Read the transcript for Episode 6 of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: Dubbo's campaign for a rehabilitation centre and drug court, and Cobargo still reeling from Black Summer bushfires

Tom Melville 00:00

Hi, I'm Tom Melville. Welcome to voice of real Australia. Each episode we bring new people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. This week we're going to Cobargo where some residents are still grappling with the devastation of last year's New Year's Eve fire.

Tony Allen 00:13

So many things happened all at once. And no one knew, like you only knew what was happening in your little bit of territory because you couldn't travel the roads. The roads were covered in trees at that stage. The whole place was as though a bomb had gone through the place.

Tom Melville 00:26

First, though, my colleagues at the Daily Liberal based in Dubbo have a story to share.

Orlander Ruming 00:30

Hi, I'm Orlander Ruming, I've been writing about Dubbo's need for drug court and rehabilitation centre for six years

Zaarkacha Marlan 00:35

And I'm Zaarkacha Marlan, court and crime reporter at the Daily Liberal, this is an issue that's really important to the people of Dubbo.

Tom Melville 00:42

In recent days New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro announced the state budget would include $7.5 million for a Dubbo rehab centre, something campaigners have long argued for. There was no mention, however, of the long sought after drug court. Just a warning this episode discusses suicide and might not be appropriate for everyone. If you need someone to speak to you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Zaarkacha and Orlander take it from here.

Zaarkacha Marlan 01:08

In Dubbo, drugs are everywhere. And the crisis has brought with it an epidemic of mental health struggles, homelessness, family violence and crime that is only getting worse.

Orlander Ruming 01:19

At the moment. People in Dubbo brought into court on drug offenses often wind up in a vicious cycle of addiction and despair, which is difficult to escape. Jail is often the only option for magistrates.

Zaarkacha Marlan 01:30

Earlier this year, the New South Wales inquiry into the ice epidemic handed down its report. A key recommendation was to expand the drug court system in the state. This would give magistrates more options for drug addicted nonviolent offenders potentially saving them from prisons which are rife with drugs and getting them the help they need.

Orlander Ruming 01:48

At this point, it's unknown whether drug court is coming to Dubbo.

Zaarkacha Marlan 01:52

At the same time, a loose coalition of counselors, politicians, desperate parents, former addicts and lawyers have successfully lobbied for a corresponding detox and rehab centre to be built in the town. At the moment people looking to get clean face a long journey from home to rehab centres several hours drive away. The state government just announced funding for the rehab centre.

Orlander Ruming 02:13

For that coalition, these two issues are inextricably linked, and offer hope that perhaps there are solutions to a problem which has scarred Dubbo for years.

Zaarkacha Marlan 02:21

To find out more we went out and met the people who've been advocating around this.

Orlander Ruming 02:27

I met Rick and Carolyn Lean at a Q&A panel on the need for rehabilitation centre in Dubbo. After an emotional hour long discussion, they agreed to speak to me about the son they lost to suicide two years ago, after a long battle with addiction and mental health problems. That night was the first time they shared their story. As people were packing up around us, they took the time to tell me about Cameron. When did you notice that was an issue?

Rick and Carolyn Lean 02:52

His behavior changed, Becoming aggressive, becoming inconsistent in his decision making. When he was angry, volatile. He never hurt anyone. Never physically hurt anyone. He would hit his head on a brick wall rather than hurt anyone when he was angry. And the weird thing was, when he got arrested and he'd lose his license for six months or 12 months, whatever. He would never ever get behind the wheel.

Orlander Ruming 03:12

Cameron grew up in dubbo and moved away from family to Newcastle. His parents have seen what happens when someone winds up ricocheting around the justice system. They were in and out of court so much trying to support Cameron any way they could. The magistrate came to know them

Rick and Carolyn Lean 03:25

It was very obvious that he wanted to do more, but he couldn't. I mean, he looked at us. And thought then at one point, he even waved at us. That was a bit strange. He built up a rapport with us because we were always there every day. He didn't talk to us. He just saw us there in the court every day. Because Cameron didn't just go to court once, he went quite quite a few times. They were always traffic offences. And so like he'd get caught speeding, because he just, that was his life, cars. very obvious.

