Farmer's struggle to rebuild from bushfire during coronavirus pandemic

GiGi Welsh stands in front of what's left of her home at Yarranbella the day after fires tore through the region in November 2019. Photo: Jess Wallace
GiGi Welsh stands in front of what's left of her home at Yarranbella the day after fires tore through the region in November 2019. Photo: Jess Wallace

In a world dominated by COVID-19, the horrific bushfire season seems a lifetime ago, but for those who lost everything, it's ever-present.

The pandemic has left many bushfire victims facing a level of great uncertainty, wondering just how COVID-19, shutdowns and social isolation will impact their ability to rebuild, move forward and recover.

Fifth-generation farmer Terry Welsh's property on the Mid North Coast of NSW was completely destroyed by a fire that tore apart his working farm on November 8.

There is no way to describe what occurred there except "total annihilation".

Although the fire was five months ago, Mr Welsh is still only at clean-up stage and is now unsure of exactly how that process will unfold.

"It's understandable because it's sort of been put on the back-burner a little bit because there is so much going on," Mr Welsh said.

"There was a lot of talk about help with clean-up and different things, it evolved fairly quickly over the following three months to the point Laing O'Rourke (engineering and construction company) had been handed the job."

After an initial inspection earlier this month, Mr Welsh doesn't know what's next.

Terry and GiGi Welsh take it day by day on their way to recovery after bushfires destroyed their home last year. Photo: Jess Wallace

Terry and GiGi Welsh take it day by day on their way to recovery after bushfires destroyed their home last year. Photo: Jess Wallace

"They actually drove from Newcastle to home (a four-hour drive away in Yarranbella), which is not ideal in the current environment.

"I said to them, 'well, don't bring the virus with you'.

Originally told the process would move forward with phone assessments only in light of COVID-19, he has since been advised, via Services NSW, there would be some "minor changes" in the way Laing O'Rourke worked with property owners, such as meetings with property owners taking place outside and clean-up contractors practising social distancing.

However, the timeline and logistics of all of this are yet to be known.

From the beginning of the recovery process, the message delivered to victims has always been local labour, local contractors. This is a principle upon which Mr Welsh is standing firm.

"If they use local people, the coronavirus shouldn't have an impact but if they bring people from away, it will be a big consideration."

"We've been told we'll use local contractors - local this, local that and we really haven't seen it. Just for general clean-up, there are plenty in the Nambucca Valley."

He said local contractors he knew had gone through the requested registration process.

The lack of action is frustrating for the Welsh family.

"You're trying to move on but you're faced with looking at it every day.

"To go through your house, your workshop or whatever and my wife has different triggers than I have, she'll see something that reminds her of when the kids were little and she'll have a cry and it's the same for me - things you don't realise.

"It will give you a moment and then you just suck it up and move on - it's an important part of grieving. It was such a total loss, there was really nothing left."

For Mr Welsh, he couldn't just leave the farm and wait, describing sorting through what little remained as a "sort of therapy".

"I basically went through everything. Where we could we just cleaned everything up and picked out what was favourable, which wasn't very much ... to the point where it was a concrete slab, a pile of rubble and iron."

That rubble is still there.

"Time-wise I guess you've got to wait in the queue, things won't happen quickly with this and now with the added complication of the virus we don't really know what that's going entail."

Unsure how the bushfire clean up will progress during the COVID-19 pandemic, Terry and GiGi Welsh have done want they can to sort through the rubble.

Unsure how the bushfire clean up will progress during the COVID-19 pandemic, Terry and GiGi Welsh have done want they can to sort through the rubble.

Where does that leave the Welsh family?

"If they decide we just can't do anything because we can't send people into the area, and they could well say that, but my response to that is that you don't need to as there are plenty of local people here who can do the work.

"Unless the government says we are going to have a total lockdown."

It would, he said, just be good to "get started again" but without the basics it's difficult.

"It takes the wind out of you. We've just got no infrastructure, that's the most frustrating part."

Mr Welsh vows to keep going.

"It was better to persevere and go through that cleaning process rather than walk away and leave.

"I owe it to my ancestors, they faced just as much adversity and they accepted it as it came and got on with it."

A Laing O'Rourke spokesperson said that while COVID-19 introduces a new challenge to bushfire recovery, the company is "determined to maintain momentum" and has changed the way it is working and engaging with the community.

"We're doing everything we can to keep the community, our contractors and our employees safe. This includes undertaking meetings with landholders or other stakeholders over the phone, via video conference or FaceTime, where possible, as well as adopting social distancing measures, strict personal hygiene protocols and additional screening and health checks for our employees and local subcontractors," the spokesperson said.

"Procurement processes prioritise work with contractors based in the Local Government Area where the clean-up is taking place.

"If we cannot find the specialised skills we need within the immediate LGA, we then look to adjoining LGAs to help fill the need. As a very last resort, we will then look further afield," they added.

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This story The struggle to rebuild in a world of COVID-19 restrictions first appeared on The Canberra Times.