: about the house, or the garden or things like that,” she said, “They don’t mean as much to me as they used to. It’s my home, but it’s a different home.”
“If you want to go back to your other life, you’d need to go back to the other house and It’s not there.”
Gillies says her mental health was suffering by the end of 2021.
“I couldn’t do anything,” she said, “I was just so done and I was so tired and burned out. But… I don’t know if that was from COVID… It’s hard to say, it’s hard to separate it.”
She is confident she will get through it, however.
“There’s probably still trauma that needs to be dealt with, and it’s slow… it’s like any kind of grief that will [fade] slowly.”
Barb Rudendyke is less optimistic. She does not think she will ever get back to the person she was before the fires.
“The hill behind us is just a little hill of… skeleton trees. It’s what we see out of our back window,” she said, adding that it is a constant reminder of the enormity of what happened to their community.
“If I went to the top of the hill, there’d be another hill and another hill,” she said, “All the same.”