Orlander Ruming 03:51

Cameron's life story is like a lot of others out there, promising young person winds upon drugs and their life completely derails for Cameron to get anything other than a custodial sentence. He needed a drug court. His parents were convinced the threat of prison is what drove him to take his own life. He told them often.

Rick and Carolyn Lean 04:08

Another thing I think I noticed with the court. I think the magistrate knew Cameron was unwell. And that he was drug affected and I think he was he was trying his best to do something that was going to be a good outcome for him.

Orlander Ruming 04:19

For Rick and Carolyn, a drug court and rehabbing dubbo will prevent other parents going through what they had to go through.

Rick and Carolyn Lean 04:25

You know it's not just saving lives. It's saving people from... It's saving family dysfunctions. Families become very dysfunctional when you have an addicted person living with you or around you, or you're caring for someone, or you know somebody that's like that close to you. It tears your heart because you don't know what to do about.J

Zaarkacha Marlan 04:43

I met Ann-Maree in her office in the centre of town. She was eating breakfast as we spoke. Ann-Maree knows what it's like to battle with addiction. But she's doing well thanks to some of the services available to her here in Dubbo. She has asked that we only use her first name. The mother of three is speaking out in the hope her experiences will add weight to the debate over a drug court in Davao

Ann-Maree 05:06

Basically, like a lot of people that I know I fell into bad habits as a teenager, I didn't understand about life or about communication and didn't understand how to live. So fell into a wildlife that included using drugs.

Zaarkacha Marlan 05:21

Ann-Maree says she's clean thanks to a living program close to home here in Dubbo. It's an experience she thinks everyone deserves.

Ann-Maree 05:28

Prior to that we lived in Gil, Gilandra. And I had been sent to Bloomfield. And that's so far away. And it's so scary and you don't know what's happening and you feel really disconnected. And so I actually rang my mum and I was like, you need to come and get me because this isn't working. And lucky for me, mum came and got me and we saw other avenues to help, which was I went to drug and alcohol counseling. And I just told the counselor, I needed childhood sexual assault help. And that's how I got into Lindora. So being here in Dubbo meant that family could come and visit me and were just a phone call away. I didn't feel afraid as much as I did when I had to leave and be so far away. And just made a massive difference.

Pat O'Callaghan 06:17

Responses that were saying the numbers, say for a long time, such as using prisons as a way of dealing with people who are committing crimes in various forms don't work. And they haven't worked for a long time.

Orlander Ruming 06:30

Pat O'Callahan came to the Daily Liberal offices on Talbragar Street to speak to me. He's a solicitor who works with disadvantaged people. And he's been on the forefront of the campaign for local Dubbo rehabilitation centre and drug court for decades.

Pat O'Callaghan 06:42

As long as you continue to use that as a as long as you continue to use that as a primary way of dealing with people's issues that aren't justice related or criminal related, you're going to continue to see failures in terms of outcomes. So for our clients in particular, you know, access to these facilities, such as a drug and alcohol detox and rehab facility, is a crucial way for them to be able to manage the issues that they've got going on in their life that are primarily health based issues, not criminal justice related issues.

Interviewer 07:13

At the moment, Dubbo's "local" rehabilitation centre is several hours away. There's also always a waiting list, which can sometimes stretch for weeks. For drug addicts who have decided to make a change, that's a long time. And a lot can happen. There is a small rehab centre for teens, but it only has 8 beds. For a lot of people, the distance itself can make the journey daunting and impossible. The recently announced rehab centre for Dubbo would remove that barrier. Pat says staying close to home is particularly important for First nations people trying to get clean.

