'I’ve survived two fires – this is what I know'

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After losing her family home in the 2003 Canberra fires, Carol and her husband had to rebuild their home and life from the ground up. In late 2019 they would once again face catastrophic fires, only this time, they were prepared.

Carol Dutkiewicz said of bowling, ‘sometimes you have a terrible day, and sometimes you have a good day.’ She also knows this to be true to life. In 2003, Carol and her husband Richard lost their home to the Canberra bushfires.

Between 18-22 January in 2003, almost 500 homes were destroyed and four people died in bushfires in Canberra and its surrounding suburbs.

Seasonal work in Canberra made sourcing even temporary accommodation after the fires difficult for Carol and Richard. During this stressful period, Richard was also facing additional pressures at work. The fires and frustrating work situation led the couple to decide to retire early, and move to the holiday block they had bought in Malua Bay.

After building their new home, Carol and Richard eventually settled into their new life and built strong, new friendships. They were in love with the surrounding bushland of Malua Bay, but knew it meant that they could be at risk of fire again. So, when 17 years later, fires once again approached their home the couple were ready.

“We had been through the full range of emotions, and this time we knew we could recover,” Carol said.

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When the warnings came for their area, they prepared accordingly. They collected a box of important paperwork, such as insurance policies and the deeds for the house. With the help of their sons, they set up sprinkler systems on their deck. They had shutters over the windows for the front and back of the house. The fly-screens on the doors were replaced with spark-proof screens. Every vessel that could hold water was filled in readiness.

While they were as prepared as they could have been to protect their home, Carol was not as concerned about loss of belongings this time around. “Everything you own is just ‘things.’ It’s much more important to protect life,” she said.

With her daughter-in-law and baby sheltering inside, Carol, Richard and her sons prepared for the worst, making sure no embers sparked, as the fire approached. When it came closer however, it appeared to fork before their home, and headed in both directions, away from the property. “We really dodged a bullet,” Carol marveled. 

Carol credits the local bowling club with restoring their emotional health when they lost their home to fires in 2003. “After the last fires, we were so busy trying to finish the house. We were too busy to think about [the Canberra fires]. But after we finished building…we just hit the wall.” They went to counselling, which Carol said helped immensely, then they joined the bowling club. The friendships they forged there have been long-lasting and invigorating.

Sadly, their bowling club building did not survive these latest South Coast fires but miraculously, the bowling greens did.

Days after the fires the Malua Bay Ladies Bowls President, Robyn Butcher, organised an afternoon of lawn bowls at the club for people to meet and share stories. For a group of friends, used to meeting socially every Wednesday for dinner and talking for hours after the weekend bowls were over, going through the fires was additionally difficult. As soon as the fires came through they were without communication, with phone lines and internet unavailable. They were unable to check on each other and had no information about what had happened.

Robyn had no idea whether anyone would come to the post fire bowls, but almost 100 women turned up to the event. Some came from other clubs in support, and others came because, as Robyn said, ‘it’s like a big family.’

In Carol’s experience, letting other people help is part of the healing process after losing everything in a fire. She notes that despite a desire to assert independence at such a time, accepting others’ offer of help or donations is helpful to both the giver and the receiver. “People feel good that they can give help.”

Source Insight

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