Residents in NSW’s Southern Highlands never thought a disaster like last summer’s bushfires could happen to them – and when it did, the devastation was far greater than anyone, even the firefighters, could have anticipated.
The spread of the blaze in the region was far greater than what the Rural Fire Service had forecast under its worst-case scenario predictions, with graphic images on social media showing the horror as it unfolded.
Better known for its picturesque scenery, food and wine and swarms of tourists, the fires hit Balmoral Village first before heading “directly toward” the areas of Wingello, Bundanoon, Exeter and the Wombeyan Caves, Buxton Rural Fire Service & CWA Picton volunteer, Kim Hill, explained.
In an interview for a new video series supporting bushfire affected communities, Open for Business, Ms Hill said the community was left reeling.
“People (were) just in disbelief. They thought it wouldn’t happen to them,” she said.
“We lost close to a hundred homes and unfortunately, we’ve also had loss of life as well, which is obviously the highest impact any disaster can have.”
Ms Hill said that for the region, home to almost 48,000 people, “recovery is a long process”.
“Every community is different, but definitely they are very resilient,” she added.
“They are a strong bunch and they will get through this, and they know they’ve got support from all of us around them.”
One of the greatest tolls of the fires, though, for many Aussie towns – the Southern Highlands included – is the hit to their local tourism industry, based off a misconception that everything worth seeing was either damaged or completely gone.
Ms Hill said that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Yeah we’ve been burnt, we’ve been fractured, but it doesn’t mean we’re going,” she said.
“There’s a lot of local businesses that rely on tourism, that rely on people to come back and buy a coffee at the coffee shop or stop in and have a meal at the local pub, for instance.”
It’s a reality that David Bruggerman, owner of the Wingello Village Store, is familiar with.
“The Highlands thrives on the visitors that come down,” Mr Bruggerman said.
“And you helping small businesses like us makes a big difference. Big guys don’t miss you as much, but the small ones, we do.”
Mr Bruggerman, who was forced to evacuate when the flames hit his home and then his business (which was thankfully spared), took over the store 11 years ago.
“(It’s) a general store, restaurant, cafe, post office – whatever you need, we have,” he said.
“We moved here from the city because we wanted to be a nice country place.
“Fresh air, freshwater, and friendly people. And that’s a big difference with being in the country there, you can say g’day and it doesn’t look out of place.”
Tourism, Trade and Investment Manager Dan Tehan told news.com.au that now, more than ever, bushfire-impacted communities need our support.
“A year on from the black summer fires, the best way we can help these communities is by visiting them,” he said.
“Stay a few nights … visit the destinations that surround these communities and support the ones that have been so heavily impacted.”
And you’ll find the Southern Highlands, Ms Hill said, “is unique from any other place”.
“You’ve got Berrima, for instance, which is a very old area. There’s various different areas and events that happen. You’ve got Corbett Gardens, where they have the tulips each year. You’ve got Brigadoon, where they have the Scottish festival each year,” she said.
“The Southern Highlands has so much to offer, it’s a beautiful area with vineyards, mountains, beautiful views and fantastic people, so what more could you want.”
When you go to small businesses, Mr Bruggerman added, “you get something different”.
“It’s not the same as everywhere else. And you’ll get typically good friendly service, great prices and great food,” he said.
While there’s still a few places that are closed, “there is plenty more that is open”, Ms Hill said.
“And we would really like for everyone to come back and visit the Southern Highlands. It would be just so important to us,” she said.
“Without these people coming into these areas, the area won’t survive. So we want people to come back, we want them to see the regeneration, we want them to see how strong and resilient we are, and that’s the most important thing.”
As Mr Bruggerman said: “You coming down and visiting us, you’ll get something out of it and so will we. Everyone wins.”
For the next 14 weeks, news.com.au in partnership with Tourism Australia and the National Bushfire Recovery Agency will showcase bushfire impacted regions that need our support. For the full video series, check out Open for Business