A volunteer firefighter whose wife died a year before catastrophic fires ripped apart his home is now living in a tent and spends every day searching for his dog.
Ash Graham lost his house in Nerrigundah on the New South Wales south coast when out-of-control fires ravaged the area on New Year’s Eve.
He managed to escape the fires with just his truck and a few belongings, with his three-year-old dog Kozi by his side.
Kozi was left at the local fire station while Mr Graham was out warning people to evacuate their homes, but the dog fled as the flames approached the station.
The last place Mr Graham saw Kozi was outside the fire station. He said he won’t give up until he finds him.
‘He was the only thing I was left with when my wife passed away, so… yeah… he’s my best mate,’ Mr Graham said through tears.
‘He’s my motivation, he gets me out of bed of a morning on my down days.’
Mr Graham has already searched through mine shafts and wombat holes, and hopes the dog headed towards water.
‘I’m just hoping that he was faster then Armageddon,’ he said.
‘Maybe I just haven’t walked that extra hundred metres, maybe I’ve just over glanced an area and there were a couple of houses I hadn’t looked under.’
Mr Graham’s wife Melanie died from cancer just a year before the catastrophic fires tore through the south coast.
A roofer by trade, Mr Graham stopped work to spend six years taking care of his wife before she died.
Mr Graham’s plans are to cut down trees on the property in order to make it safe to set up his camp trailer – where he will be now living.
While he has been meaning to leave his makeshift home of the tent in the yard of the fire station, he has not been able to bring himself to do it.
But he said that Nerrigundah is always home.
‘I’ll never move,’ he said.
The tiny village of Nerrigundah in was among the places hardest hit by the country’s devastating wildfires, with two-thirds of homes destroyed.
A man in his 70’s who lived near the village was killed in the disaster – one of the 27 lives claimed by the wildfires, which also have destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
Like many small communities in Australia that have been scorched by the wildfires, Nerrigundah will never be the same.
Once a thriving gold mining town with over 1,000 people, the village has lately been home to just a few dozen who love the peace of the Australian bush, a place far from the bustling cities where dogs can run free.
But now a landmark building that was once a store has burned down.
The village’s old schoolhouse is also gone, as well as the building that used to be the church.
Nerrigundah was caught by surprise by the fires because many did not expect them to come for another few days, and nobody could believe its ferocity.
NERRIGUNDAH LOCALS LEFT REELING AFTER DEVASTATING FIRES SWEPT THROUGH
The Threlfall family home was one of only a half dozen houses to survive the New Year’s Eve blaze.
Outside stands an exploded gas canister, its sides peeled open like arms seeking an embrace.
The stone sculptures made by Ron Threlfall, the fire captain, that depict people in anguish now have scorch marks running up their sides.
Skye Threlfall, 21, who was home for the Christmas holidays along with her two siblings, said she woke up at 4am on New Year´s Eve.
‘My mum was screaming to us, and then we all ran out and looked up at the sky over here and it was just red,’ she said.
‘You could see the flames up in there, and it was just roaring.’
She said the fire closed in like a storm. She screamed at her sister to come to the car, terrified she wouldn’t make it.
Across the other side of town, Lyle Stewart, 65, was retching from the thick black smoke as he tried to save his house by dousing it with water. Then his hose caught fire.
‘I thought, ‘Time´s come’,’ Mr Stewart said. But he and his buddy made it to Mr Stewart’s car.
The air conditioning helped filter the gunk they were breathing.
It took them 90 minutes to drive the short distance to the fire station as they used a chainsaw to cut through a half dozen flaming trees that had fallen across the road.
Skye Threlfall and her sister also made it to the fire station. But inside, the howling winds buckled the roller doors off their supports.
‘Embers were just flying through,’ Ms Threlfall said.
Residents leaned up against the doors, trying to keep the fire out.
Marilyn Brennan poured water on the embers as they blasted through, then retreated to a back room with some of the others.
‘Down on the ground, hugging each other, hoping like hell we´d get out,’ she said.
Townsfolk credit the sprinkler system installed on the exterior of the fire station a few years back for saving them.
Such sprinklers aren’t standard at rural fire stations, but the town had raised money for its own.
Residents are still coming to terms with what they have lost.
Mr Stewart, who moved to the small village in 1985, had just finished restoring a caravan that has been reduced to ash.
Then there are the thousands of comics his son had collected he was storing.
What really irks him, he jokes, is the carton of Victoria Bitter beer he’d just bought and hadn’t taken a single drink from.
‘This is everything we’ve worked for for the last 35 years, gone,’ he said.
He doesn’t know whether he’ll return.
‘My wife and I don’t want to leave here. But when you get older it’s a bit different, too. I´m not as fit as what I was when I was 35,’ he said.
Ms Brennan and her husband, Colin, said they’re planning to rebuild.
‘I’ll be back,’ Mr Brennan said.
‘This is home. This is where I live. This is me, here. I’ve got a life.’
Ms Threlfall said she hopes the community survives and rebuilds, but she knows that quite a few people won´t return.
‘It’s just scary, because you don´t want to go through this again,’ she said.