Pat O'Callaghan 07:45

It allows First Nations people from elsewhere to stay on country and to stay close to family and to stay close to what they're connected to and who they're with. And that's a really significant thing. And it's really important thing because they're often asked to go away to other rehab facilities in Sydney or what Julia wherever, for extended periods of time, you know, three months if they're lucky, but often six to 12 months, it's inevitably setting them up to fall off. Yeah, because they're away from everyone. I know they're in a strange place, they're off their country, and they try to stick it out as long as I can. And for whatever reason, it becomes really difficult and hard to manage. For a

Orlander Ruming 08:23

For a lot of people struggling with addiction, the drugs on the on the issue, domestic violence often prevalent in drug households. In Dubbo, the domestic violence rate is consistently three times higher than the state average. There's about three cases reported per day, Pat argues that for this reason, a local rehab centre is crucial,

Pat O'Callaghan 08:44

The opportunity to be able to do it locally, would be really beneficial to their circumstances to be outweighed by time, their housing situation as well, but having somebody close to them and support them to do that. And obviously, when they can, you know, get out of out and whatnot from time to time, then they're it on a familiar territory.

Orlander Ruming 09:05

Pat says local services are particularly important to single parents.

Pat O'Callaghan 09:09

In particular young mothers who are single mothers that have been in domestic violence relationships and with several young children and their partner that introduced them to or was a significant factor in their getting into drug and alcohol addiction. They managed to get that through their own strength and support, get away from that relationship, but need some assistance to deal with those drug and alcohol issues. And being able to do it locally without it means they can have their children with them. Or at least their know their children are with family locally. And the safe place is certainly significant. Yeah, I've seen plenty of cases of that type of story. We're having it likely just meant to the guy to be willing to access it.

Zaarkacha Marlan 09:33

Ann-Maree knows what that's like trying to get off the drugs when you're in a completely foreign environment.

Ann-Maree 09:58

Yes, connection to country is absolutely huge. I think that the reason why the program I did worked for me is because I was still out here on country. I wasn't taken away and when I was taken away all I wanted to do was come home. So I think for the four days that I was up in orange all I wanted to do and I couldn't concentrate on anything else other than wanting to come home. So when I did come home back to country and Mom and dad got me into the program here, it was easy. I was quite comfortable staying, I didn't want to come home because I was already home. So that fear was gone. And that makes a massive difference.

Zaarkacha Marlan 10:32

Ann-Maree, who now runs a mentoring service, has worked with people still struggling with drug addiction. We've actually gotten them into rehab, which is a long way away. And what we found is they'll go. They'll stay for a certain amount of time or period. But then they often come home. And the problem with it is, is that they are so far away. They feel completely disconnected from everyone and everything that they know. And it's a scary experience. They actually feel alone. So having a drug rehab here in Dubbo in our local area would hopefully mean that I would stay and finish the program because the benefits that they're missing out on by not finishing a huge.

Jimmy Forrest 11:10

I'm just working with women and kids and men have been sexually abused or domestic violence or

Orlander Ruming 11:19

Do you enjoy it?

Jimmy Forrest 11:21

I enjoy the rewards that come out of it. I don't enjoy what happens to women or the men, especially the kids like they're the ones that really suffer.

Orlander Ruming 11:35

Jimmy forest works for the Dubbo Neighborhood Centre as an indigenous health worker. He's a well known and well loved figure around dubow Jimmy's worked with clients suffering from domestic violence and sexual abuse. In his experience, it often comes back to drugs, primarily ice,

Jimmy Forrest 11:50

Well, they need money to to play their habit and they spend all the money. Then issues come along. And you know what? Violence comes along once. You know, that's when they start fighting and if they haven't got the money, they fight and then domestic violence comes along and happens.

Orlander Ruming 12:12

Having been on the front line of this fight for decades, Jimmy was a little jaded at what he saw as inaction on the part of decision makers.

