Anne and Peter Cormick evacuated and returned five times before bushfire finally claimed their beloved Deua River Valley home on the NSW South Coast. Despite the summer stress and grief, they have regrouped and plan to rebuild. Last week we told Anne's story. Today, we share Peter's.
Amid a summer of fire, retired surveyor Peter Cormick can mark the spot where a dragon paused for breath before devouring his home.
At the intersection of Larrys Mountain Rd and I Ridge Rd, north-west of Moruya, he points north to the solid containment line he had so admired in the New Year.
"This is a significant location," he says.
Three weeks after the December 31 bushfire blasted through Bimbimbie and Mogo to the coast, it was the turn of those further south.
"This is the fire which attacked Moruya," the Deua River landholder said of the January 23 blaze which took so many by surprise.
"If you go along I Ridge Rd there are places that make parts of the (New Year's Eve) fire look like a cool burn. It is unbelievable."
Further down Larrys Mountain Rd, he shows where the fire jumped the road and a gully on that Thursday afternoon and roared over the ridge to his Araluen Rd home. Drone shots show how it funnelled through the Cormick's property east of the river on its path to Moruya.
A green slope below the rubble remained as a bizarre foil. Just across the river, a neighbour was spared the main blast.
Peter and his wife Anne were grateful for the Forestry containment line which had, through January, kept the beast at bay.
"It was a magnificent containment line," Peter said.
On January 22, fire north of the line was "just smouldering here and there".
"We spoke with a forestry worker and he said, 'yeah, we are going to be dousing that, it is under control'."
It seemed everything that could be done was. For weeks the couple had been "constantly on edge". They had evacuated and returned five times, but there had been some welcome rain.
"That Wednesday we thought, 'okay, we can relax a bit'," Peter said. "We even unhitched the trailer, took some things out of the suitcases."
Even so, they knew the forecast was not good.
Peter, a former Rural Fire Service volunteer, had spent thousands on sprinklers and mitigation measures.
Two-inch suction and delivery hoses, risers, taps, sprinklers counted for nothing ...
"I filled the dam up the day before in anticipation," he said. Yet no-one in the shire was ready for what the next day delivered. By mid-morning, the wind was rising and the couple began packing to leave.
Then, "at about 11am, from seemingly nowhere, a very strong, hot northerly wind struck," Peter said. "Preparations for departure were in full swing.
"At about 12.30pm, with the wind significantly increasing, a family member who had been at the top of Larrys Mountain Rd to get reception, returned to join the impending escape.
"He said he saw no fire at Larrys, just five minutes away, but the danger could not have been more keenly felt. As far as we knew, there was no fire north of us, but it felt as though a furnace was fast approaching.
"Something of a panicked loading of whatever could be grabbed took place. Anne felt the heat approaching and was having trouble standing against the wind as we jumped into the car.
"It was very scary. I like to think I am a fairly good judge of wind speed and have no doubt the wind was at least 100km/h."
The inferno that roared through from that direction half an hour later would barely be held on the outskirts of Moruya. Further south, fire would kill a man in his Bumbo Creek home, north-west of Bodalla.
"I remember looking at my watch as we left," Peter said. "It showed two minutes past one.
"As we tore along the road towards Moruya, we could see up on our left the ridge absolutely ablaze; it was like 'end-of-world' stuff."
They sped towards town but "it was keeping pace".
The Wandera communication tower had previously burned, preventing emergency communications.
By the time a warning pinged on their phone at 1.17pm, "our place was gone".
"It was just a little bit late," he said.
Peter said neighbours on the other side of the river later told him his home was probably gone by 1.05pm to 1.10pm: "I had a two-inch suction hose from the dam and two-inch delivery hose, with risers going down the hill with taps and sprinklers off it, covering the house and sheds. They were all going, but they counted for nothing.
"They did not get a chance. The sprinklers would have only been going for five minutes, whereas on each of the previous evacuations, I practically emptied the dam and my tank with the sprinklers going flat out and then siphoning once the petrol ran out. The whole place was beautiful, wet and green, but (on January 23) that did not happen.
"We just did not expect it."
Peter has lost the things a practical bush-dweller prizes: ironbark decking grown and milled on site; timber set aside to season for the next project; "the best toilet in the world" with a view, of course, of the bush.
There were well-equipped work sheds and a fleet of old cars done up, one awaiting registration.
There were "my beautiful generator - my pride and joy", an off-grid system, tools, fire pumps, an enviable Rayburn slow-combustion cooker and more.
When it was time to down tools for the day, there were about $60,000 worth of "quality" books to peruse.
"All my beautiful books; all destroyed; I had thousands," Peter said.
Saved were his Lucas timber mill, a dour old tractor, and a shipping container dug in for storage on the green slope.
Now it is shipping containers in which the Cormick's will start their voyage back up-river, via Queanbeyan company Stack Space.
The firm will use one-trip, high-cube containers to create a home, a haven to withstand Bushfire Attack Level 40. Returning was no easy decision.
