'Everyone feels let down and forgotten': South Arm residents are still just surviving

Sitting at South Arm Hall, the heat and humidity are oppressive.

It's still alight at the top end of McHughs Creek, and last week choppers were back at it, waterbombing. Their presence, though usually a comfort, stirred up the trauma from November for many.

The hall is operating as a food pantry, a shower, a wardrobe, a base to collect supplies to fix temporary shelters, a place to sometimes get a home-cooked meal, and a refuge where the community can gather and vent their feelings of frustration and despair.

This last purpose is particularly important because there's no hiding the emotional fragility of the South Arm community right now.

Beck Beverley has been making it her mission to help in whatever way she can. She's been manning the hall, delivering supplies to people, advocating for the community at meetings, and has more of a gauge than most about what's been going on. According to her, the picture at this point is pretty bleak.

"Everyone feels let down and forgotten. The media is focussed down south now, and it feels like everyone thinks we're just done and dusted, and everything is just going back to normal now," she said.

"But there is no normal. Noone understands the day-to-day reality these people are facing.

"There's still people in tents - tattered, old, shitty tents that are falling apart.

There's no power, no phone, no internet, no water, no safety, and no dignity.

She said some people are still reliant on eskies, and need to make the daily pilgrimage to get ice. And the fuel costs are crippling them.

Meanwhile insurance companies nitpick and bicker over trivialities, denying many survivors a chance to move on with their lives.

What's more, she said there have been instances of theft.

One person spent the remaining money in their bank account purchasing pipe fittings for the new water tank the Bowra Lions Club had given them. After a trip into town, they came home to discover the pipe fittings had been pilfered.

"These people were brought to their knees by the fire and now they're getting kicked in the head while they're down," Beck said.

"And people don't want to leave their properties because they're afraid if they do then people will come and nick their stuff.

"So they're spending money on security cameras instead of on things for their own well-being."

She said she's tried appealing to Beyond Blue, Mental Health Access Line, Headspace, and Rapid Response to get a mental health professional to come down and visit the community: "the consensus was it wasn't bad enough to warrant on-site help," she said.

Instead they have suggested using phone or internet services, or getting a referral through a local GP.

"But there's no phone signal, no internet, and there's a long waiting list to access anyone in the mental health sector," Beck said.

Beck said there have been numerous suicide attempts in the community over the past two and a half months.

We spoke to one local who bravely admitted he'd been to that dark place himself in recent weeks.

He and his wife lost everything except the camper trailer they were hoping to travel around Australia in.

Now they're living in it permanently on their charred property on Williams Hill Rd.

"Camping's fun when you go away for a weekend - when the weather turns, you just pack up and go back home. But when the camp is your home, there's nowhere to escape to. It's overwhelming," he said.

"We sat down on Christmas day with water up to our ankles because the annex on the camper had collapsed."

And he's reminded of the traumatic events of November 8 every time he steps outside.

"The public works guy said they're not going to start doing the clean-up until March. So we're stuck looking for months at the corpse of our former existence," he said.

The lowest point for him was about three weeks after the fire swept through.

"My state of mind wasn't real good. I was overwhelmed, and I felt hopeless and helpless. Men and women go through grief differently. I went into my psychological cave and withdrew from everyone," he said.

I feel embarrassed to admit this, but I think people need to hear it: I googled 'how to tie a noose'. I saw that I had an esky of beer and I selfishly said to myself 'Right, as soon as that's gone, I'm out, I'm done'.

Mercifully, his wife picked up that something wasn't right and intervened.

Since then there have been a few glimmers of hope enter his life again: the Lions Club donated them a water tank, and last week two young tradies from Melbourne showed up on his property to help him build the roof he'd been struggling to find the energy and self-belief to put up himself.

"I'd lost all self-confidence and drive - those two coming was like a rainbow after a storm. Everything was gloomy and then out of the darkness come Mick and Lucas," he said.

Lucas Davies and Mick Watson

Lucas Davies and Mick Watson

"Since they've come I've been a little more motivated."

He said he's now installed a composting toilet on their property after his wife had a run-in with a black snake while trying to relieve herself.

And the slab for the water tank has gone in.

"But it seems like things aren't moving fast enough," he said.

They're still waiting on insurance money. They received the $1000 from Centrelink, $300 from the Red Cross and $1500 from Council, but they're at a stasis until they can get a more substantial amount to purchase a pre-fab home.

He said the hall has helped him and his wife: "the camaraderie here has been good. There seems to be a nice little nucleus."

But he said the main reason he has pulled through what he hopes is the worst of it, is because he had the strength of his wife to fall back on: "when it all fell apart, we were in it together".

There doesn't seem to be any protocol written for what to expect after something like this happens to you. But perhaps there should be some sort of crisis plan for bushfires that can be rolled out.

Maureen Kennedy is another South Arm local who feels lost in her despair.

"I feel empty. I don't even think I sound like me," she said.

"We're all just robots - just functioning."

And her poor mental health has been having a detrimental effect on her physical health too.

"I haven't been eating - maybe once every two days. I get dizzy all the time, and I've collapsed twice," she said.

She said she and her grandson, Charles, venture into town every two days to get water.

"We're not real sure what to do because they've told us not to touch the tanks because of the ash," she said.

She said the $1000 from Centrelink was a drop in the ocean - most of it went towards a motel room after she was released from hospital after breaking her knee getting out of South Arm on the day of the fires.

"I'd like to have a good cry or a scream, but I can't manage it," she said.

Maureen and Charles Kennedy are at their wit's end

Maureen and Charles Kennedy are at their wit's end

Paula was lucky to have her house survive the blaze, but lost 70 per cent of the grass for her 64 head of cattle.

She said she's received help from BlazeAid which has been a great relief. But she can't help but feel like she's not worthy of the assistance.

"Because we didn't lose our house we feel guilty when we get any help, even a little bit. But we need it. This has come on top of a drought," she said.

"The rain we had the other day was good but it wasn't enough."

She admits that she is not in a good headspace right now.

"The fire reignited trauma from the past - I was in another house fire," she said.

"On the day of the fire I was crying and laughing all in the same day - that should have alerted me to the fact that I wasn't ok."

Deputy PM Michael McCormack and Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan made a short stop at the South Arm Hall to meet with Beck and fire-affected residents.

They were told in no uncertain terms what hell people are currently living through.

When Mr Conaghan heard how hard it had been for many residents he made a plea for people to contact him.

"Please tell me what you need. If I don't know, then I can't do anything."

Also in the news