Jimmy Forrest 12:18

We needed to do something about it instead of talking about online, you know, we have too many meetings. I know money is a big thing. Two years ago, we had a meeting with the politicians to snap and like whenever I found out what what happened there. I talk about this and talk about that. And they say Yeah, we'll do this. We did that. But they just don't do it. Next thing you hear they stopped doing and next thing you hear they get a meeting on about it. So that's the same with Aboriginal/Koori youth court. We had a big meeting at the courthouse. Was about probably 50 people there. Next time we had a meeting there was about 30 people there. And that was it. Then we had no more meetings after that.

Orlander Ruming 13:15

The state government's commitment to a rehabilitation centre seems to have finally arrived. Whether a drug court will be established to compliment it is yet unknown. Do you feel like you'd be able to make more of a difference if he did have these options that people like you could? For example, someone comes to you who has committed domestic violence and you could get them into rehab or something like that.

Jimmy Forrest 13:31

Oh, I think you would, yeah, because a lot of times there's nowhere for them to go. You try and get into rehab up the coast or somewhere and there's a waiting list. And once you got a waiting list. Well, if you've got a six weeks or eight weeks waiting list. They won't stay. They'll go stuff youse and move on. You need something for em to go to straight away. not just eight weeks down the track.

Zaarkacha Marlan 13:54

the New South Wales Government announced $7.5 million in funding to be included in the state budget for a drug rehabilitation centre here in Davao. Crucially, though, there was no mention of the drug court in the state government's announcement, something proponents have long argued should be opened alongside it. A drug court is a speciality corps where magistrates have more options for sentencing drug addicted offenders, which can keep them out of prison and on the road to recovery.

Orlander Ruming 14:21

Dougald Saunders is the New South Wales MP for dubbo and a member of the Nationals we meet in his office down the road. He tells me he's always been supportive of something like this. And it's personally lobbied his colleagues in government,

Dugald Saunders 14:33

It's a solution, I think that we need to be looking at. I don't think anyone's happy with building more jails and filling more jail cells. We need to try and address some things at the other end. That includes maybe a drug court, maybe a Koori court, that sort of scenario as well as rehab and detox. The whole thing needs to play a role in the in the solution towards you know, helping people get get past drugs.

Orlander Ruming 14:54

Do you think it's worth the money?

Dugald Saunders 14:56

I do. I really do. And I think, you know, it's easy to say this is costing a lot. And there'd be a lot of people who say, well, we don't really need drug rehab just locked people up. But I think, you know, in this day and age, we know there are so many other things that happen in our lives that we need help with drugs is one of those. It's a growing problem not just in our region, but across the entire regional areas of New South Wales, and city areas. So if we can start looking at better ways of helping people, if we can start finding out how to solve those problems better at the start, rather than just throwing them in jail, we still need jails. We definitely do. And not everyone will go through rehab successfully, and there will still be criminals who use drugs, it doesn't mean we can't help those that need the help at the same time. Do you believe the government needs to be responsible for the rehab centre after it opens, There does need to be some really strong governance around how facility like this runs. We've seen non government organizations run them successfully in the past. I'm sure there will be bids for non government organizations to look at running this. But I think it's also really important that the governance is probably controlled by the health department. I think it'll be a combination of government, eye health, and non government organizations running this for the benefit of everyone.

Orlander Ruming 16:07

The state government's announcement for drug court and rehabilitation centre in Dubbo has come after decades of petitioning and lobbying. Why keep that going? I mean, after 10 years, so you just think it's not going to happen, I suppose.

Stephen Lawrence 16:19

When I came to work at the Aboriginal legal service, and in that job, you represent hundreds of people you make their families, and I just grew quite quickly to understand the pressing need for these services. And also just to understand on a human level, the damage that is being caused by not having them here.

