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Australian village scorched by wildfires struggles with loss

NERRIGUNDAH – Ash Graham’s dog, Kozi, wakes him at 8 a.m., eager for his morning walk. Then Graham realizes he was dreaming, and gets up from the one-man tent he’s been sleeping in each night since a wildfire swept through his village on New Year’s Eve.

Graham, a volunteer firefighter, resumes his weary search for Kozi: hiking south down the dried-up creek bed, past the wallabies that were burned to death as they fled the fire, knocking on doors, trying to keep track of the grids he’s already covered.

Graham’s Austrian wife, Melanie, died from cancer a year or so ago, and his house burned down in the Dec. 31 fire. His truck and his few belongings are with him in the yard of the fire station, the last place he saw Kozi. Graham had left his dog at the station and was driving around warning people to leave when 3-year-old Kozi bolted as flames approached the building.

“He’s my little man. He’s been there for me,” Graham said, his face crumpling. “I can’t give up, really, until I find him.”

Graham's tiny village of Nerrigundah in southeastern Australia has been among the places hardest hit by the country's devastating wildfires, with about two-thirds of the homes destroyed. A man in his 70s who lived near the village was killed in the disaster — one of the 27 lives claimed by the wildfires, which also have destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Like many small communities in Australia that have been scorched by the wildfires, Nerrigundah will never be the same.

Once a thriving gold mining town with over 1,000 people, the village, located in New South Wales state, has lately been home to just a few dozen who love the peace of the Australian bush, a place far from the bustling cities where dogs can run free. But now a landmark building that was once a store has burned down. The village's old schoolhouse is also gone, and so is the building that used to be the church.

The wildfire caught Nerrigundah by surprise, after it was expected to hit a day or two later. And nobody could believe its ferocity.

The Threlfall family home was one of only a half dozen houses to survive. Outside stands an exploded gas canister, its sides peeled open like arms seeking an embrace. The stone sculptures made by Ron Threlfall, the fire captain, that depict people in anguish now have scorch marks running up their sides.

Skye Threlfall, 21, who was home for the Christmas holidays along with her two siblings, said she woke up at 4 a.m. on New Year’s Eve.

“My mum was screaming to us, and then we all ran out and looked up at the sky over here and it was just red,” she said. “You could see the flames up in there, and it was just roaring.”

She said the fire closed in like a storm. She screamed at her sister to come to the car, terrified she wouldn’t make it.

Across the other side of town, Lyle Stewart, 65, was retching from the thick black smoke as he tried to save his house by dousing it with water. Then his hose caught fire.

“I thought, ‘Time’s come,’" Stewart said.

But he and his buddy made it to Stewart's car. The air conditioning helped filter the gunk they were breathing. It took them 90 minutes to drive the short distance to the fire station as they used a chainsaw to cut through a half dozen flaming trees that had fallen across the road.

Skye Threlfall and her sister also made it to the fire station. But inside, the howling winds buckled the roller doors off their supports.

“Embers were just flying through,” Threlfall said.

Residents leaned up against the doors, trying to keep the fire out. Marilyn Brennan poured water on the embers as they blasted through, then retreated to a back room with some of the others.

“Down on the ground, hugging each other, hoping like hell we’d get out,” she said.

Townsfolk credit the sprinkler system installed on the exterior of the fire station a few years back for saving them. Such sprinklers aren’t standard at rural fire stations, but the town had raised money for its own.

Residents are still coming to terms with what they have lost. Stewart, who moved here in 1985, had just finished restoring a caravan that has been reduced to ash. Then there are the thousands of comics his son had collected and that he was storing. What really irks him, he jokes, is the carton of Victoria Bitter beer he’d just bought and hadn’t taken a single drink from.

“This is everything we’ve worked for for the last 35 years, gone,” he said.

He doesn’t know whether he’ll return.

“My wife and I don’t want to leave here. But when you get older it’s a bit different, too. I’m not as fit as what I was when I was 35,” he said.

Brennan and her husband, Colin, said they’re planning to rebuild.

“I’ll be back,” Colin Brennan said. “This is home. This is where I live. This is me, here. I’ve got a life.”

Skye Threlfall said she hopes the community survives and rebuilds, but she knows that quite a few people won’t return.

“It’s just scary, because you don’t want to go through this again,” she said.

Graham said he plans to cut down some trees on his property to make it safe so he can set up his camp trailer. He keeps meaning to leave from the fire station yard, although he can’t quite bring himself to do it just yet. And he said that Nerrigundah is home.

“I’ll never move,” he said.

But then he considers it a bit more. A roofer by trade, Graham worked all sorts of jobs before spending six years caring for his wife before she died. He said maybe he could spend some time in Austria, where Melanie is buried, or maybe in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, where the air is cooler.