Whilst the dedication and hard work of firefighters and the community meant there were only minimal losses during the 2015 Northcliffe (O’Sullivan) and Boddington (Lower Hotham) bushfires, an unfortunate few returned home to ashes.
Janet Leigh and her partner Jeff were amongst the unlucky ones. The couple lost the Meerup Road property they had called home since 2008, when they moved to the area to establish a truffle farm. You can read their story below or watch the video here.
Janet and Jeff had experienced the threat of a Northcliffe bushfire before in 2012 and emerged unscathed but nothing could prepare them for the blaze that ravaged through Northcliffe earlier this year, robbing them of their home.
Janet said they evacuated their home on Tuesday 4 February when alerts were issued for their area, after the bushfire was sparked by lightning in dense forest in the Shannon National Park. They went to stay with friends in Pemberton.
“On Thursday, a neighbour called us to say they had been on our property fighting the fire along with volunteer firefighters and the fire front had come through,” Janet said.
“He was unsure about the state of our house, but thought it was damaged.
“We went to the community meeting in Pemberton later that day and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) advised the public about the loss of the first property and the general location of it.
“They suggested that any concerned individuals should speak privately to the Incident Controller.
“We knew our neighbours had been impacted but their homes were alright, so it was looking like we were the likely candidates.”
Once it was confirmed, Janet said they accepted what they were told but needed to see it for themselves.
“We felt like we needed to get onto our property to be able to accept the reality in an emotional sense. We also immediately started thinking about what we needed to take care of,” she said.
“In terms of going through the grieving process, we didn’t get much time in denial. It was hectic from the very moment of being told as there was so much we needed to do.”
Her partner Jeff was able to go to the property the next day and faced the devastating scene.
“He was met by DFES personnel, a psychologist and a chaplain, who introduced themselves and gave him space to wander around the ruins.
“He found the whole thing surreal and was a bit detached from the emotional side of things.
“It wasn’t until a few days later that we properly felt the extent of the loss. By that time we had both made it back to the farm and set about restoring the irrigation system for our orchard.
“It was gut wrenching to see the sight of our house in ruins every day. One of our biggest priorities was to get the ruins removed - we needed to return to the place to being a farm rather than a site of devastation.”
The couple found strong support from the community after the fire.
“The most significant thing for us was the privacy afforded to us, by the care taken by the fire services to protect it,” Janet said.
“Our local community were quick to offer help, but it was a difficult period of adjustment for us once time and word of mouth made us known to everyone.
“It was a humbling experience - an experience which taught us a lot about accepting charity gracefully and being open to all manner of gifts large or small. We recognised that above and beyond how it helped us, this was also important for those giving, for the community itself.”
Janet said they made the right decision by evacuating their home.
“We left after attending the Tuesday community meeting and finding out there was a significant wind change expected,” Janet said.
“We knew we weren’t prepared to stay and defend so we had to prepare the house and ourselves for when it was necessary to evacuate.
“We had no firefighting equipment or experience and we also felt that the age of our house meant we couldn’t be sure it was completely proofed against ember attack.
“Most significantly, we were aware that we only had one exit route and that sent us back in the direction of the fire. Staying would be too dangerous.”
Prior to evacuating Janet and Jeff had been keeping themselves informed by attending community meetings, following the bushfire warnings issued on the DFES website and listening to radio broadcasts.
“The fire had been raging for a few days and we’d had time to prepare the property, the house and ourselves to evacuate if the need arose," she said.
“It took us nine hours to prepare the yards, the sheds and the house to have the best chance of surviving the fire without us.
“We also decided to pack some tools onto a trailer. We figured it would be important to have things like chainsaws, generators, axes and other tools should the worst have happened when we returned home.
“We moved everything into the centre of the house, packed a couple of bags of clothes, as well as important documents, photos and other things with sentimental value.
“These were difficult decisions and brought home the brutal reality of what we could lose.
“After readying the house and farm as much as we could we packed the dogs, said goodbye to the house and left.”
Seven months on, Janet and Jeff are now ready to rebuild. One saving grace is that the oak trees they planted in 2009, which are vital to their budding truffle farm, were saved during the bushfire.
“That means everything to us. Our neighbour and the local volunteer firefighters who were first on the scene knew the value of the trees to us and worked tirelessly to save them.
“Without them we’re not sure we could stay to rebuild, it’s not just money but so much time and energy invested in the long lead time to producing truffles.
“They represent not only our lifestyle change but the means to finance it.
“We’ve been working with insurers, banks, councils and support services. Our house plans are drafted and it’s now time for council approvals.”
Janet said she kept herself very busy during the first half of the year with Unearthed, the inaugural Pemberton autumn festival, which she coordinated.
“We’ve also been completely distracted during 12 blessed weeks of winter doing what we came here to do - farm, hunt for truffles and get on with the trufferie.
“Now that it’s spring, it’s all about the rebuild and we are looking forward to family coming to help.”
As we head into the upcoming bushfire season Janet says her advice to those threatened by bushfire is to know your strengths, concerns and weaknesses.
“Ready your home early and do everything that is advised for bushfire preparedness.
“Knowing you’ve done everything you can to prepare your home makes the decision to evacuate easier.
“While we will build fire resistance into our new home, if we found ourselves in the same situation again I don’t believe we would stay and defend.”
For now Janet says she and Jeff are looking forward to the future.
“The future is all about our trufferie, our new home and getting on with our planned tree change and semi-retirement.”