Orlander Ruming 16:39

Stephen Lawrence is deputy mayor of Dubbo Regional Council, and he's been beating the drum on this for a decade. He's the self described perennial country labour candidate for the area, having been beaten in various state and federal elections over the past few years. He says a rehab centre goes hand in hand with a drug court,

Stephen Lawrence 16:55

We certainly hope the drug courts going to be funded at the same time. And the residential rehab and detox centre is essential for the operation of drug court, you can't have a drug court function properly without that centre. So we're very much hoping that those two things are twinned, and that there's an announcement in the state budget, that we'll get the funding. So yeah, it's been a pretty long process best part of 10 years. So yeah, hoping that it ends positively.

Orlander Ruming 17:19

Stephen says crime and drug use are inextricably linked.

Stephen Lawrence 17:22

So people in the community as well as on council that might have quite different views about where the emphasis should be, in particular ways might have different views about law and order, and sentencing. And all those sorts of things might have strong views about personal responsibility and what people should or shouldn't be doing. They still support the services, because everyone knows that it's better to treat these problems at the outset and prevent, you know, much worse problems down the track.

Orlander Ruming 17:45

Steven says the dubbo community is united in wanting the rehabilitation centre and a drug court.

Stephen Lawrence 17:50

My sense of it is that people across the whole community across all the divides in the community are 100% supportive of this because everyone you know, at the end of the day wants the same thing. They want a reduction in drug related crime. They want people in their families that are having these problems to get treatment, they want people that they're friends with having these problems to get treatment, everyone knows someone who they went to school with who's a shell of their former self. So this is something that touches everyone in the community, and everyone wants the same thing, even if you know there might be very different ideas about how to get there.

Orlander Ruming 18:23

And the announcement is not before time to because Jimmy forest believes the drug problem in dubbo is only getting worse

Jimmy Forrest 18:30

Well they're not getting any better, anyway. It's not just Dubbo it's all around the place. All these little places are getting bad for drugs. Wellington's always been bad, but even the smaller places are getting bad for drugs. 40 years ago I lived in Narramine, and there was not drugs around. Drugs started there only in the 1980s.

Orlander Ruming 18:59

It must be hard, seeing the change.

Jimmy Forrest 19:07

Well you look at it now, you know?

Orlander Ruming 19:12

What's the solution?

Jimmy Forrest 19:13

Well that's it, Rehab. We've just gotta all come together and make sure we can get it. If you can't get a rehab then there's no hope for them.

Zaarkacha Marlan 19:28

Ann-Maree says that the local drug rehab centre is an important way forward.

Ann-Maree 19:32

Rehab is absolutely imperative to taking those people away from the stressful part, the hurtful part of life and putting them somewhere safe, where they can be cared about, where they can take the time they need to learn to be resilient. It is the most important thing in the whole wide world for somebody who wakes up one day and goes I don't want to live like this anymore. They have somewhere safe to go They can go there and be loved to good health. Because Honest to God, you can't punish someone to get better. You need to love them to good health.

Zaarkacha Marlan 20:08

Drugs have destroyed hundreds of lives in Dubbo, and thousands more around the country. There's broad agreement that the current system doesn't function as it should, and that prison doesn't always work for people with complex needs. The people we've spoken to believe the best way forward is a local rehab centre, and a local drug court. With the government's funding announcement, a rehab centre is on its way. There's still a long way to go for Dubbo, but Rick and Carolyn are going to keep fighting.

Rick and Carolyn Lean 20:37

People, are hesitant to talk about suicide? Yes, it's not. Because I mean, as emotional, emotional and sad that it is for us -- and you revisit stuff that's, it's very horrible and hard -- but the point of the conversation is that we need some help here in Dubbo. To get this drug rehab and this drug court, and the detox thing. We need that in Dubbo.

Zaarkacha Marlan 21:08

They're doing it so no one ever has to go through what they've been through.

Rick and Carolyn Lean 21:13

If it makes a difference to just one family, or one person who's struggling. It's worth it.

