Anne and Peter Cormick evacuated and returned five times before bushfire finally claimed their beloved Deua River Valley home. Despite the summer stress and grief, they have regrouped and plan to rebuild. In the first of a two-part series we share Anne's story.
Anne Cormick is both dreamer and survivor.
The retired physiotherapist lived happily for 24 years up the Araluen Road, off the grid, with her self-confessed "bog Irish" husband Peter and their border collies.
In the first weeks after their Deua Valley home was fire bombed, the dreamer in her would return in the early hours ... from miles away.
"At 2am, I would wake and 'walk' through my house, room by room," she said.
"I remembered what we did and what was there.
"Quietly, the tears would come."
These were the farewells she had no chance to make on that panicked January Thursday, when 100km/h winds drove fire from the north down the valley.
Now, the survivor in Anne is ready to return.
Peter has been project managing ideas and plans for their future home - and whatever resprouts on that former dairy farm will be built to Bushfire Attack Level 40.
"It will be small, compact, easy care and fire-resistant," Anne said.
"I am emotional when I think of the devastation to animals and plants and trees in the river valley, but trust in bush recovery. I can imagine us there."
By the disastrous afternoon of January 23 the Cormicks had already evacuated five times, each to a different household, so as not to overload their friends.
"We did not like to go back to the same person twice," Anne said. "We had our dog, cat and chickens with us."
Just that week, they had dared to hope: "We had rain and had started unpacking our suitcases. We had had a quiet week and thought we had made it. Forestry had put in a containment line on our block. I was feeling safe."
Then the weather turned on the valley.
The Wandera communications tower had burned down so "we didn't get the warning".
"The wind suddenly got up around 11am," Anne said.
"It started to feel really threatening. There was smoke and winds of about 100km/h an hour.
"We were catching our chickens and Pete said 'we have to go'. I could feel the heat from the ridge."
They had minutes to flee, driving as fast as they could, barely able to outpace the flames.
They sheltered at a friend's home near the Moruya Hospital and, as the fire hit Yarragee Rd, grabbed hoses.
"We were sitting on his wall with hoses spraying and meantime our house had been destroyed," Anne said.
"We did not know, but we thought it would go.
"We stayed with him for the next four nights."
In the dark, in the days after, a poem came unbidden.
Anne called it "Cry of the River Deua:
"Will you come to find me after the brutal fire, when my dry river stones are cooled by flowing water, when soft green tippets appear on my burnt river gums and the greyling and tiny smelt swim again in dappled sunlit waters?
"Will you come to find me when the Deua River water dragons return to their logs, when the azure kingfisher comes back to his nest, and the eels swim in my deeper pools?
"Will you come to protect me when man-made climate changes cause drought, when fierce, hot summers dry out our forests, and gold mines so close take from my waters?"
"I would think of my grandchildren coming back and we'd enjoy it all again," Anne said.
When not in drought, "you could drink the water you were swimming in".
"My grandkids would camp on the sand. They used to find all sorts of little things in the water; little insects, ferrymen, on top of the water; tiny fish. I just wanted them to come back.
"It is important to feel the emotion for what has been lost but what hopefully will recover. People who live up the valley feel that about the river."
Anne loved to "look across at this beautiful bank of ferns and ribbon gums".
"You know casuarina trees when they have that sparkle after rain? It looks like diamonds," she said.
"To see that dry river bed and those thirsty river gums burnt was so cruel.
"It was such a fierce burn, but it will come back."
What can't come back are those things left behind in the rush: a necklace from "a grandmother I never knew who died in the Spanish Flu of 1919".
Will you come to find me when the Deua River water dragons return to their logs, when the azure kingfisher comes back to his nest ..?
"My grandfather had a beautiful set of china hand-painted for his wife; my mum had some lovely blue Venetian glass; crystal table chandeliers," she said.
"It was so difficult to pack. It is all gone."
Anne said Deua Valley RFS Captain Steve Marbrow and his crew were trapped on the other side of the blaze.
The couple saw him two days after the fire.
"He looked so tired, but he kept going," Anne said.
"He said, 'I am so sorry, we could not save your property; we couldn't and nobody could'.
"He was exhausted and emotional."
Anne is full of gratitude to the brigade.
"There was so much kindness in the preparation to protect us," she said.
One volunteer was being treated for cancer, "but still went out with the boys", to check householders' evacuation plans.
That brigade had been fighting since spring, when fire threatened Braidwood.
Then the Currowan fire broke over the Kings Highway and an illegal burn spread into the Wandera State Forest and the Deua National Park.
The crew had 30 properties in the valley to worry about.
"Even though the orchards burned out, they saved the farmhouse buildings and all the way down they protected people's homes," Anne said.
She said forestry crews worked 14-hour days to build containment lines through January.
"They had put a big containment line at Larry's Mountain Road where the fire was held the previous time Moruya was threatened," she said.
NPWS crews had provided vital intelligence about terrain and weather, "where the winds are going to catch the current".
Anne thanks all those who backed them in the aftermath, from a "wonderful 83-year-old Dutch-Australian from Cootamundra", who manned the St Vincent de Paul desk at the Batemans Bay Recovery Centre, to whoever packed toiletries bags for them.
Anne usually donated to Vinnies, but it was her turn to accept.
"They said, 'people who support St Vinnies have left funds for people like you'," she said.
"We moved across to Salvos and the same thing happened. It is such a help; that Aussies would back their own and come to the fore and say 'I care about what has happened to you' meant so much to me."
Matthew Hatcher and others provided clothes, essentials, pet food and much more at a distribution centre.
"The thought that somebody had put clothes there for us, had thought of us ... it meant so much," she said.
"Now, when I reflect on generosity is about the only time I tear up."
Despite reports of some insurance companies playing hard-ball with under-insured owners, the couple has no complaints.
"AAMI has been very good to us," Anne said. "Having photos, and showing the insurance assessor what life was like before our property became a war zone, he had a much better understanding of what we had lost.
"Initially, finding a home to rent with pets was going to be problematic but a kind friend, my French teacher, took us all into her home for the next four weeks." The couple is now renting through another good friend, at Tuross Head, while their home is being rebuilt.
Why do they want rebuild?
"We love our block of land and we want to wake in the morning hearing the lyre birds singing down by the river and go to sleep hearing the chorus of frogs on the dam," Anne said.
"We enjoy sharing life in the valley, with a wonderful group of people who may live some kilometres apart but who remain connected."