Mother of four Tina Hag remembers the day the sky turned orange and devastating bushfires tore through her small northern New South Wales community.

Her youngest was only two months old when they had to rapidly evacuate their Rappville home.

The family escaped but their house burned to the ground.

That was in October 2019.

“It felt like last month I was here for the first anniversary … it hits you sometimes — it was exactly two years ago,” she said.

They have since been living in a basic shed at Ellengowan, half an hour away from their home, and the rebuilding process has been slow.

“We are really looking forward to getting back here  [the house] and being able to have doors,” she said.

“It’s been hot and it’s been cold and no one has had their own space…we’ve just been living together for two years.

A woman holding her two children in the burnt-out rubble of a house.

Rappville woman Tina Hag, pictured after the bushfires of 2019, in the rubble of what used to be their home.(ABC News: Bellinda Kontominas)

Ms Hag said it had been hard living away from their community.

“It sort of gets sort of forgotten about, especially with COVID.”

Ms Hag said they had their sights set on being home for Christmas.

“The whole thing [getting home] is going to be a big Christmas present really.

Nymboida: No formula for recovery

An older woman with long white hair leans over a red flower, smiling.

Laena Stephenson at Nymboida says she plants flowers, which helps in her recovery process.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

Nymboida resident Laena Stephenson and her husband lost their home when the fires tore through their town north-west of Coffs Harbour, destroying 85 houses in the area.

The fire hit in November 2019 and they’ve been living in a shed since, and focussing on the Nymboida Camping and Canoeing Centre, with which they are heavily involved.

They are just at the point of submitting their new house plans to council.

“It’s fine, we are comfortable enough,” Ms Stephenson said.

“We’ve been trying to re-establish the business and make it through COVID-19.

“Everybody does it in their own way. There is no formula or set way of recovering.

Ms Stephenson said her garden had proved a source of great healing.

“Watching flowers bloom, watching things come back,” she said. 

An older woman with long white hair waters plants.

Laena Stephenson is still living in a shed and says their main focus is rebuilding their business and making it through COVID-19.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

“One thing the fires taught me more than anything is my connection to this land.” 

‘Difficult’ decision to leave

An older woman wearing a blue shirt sits inside the lounge room of her home.

Jennifer Spencer said it was difficult to move away from her community, but was the right decision for her.(ABC Adelaide: David Frearson)

Not everyone, though, has decided to rebuild.

Jennifer Spencer, also lost her home at Nymboida and, after about 40 years in that community, has since made the tough decision to start a new life elsewhere.

“It was the difficulty in getting things moving, getting things cleaned, up and the weather was getting to me.

“Trying to clean up on your own and it’s sort of 35 degrees in summer, and it was just too hot.”

An elderly woman with long hair, waters roses outside in a garden.

Jennifer Spencer says rebuilding at Nymboida proved too challenging and she has since moved away to South Australia.(ABC Adelaide: David Frearson)

Ms Spencer has moved to Myponga, South Australia, in search of a cooler climate and fresh start.

“The more I thought about it the more sense that made and I originally grew up in Adelaide, so it wasn’t a total new experience for me,” she said.

“It was very difficult to make the decision to leave the community that I had lived in.”

Talarm: Starting from scratch

An older couple stand on a balcony looking out, with bushland in the background.

Tonia Welsh and Will Norman have successfully rebuilt at Talarm, after losing their home in the bushfires.

South of Coffs Harbour at Talarm, west of Macksville, Tonia Welsh and Will Norman have successfully rebuilt after the bushfires wiped out their home.

Their new property has been designed to use the environment to help heat and cool the house, and provide future bushfire protection.

It’s built into the hill and there is sand on the roof balcony

An older couple sit outside their newly built home, with a roof balcony.

Talarm couple ‘collect the water off the roof for a fire-fighting tank and for some use in the house’.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

“We collect the water off the roof for a fire-fighting tank and for some use in the house,” Mr Norman added.

The couple moved into their new home earlier this year and said it felt ‘surreal’.

They are also rebuilding their farm, growing stone fruits and a timber plantation on their property sustained heavy damage in the fires.

“To see that destroyed, 10-15 per cent of it is all that will be useable … that’s 15, 20 years worth of work that can’t be replaced,” Ms Welsh said.

An older man and woman look at a burn tree trunk in a timber plantation.

Tonia Welsh and Will Norman are rebuilding their farm and say a timber plantation on their property sustained heavy damage in the fires.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

“We still have our farm that we are having to start from scratch again.

“You just have to give people time and everyone will recover in their own way.”

Bobin: We look out for each other

A man in a purple shirt stands outside in front of a bright mural with a serious look on his face.

Peter Schouten says the catastrophic bushfires affected everyone in the Bobin community and some were still coming to terms with it.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

Further south, the village of Bobin, north-west of Taree, is also slowly bouncing back, after 18 homes, and the local school, were destroyed in a bushfire in November 2019.

“Everybody was affected in some way,” Bobin Hall president, Peter Schouten, said.

“Some are still coming to terms with it, suffering some form of anxiety as a result of it.

Mr Schouten said some had left the area, while for others, the rebuilding process has been hampered by material and labour shortages.

An older woman with short hair and a red checked shirt smiles at the camera, on an outdoor deck.

Dianne Moteby says her partner is still rebuilding after the bushfire two years ago and they are finding their living conditions tough.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

71-year-old Dianne Moteby said her partner was still rebuilding at Bobin.

“We are living in his old shed … it is full of holes and we can’t really heat it efficiently and we are both finding it really difficult at our age to cope with living in these conditions.”

Bushfire destroyed the historic Bobin Public School last year.

Bushfire destroyed the historic Bobin Public School, and it has been rebuilt.(ABC News)

Bobin Public School students thrilled to be back in their own school from day on of the new school year.

With the school rebuilt students of Bobin Public School were able to return in February 2020.(Supplied: Bobin Public School)

The community has pulled together and been holding working bees when someone needs a hand.

“We look out for each other.”

Communities ‘fire ready’

A sign by the side of a country road, saying 'Have you registered at fireready.org.au'.

A community-driven ‘Fire Ready’ campaign has been launched in Bobin to ensure people are better prepared for future emergencies, and help inform emergency services.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

A ‘Fire Ready’ project has also been launched at Bobin to ensure residents and emergency service crews would be better equipped to manage future bushfire events.

It will involve signposting properties in an emergency to show if residents are home, or have evacuated, and also include installing a pipe at front gates, containing relevant property information- particularly important in areas with no mobile coverage. 

“We talked to the firies to find out what they needed … a lot came in from out of the area,” Mr Schouten said. 

A narrow road winding through bush and farmland.

The main street through Bobin, some bushland is yet to recover.(ABC Mid North Coast: Emma Siossian)

“We have 10 communities around Bobin that have all signed up for the project … from a humble idea it seems to have really taken off.”

‘Looking forward to getting back’: Two years on, NSW bushfire victims still rebuilding, healing
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