Tom Melville 21:23

That story from Zaarkacha Marlan and Orlander Ruming from the Daily Liberal. And again, If you need someone to speak to you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 ++++++ Now, 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 Far South Coast 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. What follows is the story of the people of Cobargo, and the months since a terrible force of nature made their town famous.

John Walters 22:31

About three or four days prior to New Year's Eve we became aware of a small fire in the ward wilderness about 50 kilometers to the west of Cobargo in an area now known as the Badgery Creek Road area, and it trickled around up there for a couple of days.

Tom Melville 22:53

JOHN Walters has volunteered with his local RFS for six years. His house which he fought for and saved on New Year's Eve is just around the corner from Cobargo's Mainstreet. Like many of his New South Wales RFS colleagues, his was a busy and harrowing summer.

John Walters 23:07

I guess, in the moment with the resources that were devoted to full scale outbreaks a little bit further north of our area, it would be fair to say that the focus from I guess the RFS level was not entirely on this little fire here. It was in a remote area and wasn't considered at that point to be an imminent threat.

Tom Melville 23:29

It's the sort of judgment call experienced men and women made hundreds of times over the summer. But fires are wild and capricious. And aren't on your side. Tony Allen was mayor of Bega Valley Shire for seven years and is now a local Councillor. He lives on a dairy farm just outside of town,

Tony Allen 23:46

There was the possibility of a fire during the day before it actually came and people were becoming quite nervous and quiet and shy and making preparations. I think people have actually been preparing for a week just in case, because we knew the fire was burning way out the back and it not being contained.

Tom Melville 24:04

At this point, Tony's farm was dry. This was the height of the drought, but they still had some water and dams and made sure their IBC tanks were full and that their milking cows were close to the dairy. On the afternoon before the fire, he had tea with his son. The messages they were getting suggested the fire was still 20 to 30 days away. They waited.

Tony Allen 24:21

the sky and became very, very, very, very red. And it was obvious that there was something happening at the back, we could start to hear a rumble. And at that stage, my wife and we had grandchildren the house, they all left went to Cobargo but my son and I stayed. We waited a few hours and you could sit here and see this enormous redness in the sky and you could hear the sound of this Ferocious Beast who didn't know what to expect to be engaged but you could do something with coming and then all of a sudden these embers started to fly and paddocks lit up.

Tom Melville 25:03

At the fire ground information was patchy. JOHN says the government radio repeaters they were relying on were taken out by the fire. They were basically only able to communicate from truck to truck.

John Walters 25:12

unbeknownst to us while we were down the road at Verona and korma a second front had come out of the wilderness a little bit further north than the first one, and was now headed straight for the village of Cobargo. So we came back up the highway, took a backhoe and hit it back out to the west where we were confronted with an appalling wall of fire. Just the most unusual fire behavior of fire behavior that had never been seen before. Great plasma gas balls, you know, flames rolling down the sides of open paddocks and so forth.

Tom Melville 25:49

Tony was in the thick of it, fighting to save his home and dairy.

Tony Allen 25:53

We couldn't see 50 meters, you had the glow in the sky, and everything was very, very bright. And then when the fire came, and the smoke that came with the fire, or some sort of the neighbor's house had exploded, but as it turned out, it was a caravan that exploded, but you really couldn't see because of because of the smoke, and everyone was the same.

Tom Melville 26:12

The damage was profound. Three lives lost hundreds of homes and businesses raised.

Tony Allen 26:18

So many things happened all at once. And no one knew like you only knew what was happening in your little bit of territory because you couldn't travel the roads. The roads were covered in trees. Well, that stage, the whole place was those bomb had gone through the place you see. So we didn't know until probably the next afternoon or the day after that what actually happened in town we heard all sorts of stories. We heard the church had been burned at school, they've been burnt down and been virtually burnt. Just on the grapevine you know that some people were able to get some reception on their own mobile phones.

