To celebrate its fifth birthday, The New Daily is looking back at some of the people who made news in our first year. The Odell family are the second of our Newsmakers: Then and Now
Eartha Odell is looking up. High in the branches of a Chinese tallow tree, her son, Ty, 10, is making the most of a break from home-schooling, as his mum walks barefoot in the front garden of their home on a sunlit spring day in the Hawkesbury region of NSW.
Dodging a scooter on the grass, she steps out of her driveway and breathes in the peace of her quiet street, where rows of jacarandas show off in full bloom. “It’s lovely,” Eartha tells The New Daily. “I can see the mountains.”
Five years ago, Eartha and her family lived in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee, in a beloved home of pale-yellow brick. It burned to the ground on October 17, 2013 when a bushfire swept through the area. Only rubble remained.
The Odells are one of hundreds of families who lost their homes in the devastating NSW bushfire season that year. At its peak, 100 fires burned across the state, in possibly the worst fire disaster since the 1960s.
Eartha can still call to mind the cottage and its surrounds as clearly as she’s watching her little boy perched in his leafy canopy. Around once a month, she makes the 30-minute drive to spend time at the now-empty quarter-acre block she and her husband, Peter, 59, still own.
“I just love sitting on my favourite rock there and looking out,” says Eartha, 52.
She remembers the little creek that wended through the block, where native plants thrived alongside a storybook-pretty Cecile Brunner climbing rose. She remembers the embrace of the mist and the flocks of cockatoos that soared across the valley. And she’ll never forget the three-bedroom home built in 1971 where she lived happily for 22 years.
“Our home was a real home, it wasn’t just a house. All of it had a story in it,” she says.
“It’s still very hard not being in a space of that wild beauty. When you live in that context, it is with the strain of knowing that there can be fire. But at the same time, you don’t ever think it’s really going to happen.”
When it did, the community was unprepared for the savagery and speed of the unseasonal blaze. In the Odells’ street, 43 houses were lost – more than 200 in total.
The Odells’ devastation was compounded by their daughter’s imminent brain surgery to treat a condition called Chiari 1 with Syringomyelia.
The heat was ominous that morning, but Eartha didn’t notice. With the operation in six days, she was focused on getting Mia, then 9, to her pre-op appointment at Westmead Children’s Hospital, an hour away. She asked her neighbour, Jo, to mind Ty.
After the appointment, Eartha was stuck in a queue at the hospital pharmacy to pick up Mia’s medications. It was around 1pm. Battling a mounting sense of unease, she kept checking the time, anxious to collect Ty, who wasn’t used to being babysat.
“I ended up saying we’ll go and get the medication somewhere else. I was worried about him and I didn’t have my friend’s number.”
Eartha was on the Great Western Highway when she glanced to her right and saw a wall of dense smoke and some flames in the Yellow Rock area. Feeling “sick,” she turned onto Winmalee’s main road, where traffic was piling up. “It was sort of like time stood still,” she says quietly. “I didn’t pray. I didn’t know what to do.”
Then, in a flash of inspiration, Eartha did a U-turn and drove to a home she’d just passed, belonging to Mia’s former piano teacher. Here an interim “crisis centre” sprang up, as Eartha, her lips swollen from the smoke, tried desperately to locate Ty amid increasingly apocalyptic scenes.
“You could hear houses exploding … the fire engines could not get through. There was a riot squad. There were helicopters. The pavements were full of people just walking. One man said to me, ‘Your house is gone’ and he just kept walking. I couldn’t even think about that.”
All that mattered was finding Ty. Soon, Peter, who works as a driver-carer for a community transport company in the mountains, joined his wife and daughter at the piano teacher’s house. Around 8.30pm that night, as the weather turned chilly, Ty was reunited with his family. He’d been sheltering at the local Coles with his carer.
Two days later, the four returned to where their home – a cheerful canvas for the arty family’s creations – had stood.
“Mia said, ‘Where’s the colour?’ Now it was all grey and white,” Eartha recalls.
In place of the verdant backyard was an eerie lunar landscape. For 40 minutes, Eartha and Peter picked through the rubble, finding only a precious china cup that had belonged to their surrogate grandfather and some strings from Peter’s bass guitar.
“In my mind, I could still see my fridge. Everything I had to use up,” says Eartha, who felt the loss of her home like a phantom limb. “It’s so true, you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone.”
After a delay, Mia’s operation went ahead successfully on October 30, 2013, as her parents juggled her recovery with the painstaking process of rebuilding decimated lives, ever grateful for the kindness of friends, strangers, the Salvation Army and their church. The Odells’ Christian faith was not rocked by their ordeal, says Eartha: “There wasn’t a lack of hope.”
Today, Mia, 14, is doing well, says her mum, who home-schools her in the weatherboard cottage they rushed to inspect after sharing baked beans with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they toured the area in April 2014. “They were lovely – it was surreal to see them walking down our street.”
After 27 open houses, they knew this was the one. “Eventually, I realised I was just looking for my old house,” says Eartha, a former city girl who moved 17 times in 21 years. “It felt safe.”
Here, the Odells are establishing a garden with fragrant English roses and edibles, including potatoes, herbs, lemons and figs.
“We’re so thankful,” Eartha says. “We just think it’s the most beautiful house in the world.”
Perhaps the resilient people in it help make it so.
“We have a saying painted on a board in our family room,” Eartha says.
“It says: What I love about my home is who I share it with.”
For information and resources on recovering after disaster, see the Walk With website.
Read part three of our ‘Newsmakers’ series in The New Daily’s Thursday morning edition. Subscribe here if you haven’t already – it’s free.