We lost everything. Three words that gets to the guts of it. It took a few days to process, but now the enormity of what has just happened to my family has finally sunk in — I’ve shut down and all but stopped talking about it.
But I haven’t told you, dear reader, so let me tell you what happened — and how waking up to a new day with not much else but the clothes on my back affected me in ways I never thought it would.
It’s Too Late to Leave
My family has a very simple fire plan: on potentially bad fire days, my wife packs up our son Louie and heads into the city.
I, on the other hand, was sitting at the kitchen table of my farm reading an investment report. I knew there were fires, but I wasn’t worried. As a member of the local CFA, I have a pager that calls my brigade to emergencies, and it hadn’t gone off — yet.
What I didn’t know was that the areas surrounding me were already being evacuated. As the smoke thickened I decided to head to my neighbours, who live on a ridge, to get a better view. As I jumped in the car, the ABC radio announcer said of my area:
“It’s too late to leave. You must take shelter now to protect yourself.”
The next 24 hours are a blur. I remember being on the back of the CFA truck defending my back paddock. Rounding up my sheep. Grabbing my dogs. Flooring it out the driveway. Staring into my rear-view mirror and, for a split second, thinking about going back inside and getting our valuables. But I fled.
I could have lived in Toorak.
Luckily I found my own Toorak — sixty clicks away in the bush.
When I found the farm I wanted, I stalked it for years — literally — and in that time I saved up a big deposit (luckily for me, farms don’t change hands quickly).
All the money was in the land. The farmhouse wasn’t flash but my wife and I had set about making it our castle, bit by bit.
We’d save up and add another feature: a big deck for Louie to play on, curtains to block out the hot summer sun, a $45 bench seat from Bunnings where I’d sit in the sun and read the paper each morning.
A month ago, sitting on the couch, I said to my wife: “no matter how much money we make in the future, I never want to leave this place — I never want to trade up. This is enough. This is home.”
When you stop competing, stop looking for the next place, it allows you to fully engage with your community; your neighbours.
Don’t Get Emotional
A side-effect of living through the world’s longest and strongest property boom is that many of us are trained in the status-hugging art of ‘property pawn’. A house is just a chess piece to hold on to long enough for the equity to rise — then you trade up to a newer, flashier suburb with newer, flashier neighbours.
“Property is just a numbers game,” say the gurus.
Rubbish. You should get emotional about your home. How can you not?
It’s the place I proposed to my wife.
It’s the place we got married (under a big tree just down from the shearing shed).
It’s the place we (nervously) brought our newborn son home to.
And now it’s all gone.
Two chimneys and a pile of rubble are the sum total of a lifetime of possessions.
I’m not a materialistic person, but the realisation that everything was gone was like a hard punch in the guts. At the start of the week, Louie didn’t have any pants. My wife only had the clothes she was wearing. Even today I keep reaching for things only to realise they’re gone.
Still, we’re luckier than most. We’re temporarily holed up at Barefoot HQ. Three people, three dogs, and our staff — in an apartment. It’s painful, but temporary. After all we have insurance. We’ll buy more stuff, and we’ll build again. But it’s the things in my castle that can never be replaced that truly breaks my heart: old photos, Louie’s first pair of booties, treasured paintings … the list goes on.
The Romsey Pub
I walked into the Romsey pub with my CFA uniform on.
The bar lady took one look at me and said, “You look like you need a beer.”
“My house has just burned down. I actually don’t have any money…”
She poured me one anyway.
As I sat staring at the floor, a woman I’ve never met walked up behind me, gave me a gentle hug and put a $100 note on the bar.
“That’s for you.”
Many people have questioned our decision to live in the country. Many more will question our decision to rebuild after what we’ve been through. But I moved to the area because I wanted to be part of a community. To lay down my roots. Make a life for our family among good, honest people.
And with everything now gone, we’ve worked out how much we’ve got.
Without me asking, or knowing, my neighbour’s fought shoulder to shoulder throughout the night to try and save my house. Despite their efforts it didn’t make it, but the tree we got married under is still standing.
So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I didn’t lose everything.
Tread Your Own Path!
*The image of Scott’s farm in this article first appeared on Scott’s Twitter account. Follow Scott on Twitter via @scottpape.