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What It's Like To Watch Your Home Town Burn

The photos don’t do it justice.

I mean, how could they?

In a photo, you can’t 'see' the feeling of utter devastation for those who have lost everything. You can’t feel the terror in the air that -- despite what we’ve already been through -- we might still not be safe. You can’t see the silent tears quickly brushed away, or hear the voices breaking of those who are trying to be strong for the community.

You can’t feel the smoke.

In a photo, you can't feel how it sticks to your skin, fills your lungs and clings to every fibre of your body. You can't feel the migraine that won’t go away, exacerbated further by dehydration, panic, and a lack of sleep.

My friends Dan and Mitch Shepherd lost everything when fire ravaged their Catalina home near Batemans Bay, NSW on New Year's Eve. (Image: Supplied)
They woke in the early hours of the morning, only to see fire across the street. Everything was destroyed in the blaze. (Image: Supplied)

Yes, I know most of Australia is also blanketed by the bushfire smoke at the moment, but actually breathing it, directly from the source, is something you can’t possibly imagine.

It’s one thing to watch the horror unfold on your TV screens or on your phones, but it’s another thing entirely to experience it first-hand; to know the people who have lost their homes -- or worse, died; to have grown up walking these beaches and forests; to have visited the very shops that burned down only days before.

I grew up on the NSW south coast. I’ve lived in Moruya, Broulee, and Malua Bay. While I wasn’t born there -- and while I had to move away a few years ago for university and my career -- it is my home. I feel it, entrenched in my soul.

And when I come back, it’s like my body sighs with relief. Home.

But everything changed when the fires hit.

Now I see the beautiful roads I drove to school, with homes and forest alike burned and charred. In fact, buildings in my school burned down too. My favourite beach -- Mackenzies -- looks like an atomic bomb has hit it. The club around the corner from my house, where I spent many birthdays and karaoke nights, obliterated.

My town is in pain.

It’s a deep, deep heartache; one I don’t think I could describe, even if I tried.

Because it’s not just a tragedy for one person: it’s all of us. In a variety of ways and to varying degrees, our lives have been absolutely decimated by these fires and the aftermath.

I’ve spoken to people who have lost their homes, and have nowhere to stay.

I’ve spoken to people who have limited food and no running water.

I’ve spoken to the local WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service) who are doing their best to save the countless injured wildlife with limited resources and infrastructure.

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And I’ve spoken to people who are doing their best, trying to be strong for everyone who has lost it all.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feed everyone tonight,” one local businesswoman, who had housed over 600 people during the crisis, told me.

“I’ve promised everyone dinner, but we have no supplies, and I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to give it to them.”

People have gone days -- if not weeks -- without power, without hot water and without hot food. And despite the fact that power has been restored for a lot of areas, thousands and thousands of people are still without, and many are still struggling with dwindling resources -- particularly those who were already doing it tough before the fires hit.

How can you buy food, or water, or pet food, or baby supplies if you have no money?

Batemans Bay evacuation centre about 12pm New Year’s Eve as the wind changed. (Image: Supplied)
About 15 minutes north of Batemans Bay where the fires had hit a week or two earlier, taken on 30 December. (Image: Supplied)
The beach near Batemans Bay covered in ash (and seaweed). (Image: Supplied)
The local grocery store shelves are all but bare. (Image: Supplied)

How can you get to the evacuation centres to access donations if you don’t have a car, or if you can’t afford petrol?

I don’t have the answers. And I’m not going to pretend I do. But here’s what I do know: we do not need your prayers.

We don’t need s**t-flinging and blame-casting about who had what policy that could or couldn’t have helped us. We don’t need bickering.

We need help. We need action.

We need to all come together and help each other. We need to focus both what we’re going to do now, and what we’re going to do in the future to stop this from happening again.

Yes, food, water and other supplies kindly donated are needed, but so is restoring basic infrastructure like power, internet, water and opening roads: everything a town needs to operate and to begin to rebuild itself.

And when the danger is gone, people need help building their homes, accessing finances and disaster relief.

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I took this around 8am on New Year’s Eve on my way to the evacuation centre. (Image: Supplied)
This is Corrigan’s just behind the evacuation centre. This was about 3pm, after the worst had already gone through. The smoke is still very bad. (Image: Supplied)
The evacuation centre at about 10am on 30 December. (Image: Supplied)

We need people to remember the small towns that have been affected all around Australia. Towns like ours thrive on tourism, and we’ve lost that this fire season. Take note of the places that have been devastated, and visit us in off-peak seasons when it’s safe again. Spend money.

Think of us, even when we’re no longer on your screens.

And to our leaders: I know a lot of people are angry right now -- but I hope instead of offence, you see it as a clear beacon of why we need action; of why we need change; of why we have to come together.

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How To Help Australia's Bushfire Devastated Communities

As parts of Australia battle the worst bushfire season the country has ever seen, here's how you can support the communities that have been devastated by the crisis.

Yes, we live in a sunburnt, fire-prone country, but you have the power to reduce the ferocity of these fires by implementing changes to our bush management and fire prevention strategies, and improving funding so our fire fighters can keep people safe.

I’m no expert, but there are plenty of people who are -- like the RFS and CFA, and for instance. Not to mention our Aboriginal population who lived for thousands and thousands of years managing our bushfire-prone country.

Listen to them.

Listen to us.

Don’t let this tragedy be for nothing.

To help Dan and Mitch Shepherd who lost everything in the New Year's Eve Batemans Bay bushfire, please visit their GoFundMe page