EXCLUSIVE

'That's life' How two generations of Welshes have dealt with the Kian Rd aftermath

Colin, Lucy, Gigi and Terry Welsh shared with Guardian News how they're faring 12 months after losing their homes.
Colin, Lucy, Gigi and Terry Welsh shared with Guardian News how they're faring 12 months after losing their homes.

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the Nambucca Valley's Black Summer Bushfires. Guardian News has been catching up with locals directly affected by the tragedy to see how they're faring, 12 months on.

IT SEEMS hard to believe it was one year ago that Lucy and Colin Welsh, their son Terry, and his wife Gigi, lost their homes in the Kian Rd fire.

For Lucy, the bitterest pill to swallow was losing a lifetime of family memories: decades of photos and an anthology of scrapbooks in which she kept meticulous records of their life.

"I miss the house, but I have a new house now. It's the loss of the memories - and the photos of all the kids, grandkids and great grandkids that is still hard to take."

"I miss the house, but I have a new house now. It's the loss of the memories - and the photos of all the kids, grandkids and great grandkids that is still hard to take."

"And the recipes," Gigi said. "I often go to make something and then it hits me that I no longer have my recipes anymore."

Lucy and Colin had been living up Kosekai since 1972, after buying the property her father used to own.

Her family (the Fields) have been in the Valley since the 19th Century, and owned Macksville's first bakery. Lucy grew up on the next ridge over from where the couple's 1985 brick home stood on Kosekai Rd.

Colin's family has been working on the land in the Nambucca Valley since 1868, when David Welsh arrived chasing cedar and set up a farm in Talarm.

The pair continued the family tradition of bananas and cattle - Kosekai Simmental - which they showed for more than 30 years.

The week after the fires. The 'Kosekai Simmentals' sign at the entrance to the property was one of the only things to have survived the fire front

The week after the fires. The 'Kosekai Simmentals' sign at the entrance to the property was one of the only things to have survived the fire front

Each morning Lucy'd wake with the birds and mosey down the paddock to feed the cows, whose bellowing would form the soundtrack to their "idylllic existence".

Fire was an unquestioned part of land management when they were growing up.

"That was life," Colin said.

Lucy remembers her father backburning from the bananas up the mountain through frost-filled nights each year.

She's seen fire on that mountain more times than she can recall. So she was in a pure state of disbelief last November when her son mustered up the courage to tell her their home was gone.

"Noone could believe it - we had no bush around it at all," she said.

"I honestly thought when I was rushing around packing up to leave, that it would be Col and Lucy's house that we'd be coming back to that night," Gigi said.

Besides a small orchard and veggie garden, there was no other vegetation on the ridge where Colin and Lucy's home stood.

Besides a small orchard and veggie garden, there was no other vegetation on the ridge where Colin and Lucy's home stood.

"Still, there's not much use being upset - you just move on. That's life," Lucy said.

Colin and Lucy now have a new home in town at Macksville Heights, which sometimes seems a world away from their former life.

There are neighbours on all sides; the shrieks of kids and train whistles have replaced "the bellering of the cows". And their weekly supply-run into town - which saved their lives that day - has been replaced by a much shorter drive.

"When we first moved in it was a little bit daunting," Lucy said.

But the pair, now in their eighties, have become accustomed to life in town. And Lucy feels as if the fire was "in one way a blessing in disguise".

"Even if we wanted to build out there (on the farm) again, we wouldn't have," she said.

You see, at some point we would have had to move on. And moving was made easier this way because we didn't have anything left to pack.

"I miss the old house, but I like my new house. I've got grandkids and great grandkids next door. And I manage to get out a bit."

For Terry and Gigi, in an altogether different stage of their lives, days are still a little grey.

Gigi still feels a little raw after living through the horror of that fire front.

"I've always been a worrier, but I have a lot more anxiety now," she said.

I'm still just taking one day at a time because that's all I can do. There's still a rollercoaster of emotions, remembering what was lost.

"And I don't have anything to concentrate on because I feel like we're in limbo - we don't have a plan."

Despite having "more money in the bank" than the pair is used to after their insurance was paid out, they're still no closer to deciding their future course.

Earlier this year they purchased the neighbouring property when it was offered to them, giving them a combined parcel of 300 acres.

"I was excited because we'd actually made a decision. Before we were just like a mouse on a wheel chasing our tail," Gigi said.

But plans have stagnated again.

Terry is still kicking himself for not being there on the day of the fire. And the get-up-and-go he had before has left him.

"Maintaining perspective is sometimes hard - that's really what I'm trying to keep a hold of," he said.

After losing all his tools and farm 'toys' in the fire, Terry has started to purchase some new ones. But without his sheds and usual routine, he's always finding himself misplacing them.

After losing all his tools and farm 'toys' in the fire, Terry has started to purchase some new ones. But without his sheds and usual routine, he's always finding himself misplacing them.

He's also incredibly frustrated that the lessons from the fire don't seem to have been learned by those with authority, with as many restrictions on hazard reduction burns as before, Terry says.

"I feel as if I don't have a voice."

He can't seem to find the emotional or physical energy to work on Gigi's dream house - the one he's been planning to finish for years.

Gigi's dream house was the only structure to have survived the fire front and prolonged ember attack. But Terry can't find the energy to finish it.

Gigi's dream house was the only structure to have survived the fire front and prolonged ember attack. But Terry can't find the energy to finish it.

"At first I used work as a distraction, then it became more of an excuse, and then it got to the point where I realised 'that's enough - I've got to be at home and we need to move on'," he said.

"I intended to do more, but the feeling hasn't been there - you know when there's a job that needs doing but you've got to feel ready here (pointing to head) and here (pointing to heart) before you can get on with it. Well I've been waiting for it to happen and it just hasn't."

Terry is the consummate perfectionist, and has trouble asking for help.

"That was the hardest thing for us both - asking for help," Gigi said. "Especially from the charities. When they visited we thought 'surely there must be others in greater need than us'."

But even if they did want to get someone to help finish the house, all the local tradies are currently flat out.

"There's not a builder to be had around here at the moment," Terry said.

"And building costs have skyrocketed."

They recently made the difficult decision to put their property on the market, "while it's hot".

They're keeping the neighbouring farm with the thought of building on it later: "There's no memories there," Gigi said.

But there's ambivalence about that plan too.

We're not getting any younger, and we've got no kids coming along who want to be farmers. They know 'your farm is only as good as your other job'.

Gigi Welsh

Gigi said she has no desire to restart her egg business - the idea of having to build her customer base again, alongside dealing with the mushrooming industry regulations, is enough to pour cold water on that idea.

As a fifth generation farmer in the Nambucca Valley, the looming question of retirement weighs heavily on Terry. But the fire has truncated the next five to ten years' worth of decision making into 12 months.

Partly because of the fires, and partly because I'm getting old, the decision to persevere feels futile.

When asked if they'd considered building in town too, there was an unequivocal 'no'.

"It would mean it's beaten me. It'd be giving up, and we're not ready to give up yet," Terry said.

Gigi nods. Life has thrown some big obstacles into their path this year. But whatever the course, and with any mercy it'll become apparent soon, she'll keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Home is where the heart is: The Welshes never dreamed they'd live in town, but here they are, and here they'll stay.

Home is where the heart is: The Welshes never dreamed they'd live in town, but here they are, and here they'll stay.

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