Pappinbarra bush fires: Journalist Matt Attard returns to the scene of the devastating February 2017 fire

JOURNALIST Matt Attard was one of the first on the scene when fires broke at Pappinbarra one year ago. He revisited the town, camera in hand, to speak of his experience and reflect on the devastation.

RESILIENCE. Devastation. Bravery. Memories. These are the words that sprung to mind as I entered the heart of Pappinbarra one year after bush fires ripped through more than 1000 hectares.

The resilience of the community to react, respond and push through what was happening in front of them.

The devastation of Mother Nature to rip through the land like a hot knife through butter, destroying homes and wildlife, leaving nothing but ash in its wake.

The bravery of the countless firefighters and volunteers who spent day and night risking their lives to protect and serve.

And memories that will never fade, represented by the charred trees, fences, hills and roads which are a stark reminder of the catastrophic event that took place.

As I stopped on the side of Pappinbarra Road at one of the first spots I photographed the afternoon the fires broke (February 12), I noticed the greenery that was forcing itself through the black bark and scorched ground.

A year earlier, in the same spot as the hills I was looking at just metres away, it we were staring into the mouth of hell.

I'm unable to imagine what it would've been like to live in Pappinbarra on that day. Not knowing how quickly the fire would spread, not knowing if my home was safe or about to be consumed by flames.

It was an overwhelming feeling of relief as I looked through the lens, zooming in on hill sides and homes that were within striking distance of the fires.

I was thankful that I have never been in a predicament like the residents of Pappinbarra. And thankful I had a wonderful home I could return to.

The same can’t be said for many people who were affected by the fires.

Driving further in, I came to the entrance of a large property I had filmed from last year, just days after residents were allowed to return.

At the time, their letterbox was burned to a crisp, the fence and gate were destroyed and the smell of smoke was overwhelming. 

Now, a huge tree trunk the size of my car was standing, shades of green pushing through a jet-black wall of bark, in front of a new fence erected by the property owner.

It stood out like a sore thumb. Not the tree, but rather the fence. It was the only thing not impacted by flames. 

It was the only thing that looked out of place, but clearly the first sign of this person’s attempt to redeem what they once had.

At the time, I took a photo of a local man and his dog walking down an embankment that was pure ash. Everything was charred. His house had barely survived and his neighbour’s had not.

If it was a year earlier and I was in the same spot as the hills I was looking at just metres away, it would have felt like I was in the mouth of hell.

He was happy to chat to the people around, which included the then mayor Peter Besseling.

I remember thinking, “why is he smiling?” and now that I look back, I realise his sense of relief would have been overwhelming. His house survived, his pet was alive. Things would be ok.

I went back to that same embankment, which was now rich with bush and grass. One year on, he was right. Things would be ok.

Although the tragic memories will last forever, there were positives. The area is rejuvenating, both naturally and with the help of man.

I remember the firefighters working frantically, always staying alert to the threat around them.

I remember the look of helplessness on the faces of people who were yet to evacuate. 

Thankfully no lives were lost. People still had each other.

Families, friends, strangers, business owners, people from near and from afar united to show that kindness, sympathy and empathy conquers all. That is what I will remember most.

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