Tom Melville 26:47

By the time the fires which tormented the Bega Valley were finally extinguished in March hundreds of thousands of hectares of Bushland would burn and an untold number of animals would die. John was there in the orange gloom on New Year's Eve morning. Fighting to save his town,

John Walters 27:01

I witnessed the destruction that had been wrought upon the Main Street, all our fire trucks were deployed around in other areas defending, for instance, the elderly citizens units and vital infrastructure like that, I was able to second a couple of fire trucks that had arrived from the north from Naruma, and we were able to take some action to defend the pharmacy which was still standing. Shortly thereafter, a large gust of wind blew more debris across the street and the eastern side of the main street near the post office became a light. So with very high winds, very high temperature, there was very little we could do to save those buildings that have immediately become engulfed. But we diverted our attention to saving the adjoining buildings, particularly the post office which we were successful in doing. But basically, we lost that group of shops on each side of the main street at the lower end of the village.

Tom Melville 28:05

The fires tore through town nearly a year ago. And for many of us, that's been the most trying year of our lives. The pandemic changed everything almost overnight. But for cobargo it added to a saga which even now doesn't feel over. Kathryn Doolan runs a cafe called the ground lounge in Cobargo

Kathryn Doolan 28:21

Absolute devastation. Just just saying. Cobargo being burnt to the ground. People's lives being destroyed. Property destroyed. Animals, animals, you know, animals everywhere. I don't know how to explain it. This once in a lifetime event. The journey has been a long journey. we're not even close to the recovery side of this process. Absolute devastation

Tom Melville 28:46

Cobargo's treasured Folk Festival was cancelled this year, Kathryn has been working on a series of online festivals instead, the next of which is in January.

Kathryn Doolan 28:51

We haven't been able together we haven't had many community events, we haven't been able to have any fun, obviously the rest of the world in the same situation. But for us, you know we're bushfire affected the community is everything we need to come together as a community and stick together because that's going to be beneficial to everybody to everybody's mental health. And who would have thought that we'd go through drought, and then we go through fire, then we'd go through flood and then we'd go through COVID and we've had a lot of rain the last couple of months and everything's full and the dams are full and which is great. However, a lot of people don't have anything to catch the water. So they've got no tanks. A lot of people have received IBC tanks which are fantastic. However, they don't catch water, people still need to put them on the back of their unit and go to town and, and get water. So it's the basics, the water, the food, the living, you know, it's nearly Third World down here.

Tom Melville 29:47

I think that's a shock a lot of people that one of the wealthiest countries in the whole world and there's multiple towns out there that still have to go in to get water and get food and get fuel. In things I mean, how does that make you feel?

Kathryn Doolan 30:02

Makes me feel devastated and makes me feel very disappointed. It makes me heartbroken to be honest that these are the conditions this is the reality. The water is a big issue. It keeps me up at night.

Tom Melville 30:15

In the wake of the fires, the town's Relief Centre was inundated with people in need. they'd lost their homes and livelihoods. Some fleeing as the flames reached their back gate. Chris Walters is a coordinator for the cobargo bushfire Relief Centre. She says at first they were looking for the basics, food, toothbrushes clothing

Chris Walters 30:32

Over time it's changed, people have been looking for tools, because they said burnt down and lost their whole lifetime of tools. Still continuing with clothing but less food now, but there are still people who need assistance with food. As time has gone on. We are now more linked in with all the services, the government agencies and other services Lifeline Red Cross Salvation Army anglicare. And we are directing people to those services.

Tom Melville 31:06

She says the pandemic hasn't helped.

Chris Walters 31:08

It slowed everything down so that people who might have thought that they could get on and get the property sorted and fencing done, and so on and so forth. hasn't happened as quickly as they might have imagined it would. The cleanup, of course, took a lot longer than anybody anticipated. That's now finished, by and large. But it took six, seven months for that to occur. There were a lot of issues, there were a lot of properties that needed to be cleared. And a lot of the properties are very, very difficult to access.

