Months after devastating bushfires levelled much of the Bega Valley, the hardest hit are wondering what happened to the dollars pledged to rebuild their lives.
Months after devastating bushfires levelled much of the Bega Valley, the hardest hit are wondering what happened to the dollars pledged to rebuild their lives.

Cobargo bushfire victims slam slow recovery

The bushfire beaten residents of the Bega Valley say the millions and billions of dollars pledged by charities and governments to rebuild their lives have yet to materialise.

But the organisations say they're committed to the long term recovery of the homes and businesses that still lay in rubble five months on.

Jim Neil from Cobargo is living in a donated caravan that leaks after losing his home in the New Year's bushfires. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Jim Neil from Cobargo is living in a donated caravan that leaks after losing his home in the New Year's bushfires. Picture: Jonathan Ng

The Red Cross raised about $200 million to help those afflicted by the bushfires over summer.

They've handed out $73m since January.

The Salvation Army raised $41m and has distributed $20m.

St Vincent de Paul raised $22.9m and handed out $13.5m.

The charities all say much of the remaining funds will be spent on long term community rebuilding efforts which could take as long as three years.

The federal government, too, promised $2 billion and NSW's state government committed a further billion.

But, with green grass sprouting from black soil in the Bega Valley months after the fires, many are still living in caravans around the town of Cobargo.

The main drag is still full of debris, clean up crews are only now getting to work clearing what was once the historic row of shops.

Long time resident Jim Neil said the recovery is moving too slowly.

"Everyone from Sydney or up the coast says to me 'aren't you happy you got the money?' I say I only got my insurance money, and others don't even have that."

Mr Neil drove through a wall of flame as his house, shed, and caravans were incinerated.

He counts himself lucky he survived but he's still living in a donated caravan that leaks sewerage on the dirt patch that used to be his home.

Troy Pauling in the shed he has built for his family to live in on their Yowrie property after losing their home in the New Year's bushfires. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Troy Pauling in the shed he has built for his family to live in on their Yowrie property after losing their home in the New Year's bushfires. Picture: Jonathan Ng

He's been given $20,000 from the Red Cross but says without his insurance money he'd be like many others in town - "stuffed".

"There are a lot of people this fire has mentally drained, they can't ask for help," he said.

"All the charities in the world can't help that. No matter how much money. But the town is just getting cleaned up - it's just happening now."

The Red Cross has handed out 3,900 bushfire grants since the start of the year and said it was handing out a million dollars a day for some time.

"Our approach was first to get immediate assistance grants paid and most of those funds have been distributed but some remain available for people yet to seek help," a spokesman said.

"We have made additional funds available to support people as they look to rebuild as part of our medium to long-term response and we're distributing those funds each day."

They pledged to keep ramping up the recovery and would work "as long as needed". They urged people to come forward to apply for more grants.

"For many people it takes time to deal with the trauma of the fires and to understand what support might be most helpful, some may not have applied because they are trying to cope alone or are thinking others need help more than them," the spokesman said.

Cobargo publican Dave Allen has been sorting accommodation for some of the district's hardest hit.

Jim Neil with his dog Boof. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Jim Neil with his dog Boof. Picture: Jonathan Ng

He said he knew one woman had, until recently, been sleeping in a car and another couple were sleeping in his pub before they moved to a caravan with an annex.

"It's crazy that in Australia people are living like this, you don't realise how bad it is in some places until you see it," he said.

He said governments were "organising plenty of committees and meetings" while the survivors sleep in caravans next to piles of wreckage. And the funds in charity war chests "have to be spent now".

Almost everyone on the receiving end of a charity grant says the money arrived quickly and the online applications, while stringent, were do-able.

"But we've spent about $70,000 from our insurance on replacing the cars and getting a shed up so we can live, and we've got about $40,000 back in grants," Yowrie dad Troy Pauling said.

"We'll scrape through rebuilding the house on insurance."

The ruins of the home he nearly burned to death in are still sitting metres from the caravan and shed he and his family now live in. And it's taking a mental toll.

"The kids cry, they don't want to be here," he said.

"If we got this cleared we'd have the ball rolling but it's just way too slow."

Shane Fitzsimmons, in his new role as Resilience Commissioner, told The Daily Telegraph he would "stand with" the bushfire survivors through the traumatic recovery.

"Whether it is emergency accommodation, rolling out Minderoo pods, trauma support, business advice, financial support, funding to rebuild towns and communities, support is there, and it will be ongoing," he said.

"Surviving bushfires is a traumatic experience and we have strived to make it as easy as possible for people to engage with insurers, government and other support agencies."

"Money is getting through, but obviously we're always looking to make the process more streamlined, more efficient and more timely."

There were 2448 homes destroyed and 4600 properties marked as damaged by the fires and just clearing the debris is expected to cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Contractor Lang O'Rourke has so far cleared about 1000 properties and is expected to finish up by the end of June.

Troy Pauling built a shed for his family. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Troy Pauling built a shed for his family. Picture: Jonathan Ng

The $52m raised by comedian Celeste Barber is before the courts as the NSW RFS, the recipient of the massive donation, tries to change the strict legal rules governing how it's spent.

The RFS wants to help victims by passing the money to other charities while also using it to support injured fireys or support the families of those heroes who lost their lives.

But they'll have to wait until later this month for the next court date.

In nearby Bega a hand painted sign is screwed to the back of a ute that captures the greatest fear of the residents - being forgotten so soon after tragedy.

"$2b bushfire fund - where is it?" It asks of the government's massive financial package.

"Homes, farms, businesses are rubble and ruins. Communities and charities are helping out."

"ADF has come and gone - was that it? Bushfire survivors - forgotten people."

Originally published as Cobargo bushfire victims slam slow recovery