"When we left there was no way in the world we would ever come back, Anne and I agreed," Peter said. "It was such a terrifying experience and increasingly, as each summer came along, it was an ordeal.
"Never mind death adders in the kitchen, it is just this constant fire threat; some ratbag dropping a cigarette butt. We are just sitting ducks."
A conversation in the first shell-shocked days after the fire with retired Air Commodore John Oddie, who led Australia's response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, set a fresh course.
The couple had visited a Batemans Bay distribution centre.
"By happenstance, we met John, who was looking to help those who lost their homes," Peter said. "He is a lovely compassionate guy."
Through him, the couple became firmly moored to the idea of shipping containers for their new home.
Inspired, and with insurer AAMI "totally on board", rebuilding was on the drawing board.
Meeting Eurobodalla Shire Council's planner Mark Brain, "a lovely guy", the fear of bureaucratic roadblocks abated.
Peter has on occasion been an outspoken critic of the council, but backs the shire's stance towards those who lost their homes.
"The council has decided to make things easier for people to reestablish themselves," Peter said. "When I met Mark I was immensely encouraged by how positive and supportive they are."
He gives the State Government-funded clean-up crew a "high distinction".
"Laing O'Rourke has cleared the place extraordinarily well; they have been outstanding," Peter said.
"Our friend and dozer operator extraordinaire, John Clout, has prepared the building site to perfection."
The new home will have a larger asset protection zone.
"I know people have objected to taking trees down, but they have no idea," Peter said. "I have no time for labels, but since people normally address others in those terms, yes, I am a 'greenie'. So, too, are most farmers, in their own way. You do not come to live in a beautiful valley if you do not enjoy the environment, love it and respect it.
"I use wood for firewood and appropriately for milling, but often people pontificate from their native-wood floor or chair about what others should or should not do.
"I don't have much time for that. One needs to experience the terror of nearly being incinerated to be able to speak with any sort of authority about what should or should not be done to reduce the risks. All tree removal has been, and will be, done in accordance with relevant legislation."
Dangerous scrub will go, but after 24 years on the land, there remains room for sentiment.
"There are trees on this property that I have said to: 'don't you worry, you are never coming down'," Peter said.
They include "magnificent ironbarks, hundreds of years old". One burned specimen will resprout but its blackened trunk will be "a permanent reminder of what has happened, so you can't fall asleep".
Retaining it will compensate for the loss of a venerable bottlebrush which "attracted all the bird life in the world".
If Anne treated her azaleas "like little children", Peter admits to spoiling that flowering giant: "I used to give it extra water and talk to it."
Bushfire survivors, too, need "extra water" of the bureaucratic kind. How governments and insurers respond is critical, Peter says.
"Prior to the assessor being here, it was weighing so heavily, because your future depends so much on how it is dealt with," he said.
"The assessor was tremendous, he was ultra-reasonable and fair and weighed everything up."
Step-by-step, to his enduring gratitude, help came and barriers dissolved: "When you have people supporting you, when you have this monumental change in your life ... you have no idea. The community support has been extraordinary. We are so proud to be Aussies." Recounting this is the only time practical Pete breaks down.
The heat of the fire is evident in the melted aluminium and dashboard glass left from his fleet of cars.
He's learned valuable lessons and hopes authorities have too.
"Any polypipe that was exposed was gone; anything above the ground has to be galvanised," he said.
"You simply do not have plastic showing itself. It is hopeless. The government, if they want to reduce costs and save lives, needs to set up a reliable communication system. When we have blackouts we are all stuffed.
"Lack of information is a recipe for disaster. If people are not informed about the circumstances surrounding them, they cannot respond to them. Everyone should have walkie-talkies, good ones, in their car.
"When the mobile phone system and internet goes down, we need satellite access, generators distributed."
Some say no-one should live in the bush, but Peter says the summer fires showed "nowhere is safe".
"Wherever you might be, you need to try to make it as safe as possible," he said.
He believes relatively self-sufficient rural dwellers tread more lightly than city dwellers.
"I say we modify the environment so we can live here and enjoy it," he said.
"The farming land we have which is necessary for life was once not cleared. It is justified to clear in a sustainable way so you create park-like areas."
The elephant in the park is climate change.
"I am a rational person and I know that the climate is changing and I know that human behaviour has tipped it over the edge and if anyone does not believe that, that they just need to go to the NASA website, for example," Peter said.
"We are living in increasingly dangerous times."
Peter, now in his 70s, retired with heart problems some years ago from the RFS. He is critical that Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not listen to the former NSW RFS Commissioner Greg Mullins and peers who warned early in 2019 of the looming disaster. "It was reported the PM refused to meet Mr Mullins - extraordinary," Peter said.
"They need to listen to the experts in the RFS.
"The Defence Force should have been brought in right at the beginning. It was a national emergency. The army needs to be trained for this sort of thing and, probably more importantly, the airforce.
"The RFS did a magnificent job, against the odds, but we should not have to rely on a volunteer force, with many members too old to be doing what is required of a firefighter.
"Federal and state governments need to devise an alternative force, one that relies on the ADF."