It wasn't the first fire of last summer's horror season. It wasn't the most destructive necessarily in terms of lives lost or infrastructure destroyed but for many of us what happened in the town of Cobargo on New Year's Eve 2019 came to define Australia's Black Summer. The rage and the heartache felt by its 800 residents were felt by all of us.
The smoke has lifted, now. The dams are full. The blackened rubble which haunted Cobargo for months after the fires took so much has been cleared. But almost a year later and scars are yet to form. As far as the majority of the country and planet are concerned, the bushfire crisis is over. A new crisis has taken hold. The pandemic.
But for the people of Cobargo it's just another layer. Homes and businesses need to be rebuilt, lives pieced back together. COVID-19 has made all of this harder.
"We haven't been able to be together," says Kathryn Doolan, organiser of the Fire Up Cobargo Rebuild Digital festival series, the next of which is in January. "We haven't had to be able to have any community events. We haven't been able to have any fun. We need to come together as a community and and stick together because that's that's going to be beneficial to everybody, to everybody's mental health."
Chris Walters is the joint co-ordinator of the Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre. She agrees that people need community. "That's been a very big gap in the recovery process, because when there's a disaster, communities come together and help each other, which they did at the beginning, immediately after the bushfires here. But because of Covid, that was not able to happen, and that has caused a lot of disconnect with people."
Even nearly a year later, there are still worries about the mental health of the town. But John Walters, a local RFS volunteer who was there on New Year's Eve last year, says things are looking up: "I think the major turning point for the town was the cleanup. For many months, we had to witness the the rubble and the twisted, burnt iron and destroyed bricks and fireplaces and so forth from the main street. We had that mental black cloud hanging over the village up until the clean up, which occurred a couple of months ago."
Despite the drought and the floods and the fires and the pandemic, Cobargo will be Cobargo again. Weather models predict the sorts of weather patterns Australia has experienced over the last few years are only going to get worse. Tony Allen is a local councillor, he says the thought of future fires is weighing on people's minds: "Do you go and rebuild where you were? Suddenly a lot of people realised that the vulnerability of this bush setting because of this fire and they're saying they don't want to experience the ferocity and the fear that came from that fire. So they are they're selling blocks."