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'We'll Never Be The Same, But We Haven't Lost Our Heart', Says Mayor of Bushfire-Ravaged Shire

Unless you have followed the bushfire crisis closely, or live within one of its most ravaged regions, the Bega Valley Shire, you may not have heard of Councillor Kristy McBain.

Born and raised in the area, Cr McBain was elected as Mayor of the Bega Valley Shire in 2016. The Shire encompasses the towns Bega, Tathra, Eden and Merimbula, which were some of the areas hardest hit by the NSW South Coast bushfires.

Throughout this tumultuous disaster, Cr McBain has been a constant presence at the evacuation centres. She responds directly to questions and concerns via the Council’s Facebook page, sometimes well into the evening. She's dealt with major incidents (the crash of a water bombing helicopter), facilitated the provision of supplies (a mobile washer and dryer taken to the Cobargo area) and community briefings to keep residents updated.

Cr Kristy McBain leading a community briefing in Bermagui. (Image: Supplied)

Her unwavering leadership has even prompted residents to encourage McBain to run for Prime Minister.

With the worst of the fires (hopefully) behind them, we spoke to Cr McBain to find out how the Shire is coping…

Firstly, how are you holding up?

I’m a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the situation in front of us. So far, with only 69 percent of the fire ground surveyed, we have lost a staggering 320 homes and/or business premises.

How did you feel going through this ordeal?

It was completely overwhelming in the early stages where the initial fires had taken property and lives. To be confronted with one bushfire emergency is difficult but to have four in one area, literally to the south, west, and north of you is tough.

At one stage all of the roads into and out of the Shire were cut and we were completely on our own. There was no aviation support as the helicopter couldn’t get up. Our RFS and emergency service agencies had resources on the ground but were stretched out in different areas.

Our bridges, road and water pumps were being impacted by fire. Electricity and telecommunications were down.

I was getting information as it came to hand and trying my best to communicate it back to people but there’s a sense of helplessness in it all -- especially when the fires hit the second time.

On the second occasion, I made the decision to be at home with my family as my middle child suffers from asthma.

Cr McBain and her husband on January 4. (Image: Supplied)

What was it like to console those who had lost their homes or property?

I met numerous residents that have lost their homes, their sheds and their business equipment, lost animals and livestock. You have to be there to listen and it’s hard because I don’t have all the answers for them.

But communities band together and your sense of pride swells when you see those communities supporting each other. It also restores your faith in people when you see people come here from outside the area to help, in whatever way they can.

Jessie Collins, 36, at her dad's property in Cobargo on Friday, January 10. (Image: AAP)
Cr McBain with residents of Bermagui, NSW. (Image: Supplied)

Are there other ways the fires have impacted the community?

The hard part is that whilst there are people directly impacted by the flames, there are a range of people indirectly impacted.

The busiest time of year for us didn’t happen over the school holidays with the notice to evacuate tourists. $120m of direct tourism dollars didn’t happen, the indirect tourism spend is closer to $250m -- so many of our tourism, hospitality and retail businesses are suffering.

Primary production is impacted as some of our farmers have suffered the complete or significant losses of livestock. The forestry industry has had direct impact with the chip mill being destroyed and the forestry estate heavily impacted both here and into the high country. Our aquaculture industry (oysters and mussels) has the potential to be impacted because of ash and fire debris in our estuaries.

So, there is a lot to do to ensure that our community is on the road to recovery.

There have been warnings not to travel in the area. Is this still the case?

It is fine to travel. There is still fire in some of the landscape, but our major towns aren’t impacted.

What about issues like road closures and air quality?

All major roads into and out of the Shire are open. We have been impacted by smoke, but we believe it’ll dissipate soon and we’ll be left with the amazing beaches and natural environment around us, although some of it will be different to what we have known before.

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How is your community coping with this?

Community resilience is alive, and people look for support within their own communities. Small communities do this really well. Neighbours, friends and family all play a role but the kindness of complete strangers is overwhelming. There are volunteers in so many capacities. Everyone is working to help one another.

This is the best part about being Australian.

What do you think you've learned from this crisis? 

Never underestimate the strength of people and the strength of your community. We have had volunteers from everywhere -- even people who have lost their own homes -- assisting others to continue fighting fires to save their homes.

There are people donating time to feed and house people they don’t know -- the generosity of people in donating time, goods and money is incredible.

What can people do to help?

Return to the area for your holidays -- don’t book a holiday to Bali or Fiji this year. Help out your friends who live in these impacted areas by booking a week along the Sapphire Coast.

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We continue to offer unique and immersive experiences to our visitors. Most of what people love about this place remains and I really believe there is now an opportunity to go deeper and connect with the Sapphire Coast on a new level.

You can also donate to our Bega Valley Disaster Relief Fund. Buy gift cards in our local businesses to donate to others. Or pledge to bring an #emptyesky to one of our towns.

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Do you think the Shire ever be the same? 

Not the same to some extent. I don’t believe that people are ever the same after a disaster especially on this scale. What we will see though is a landscape (although altered in the short term) that will be just as beautiful as before, a desire to ensure you get to know and help out your neighbours, a renewed push and understanding of buying local, a more resilient community and a bond that will tie people together for years to come.

This community did not lose its heart and I couldn’t be prouder of the place I call home.