Real Life

How residents in this bushfire-ravaged town have banded together to rebuild

The resilient people of Nymboida in NSW are intent on rebuilding the community they love.
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Nymboida, in the Clarence Valley, 44 kilometres south-west of Grafton in northern NSW, was a beautiful place – lush, fertile and green – the still, clear river, trees tangled in vines, gullies of rainforest teeming with birds and wildlife.

No one, least of all the locals, imagined a landscape like this would go up like tinder, but it did, on November 8 last year.

Bob Gorringe and his wife Narelle could hear the fire an hour before it hit, “roaring like an aeroplane taking off”.

With an 80 kph wind behind it, twelve kilometres across the front and 120 metres high, it tore through the valley, leapt across the Nymboida River and came straight for the community, raising 85 homes and destroying farmland and wilderness alike.

The next day, when Bob returned, his house had “vaporised”. Narelle couldn’t bring herself to look at the wreckage.

“She didn’t feel safe,” he said.

Almost three months later, she still wakes in the night unable to breathe, thinking there is smoke.

WATCH BELOW: Bob Gorringe surveys the remains of his Nymboida home. Story continues after video.

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Laena Stephenson moved to the district 35 years ago to raise her family away from the city, with fresh air and trees and food that she could grow in a veggie plot behind her house.

She and her first husband built that house from scratch with a lot of love.

“I massaged every brick in that house, I hammered in every bit of that earth floor,” she tells The Australian Women’s Weekly.

“I dug rocks out of the ground with a crow bar. I had so much beautiful stuff that I’d collected. I couldn’t walk into that house without loving it.

“There were many beautiful owner-built homes in Nymboida.”

And like Laena’s, many are now gone.

Laena’s house before the fire.

(Credit: Supplied)

Laena’s former home after the bushfires rolled through late last year.

(Credit: Supplied)

But Nymboida has rallied. In the immediate aftermath, the community-run canoe centre became the centre for recovery efforts.

“We fed people at the canoe centre twice a day for a month and had emergency accommodation for those who needed it.

“Mary, a registered nurse, came in every day. Other people, who have experience with trauma, came in every day.”

Laena says Australia must learn from this ordeal and help nature heal.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry.)

Chef Scott Gonzales cooked 700 meals in four weeks. People who didn’t have insurance were taken in by people who still had houses.

“What people need more than anything is just to tell their stories,” says Laena.

“We provided a space where anyone could come and tell their story over and over again.

“Everybody was going through the normal stages of grief in different ways.”

In the wake of all the destruction, the community has rallied together to help each other rebuild

(Credit: Photo: Alana Landsberry)

Now the work towards rebuilding has begun, with locals establishing a ‘tool library’ to share resources and calling for volunteer architects, engineers and tradies to offer advice.

“I don’t think Australia will ever be the same again,” says Laena, “but we have to try to help it recover.”

By working together, trying to be nice to each other and communicating as best we can, I hope Nymboida can be rebuilt and that we can remain living in this beautiful place.”

WATCH BELOW: Laena Stephenson surveys the wreckage of the home she built herself 30 years ago. Story continues after video.

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How you can help

The people of Nymboida welcome volunteer architects, builders and engineers to help them rebuild their community. And they would also welcome donations of building supplies.

Please make contact first by emailing: [email protected].

Residents are also happy to share what they’ve learned so far about fundraising and rebuilding with other fire-affected communities. Please also make contact via the above email address.

Nymboida Camping and Canoeing, with its riverside camp ground and cabins, is a community-run holiday spot which was also the emergency relief centre in the wake of the fires. It sustained some damage and has not yet reopened, but as soon as it does, the community hopes travellers will return to the area.

To learn more, visit their website or email [email protected].

To donate to the Nymboida Community Bushfire Fund, click here.

Read more on Nymboida and how other communities are beginning to rebuild their lives in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale January 30.

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