Real Life

‘Everything is gone’: An expat Kiwi opens up about losing her home in the Australian bush fires

''Just the smell of smoke puts me on edge. There are reminders every day,'' says expat Kiwi Patty Chinnock.

It was supposed to be Patty Chinnock’s forever home.

Echoing with the laughter of kids and grandkids, it was meant to see the expat Kiwi through a happy retirement.

It’s now little more than ash, incinerated in the 1000-degree New Year’s Eve inferno that ripped through the tiny township of Conjola Park, a close-knit community on the south coast of New South Wales.

The fire also consumed the house next door, belonging to her late husband’s Keith’s brother, destroying a cherished family stronghold.

Patty feels like she has lost Keith all over again, with all the memories and mementos of their life together now little more than ashes.

“Everything is gone,” Patty says through tears.

“Thinking of all the things that are lost – the sentimental things that you just can’t replace – that’s the most heartbreaking.”

Patty feels she’s lost her husband Keith all over again.

Patty and Keith adored their life in the little house, with his brother Stephen as their neighbour.

Until Keith’s untimely death 11 years ago, the brothers were like peas in a pod, says the couple’s son Jesse.

“When my father first moved over to Australia, they lived together in my uncle’s house,” Jesse says.

“Then the house next door came up for sale and my father bought it. It’s been pretty special having the two family homes there. It was a real beautiful family place.”

Patty (68) has lived in the community, where everyone knows everyone, for almost 20 years.

She remembers Keith – a former custodian of Khandallah Park in Wellington, who managed both Khandallah Pool and Johnsonville’s Keith Spry Pool for a number of years – being overjoyed at finding the perfect rustic home he had always wanted.

Tragically, Keith passed away from lung cancer in 2008.

“It was going to be our retirement home,” an emotional Patty says.

“This feels like a second loss.”

On the day of the fire, Patty had driven her daughter and her daughter’s family to Bomaderry to catch a train to Sydney.

With no inkling of what was going to happen, she called in to see a friend in a nearby suburb on her way back to Conjola Park.

“I got home and there was still no sign of any fire. Then, when I realised it might be close, I tried to hose the house down – that’s one of the things you are told to do – but there was hardly any water pressure, and then it got down to a trickle.”

When Patty heard tooting and saw a car being driven down the road with its driver waving their arms out of the window, she knew it was time to leave.

As she leapt in her car, with only a small backpack and “one or two photos I’d grabbed off the wall”, a huge plume of black smoke appeared and she saw a tree in flames.

There were no police, no fire crews, no official warnings.

“Looking back now, I guess I just panicked. That hour that I used to hose could have been used to get precious things from my home.”

Patty’s home was razed in the fires on New Year’s Eve.

Those precious things include irreplaceable family heirlooms and two generations of photos.

She found herself in a queue of cars alongside other fleeing residents, with the smoke so thick at one stage that she couldn’t see the car in front of her.

“Both sides of the highway were burning, that was the scariest bit. I remember thinking, ‘Goodbye, home,’ and that I might not be able to come back.”

Jesse (37) broke the news that the home had been razed.

“He was so upset,” says Patty through tears.

“You see footage on TV and you see photographs, but to see it physically is absolutely devastating and something I think only those who have lived the experience themselves can understand. It is ground zero. “

Patty, originally from Otaki, is now staying with Jesse and his wife Tammy and daughter Shye Aroha (7), and she is all too aware that it will take time to rebuild their lives.

“Just the smell of smoke sets me off now, puts me on edge. There are reminders every day of what has happened.”

Patty’s son Jesse says the destruction is just beginning to sink in.

Says Jesse, an arborist who is clearing trees to make the roads safe, “I’m standing on a road right now. It’s completely and utterly burnt out. There are still stumps smouldering, so in a sense there is still active fire.”

He too is near to tears, and emotionally and physically distraught.

“No-one saw this coming, no-one. The whole east coast of Australia is basically on fire. It is enormous. It’s just starting to hit home now.

“When it’s all happening, you don’t have time to think, but now you’ve got time to reflect and it’s very difficult to come to terms with.”

Friends from his high school years have set up a Givealittle page to help the family, which has raised more than $16,000 so far.

“Everybody’s been so generous,” says Patty, “and we’ve had amazing support from our friends back home in Aotearoa. I cry every time I think about it. It means a lot.”

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