Tom Melville 31:43

Those properties were fenced off, but the charred rubble was still there visible. For a long time that hung over the town says John Walters,

John Walters 31:50

I think the major turning point for the town was the cleanup for many months, we had to witness the rubble and the twisted, burned iron and destroyed bricks and so forth from the main street. It had safety fencing, but you could see straight through it. So we, I guess had that mental like cloud hanging over the village up until the cleanup which occurred a couple of months ago. Finally, it was a quite a difficult cleanup because all of the sites were heavily asbestos contaminated.

Tom Melville 32:21

And people need more than just food and shelter. Chris Walters, again,

Chris Walters 32:25

The mental health of members of the community is waxing and waning. Yes, some people are suffering very badly. Some people are rising to the occasion. But everybody has been affected in some way.

Tom Melville 32:40

Tony Allen is also concerned about the community's mental health.

Tony Allen 32:44

The living conditions of a lot of people have been very, very tough. Lucky so far that we've only defined one suicide, which no one wants to talk about. I think we've been very lucky that we haven't lost more people because of the loneliness and the sense of loss a sense of how do I how do I restrict my life and get back to some semblance of normal.

Tom Melville 33:04

For some, those living conditions have continued right up until now, people are still living in caravans waiting to get development approval on new homes. One woman I spoke to lived in a shed with no running water through the winter. She relied on friends when she needed a shower. She was just too exhausted. She said to give an interview, Chris Walters' role has shifted over the months from that initial relief work, making sure people had enough supplies to keep them going. Now she spends a lot of time trying to keep people together. Has it changed, I guess, the pastoral care aspect of the role that you're doing?

Chris Walters 33:37

Yes, yes, that's been really difficult. 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 bush fires here. But because of COVID, that was not able to happen. And that has caused a lot of disconnect with people. We are actually doing a few community connection events and so forth here at the Relief Centre. The council are also doing what they call in cupper and chat sessions where various services are coming together. And they're inviting members of the community to drop in, have a cup or talk to the services, see what people need, et cetera, et cetera, all within COVID restriction rules, but it has meant that people can't communicate and connect the way that they would have normally,

Tom Melville 34:34

Despite the drought and the floods and the fires and the pandemic Cobargo will be cobargo again, but there's an anxiety there now. These people have suffered an unprecedented barrage of fire. It has happened and it could happen again. Here's Tony Allen,

Tony Allen 34:50

That certainly does weigh heavily on people's minds and we've been discussing that. But there's a number of issues. I guess the first issue is do you go On rebuild, we were blown out in a lot of people who were living an idyllic life in a bush setting. And suddenly they realized that the vulnerability of that setting because of its fire, they are now saying, we're not going to go back. We don't want to get done. What have we experienced that, again, that property and the fear that came from that fire. So good feeling blocks.

Tom Melville 35:20

The model suggests that the sorts of weather patterns Australia has seen over the last few years are only going to get worse. That means potentially more cabal goes and more black summers that much is clear. How we factor that into our lives going forward, however, is less so. And next episode, we're going to New England to the alternative community of y telega that was devastated by an unexpected fire last year before summer even started

Grab 35:44

Driving away. Knowing that I've got away, that was the worst bit.

Andrew Messenger 35:50

Why was that?

Grab 35:54

Well, then I'd gotten out and left people behind. You know, for the people that didn't make it out. And that's one where I just happen to walk outside and it just happened to be the school time. Otherwise, I would have been at my place without me even knowing it was there. I've been inside getting away from the heat.

Tom Melville 36:13

That's next episode on voice of real Australia. That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in two weeks. If you like the podcast please share it with friends and give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts. Everyone has a story to tell, If you'd like to share yours, email voice at aust community media dot com dot a-u... that's voice at aust "a-u-s-t" community media dot com dot a-u. Our Facebook page is facebook dot com slash voice of real australia. Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks this week to Lynn Rayner and Fiona Ferguson. This is an ACM podcast.

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 6 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.