Bushfire survivors flee South Coast for Blue Mountains

Out of the frying pan into the fire: bushfire survivors flee South Coast for Katoomba


Bushfire survivors Leah Milston and partner David Wallace fled Mogo for Katoomba in April.


Bushfire survivors Leah Milston and partnerDavid Wallace fled Mogo for Katoomba in April, leaving behind all the painful memories of their much-loved home and livelihood - a book and gift store - that was razed to the ground in the horrific summer bushfires.

The store, Milston's Past and Present, was the last shop on the northern edge of Mogo, a tiny village best known for having a zoo, about 10-minutes' drive down the Princes Highway from Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast. The store was part of a heritage precinct that burnt in extraordinary weather on New Years Eve.

"I spent some time walking around the ashes of the shop [ the day after] looking for anything that might have survived, but it was all gone," said Ms Milston.

"It did not look like our house," Mr Wallace added. "It collapsed into almost nothing. Leah's books crumbled in your hand, it was powder. The heat must have been incredible."

They have not been back since and after staying with family, have started a new life in the NSW Blue Mountains. Ms Milston bought an unrenovated holiday house here 10 years ago, planning for a faraway retirement which has come too early. But they are luckier than most, she said.

Some of their friends and neighbours are battling council and fire restrictions in an attempt to rebuild and they have watched in horror on TV of survivors living in leaky caravans.

It's one of the reasons Ms Milston continues her 14 hours a week of volunteering on online forums for depression support service, Beyond Blue; why she sought out work in an op shop here; and why Mr Wallace is looking to replicate his experience with his South Coast Lions club group.

"We volunteer because we feel worthwhile. If you told us this time last year ... we would be here I would have said you're joking. I always thought I'd live up here, we talked about it - but sometimes it feels like I'm living another life, you know, you're really here but it feels like 'Is this really happening to me'? But we have each other."

Photographer Mr Wallace's historic cameras "disintegrated" in the fires. Cards from Ms Milston's children, books and family memorabilia are what she misses most.

"I'd tell everyone to scan what they value."

A heart-wrenching loss was Ms Milston's grandfather's 1930 journal and all her memorabilia from parents and grandparents.

"My grandfather was secretary to the NSW Minister of Transport," she said. "He went on a boat for 10 months and typed a journal. It was leather-bound done by hand, very historical and personal. It was hundreds of pages. You can't go and buy a copy," Ms Milston said.

But they only had a five minute window to evacuate.

"My parents were both in war and we had a set of medals. I thought we were coming back. We knew it was serious, but we thought we would be back in the afternoon."

Even though they're not physically part of the Mogo community anymore, they keep connected through social media and the pair hope to make more Mountains friends when the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

"We wanted to doorknock our neighbours to introduce ourselves, but you can't."

They are worried about bushfires in the Mountains and admit the decision does seem like it's jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It's why they delayed moving here until summer had passed. But they hope being right in town will save them from "losing two houses".

Ms Milston said Beyond Blue, which works in partnership with leading animal health company Zoetis, gives invaluable help to those struggling with mental health. In April, Beyond Blue experienced a 60 per cent increase in calls for help compared to the same time in 2019.

Ms Milston is a long-term user of Beyond Blue's online community forums and has become a peer support champion.

The Beyond Blue Support Service offers free contact with counsellors by phone, webchat or email.

Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman said: "This year has brought its challenges and over the past couple of months, people have been telling us they're feeling overwhelmed, worried, lonely, and concerned about their physical health. They're also concerned about the health of friends and loved ones, finances, job security and the economy."

Go to www.beyondblue.org.au or call the 24/7 service on 1300 22 46 36. The Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service is also available on 1800 512 348. People can support the Zoetis initiative until October. For every animal health product sold by Zoetis, they will donate $5, up to $100,000 to Beyond Blue.