Along a dirt road in the middle of the Nambucca valley, 515kms from Sydney an old ute, beat up on one side, disrupts the dust as it cruises along.
The soft rumble of the old engine, tyres on gravel – it’s the only sound for miles.
It’s the start of January and it’s stifling hot. It’s been three weeks since the fire came through South Arm.
The bush is black on black. Green shoots are yet to emerge. Every few minutes the ute passes a burnt-out tractor, a shed still standing, the remains of somebody’s home.
Normally, this is cattle country. Now, a sea of ash.
Beck Beverly drives with her friend Tara to farms too far out to get reception. People are living in tents, relying on the bottled water she brings them.
There’s free water in town, but that’s an hour drive for some and petrol is in short supply.
She does the meet and greet, checks on their health and offloads the supplies. Then they drive to the next property.
The daily repetition was all they could do to help people survive.
Now, looking back on those first three weeks, she said could see the stages of grief on their faces.
“We met quite a few people. By week three you could see the shock had started to fade the reality was setting in,” she said.
“People were isolated, they didn’t have food or water. So we piled my ute full, made care packs of food and toiletries, and drove to each property that was impacted. We did that for three weeks.”
South Arm is a small community with just over 230 residents. The closest town, Nambucca Heads, sits on the coast 40 minutes away.
“We lost 61 homes, and we lost double that in what they call non-council approved houses. They were homes, they just didn’t have approval. So about 120 households.”
Since January, Beck’s been running the town hall like a drop-in centre. People can get water, food, connect to the internet, and a tent if they need. On Friday’s they provide a lunch.
“I realised we needed something in the community to bring us together,” Beck said.
“For farming communities to lose hope, it’s pretty dire. They’re a resilient bunch usually. This fire was catastrophic and it comes off the back of the worst drought we’ve been in,” she added.
After losing her home, Pauline Taylor stayed with friends for the first few weeks until she got a tent to set up in the paddock.
“For seven weeks we moved every two days, between about three people,” Pauline said.
“That’s a big strain because you’re trying not leave a footprint. You don’t want to be a burden to people who are giving their house to you.
“I have been in my paddock ever since.”
For weeks she was showering and charging her phone at the town hall. After almost a month, two ladies donated a caravan to Pauline.
“I pretended it was a holiday for a bit, but after three weeks I got over the wind. I won’t say it’s been easy, it’s been difficult. Being on bottled water and only having a bucket.”
Pauline had to delay going back to work – cleaning up, dealing with insurance and working out the next steps became a full-time job.
“You’re learning as you go. There’s grants from the charities, you’ve got to find paperwork, the bill with your address, and something saying it’s all burnt down,” Pauline said.
“I understand there are charlatans who claim things, but it makes it difficult for the people who are legitimate,” she said.
Pauline’s getting through it, slowly. She faced the caravan away from the rubble of her home so she wasn’t reminded of it. At night she watches the sunset.
“You have to be patient. There’s a lot of people in the same situation and that’s been an unexpected benefit. I’ve met people I didn’t know existed. There are lots of tears, men included, but there’s a lot of laughing.”
One of those people is Carol. She had always lived close by, but the pair had never spoken. In the aftermath, the shared grief of losing their homes has brought them together.
Carol, and her husband Troy, have reception on their property but they had no warning, no text message from the NSW Rural Fire Service to say they were under threat.
Troy tried to stay and fight, but the fire was out of control.
“It was an old machinery shed we had turned into a house,” said Carol.
“It was steel. We thought it would be fine, we didn’t expect a complete and utter wipeout,” she said.
“There were no mirrors, there was nothing. It was like it went ‘poof’. Yeah, that was quite confronting.”
Carol said her neighbours lost their house, and aren’t coming back: “It wasn’t a normal bushfire”.
They’re fighting with their insurance provider. They’re asking for full coverage, because they had full loss. The insurer doesn’t want to play ball, she said.
But Carol said the hardest part was reporting again and again that you’ve lost everything. Managing re-building not just your home, but your life.
“Everyone wants the information again. The council, disaster clinic, Red Cross, Salvos, Rapid Relief Team, Blazeaid. You make six calls to one and you’re back at the beginning,” she said.
“The rules change, they can change between morning and afternoon.
“I struggled initially because I like to be organised, it was mayhem, but my partner struggled because he thought it was his fault we lost everything.
“I’m much better these days. We’re moving forward without a lot of help.”