By Martin Petty
COBARGO, Australia (Reuters) – For two weeks, builder Rod Dunn has been living at a showground in a borrowed caravan, wearing an old coat donated by a friend.
His house, car, sheds and work tools were wiped out by the ferocious New Year bushfires that swept through the Australian town of Cobargo, killing three of its residents and destroying dozens of homes, farms and vehicles.
Though he has lost everything, he counts himself lucky.
“We live in the best place in the world,” he said, nodding his head with certainty. “This has united people like you’d never have imagined.”
Standing outside a shabby caravan with plastic chairs and dogs roaming around, Dunn recalls how a friend risked his life to rescue him from his blazing property, and how strangers from a town 70 km (43.5 miles) away gave him and his wife a tent to sleep in.
“That tent saved us,” said Dunn, a 62-year-old with an unkempt white beard that reaches his chest. “I’m totally overwhelmed by what we’ve seen here, the generosity of mankind.”
Wildfires on a massive scale have killed 29 people since September in Australia, fueled by record temperatures and tinder-dry conditions, turning swathes of farms and woodlands black, and blanketing the sky in haze.
While residents of many of the fire-threatened towns and villages heeded advice to leave and head to evacuation centers elsewhere, Cobargo’s less than 1,000 people chose not to abandon their town.
A handful of fleeing locals set up their caravans and tents at Cobargo’s showground, defying orders by police to move to designated locations outside the town in New South Wales state.
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‘WE STAY AS A COMMUNITY’
Word quickly spread that a commune was forming. Caravans in tow, more evacuees arrived, among them farmers, some bringing horses.
A kitchen, laundry facilities and a food bank were set up, and medics, a counsellor and a chaplain joined to support the displaced. Meetings were nightly and trucks rolled up daily, bringing water, food, animal feeds and huge hay bales for farms.
“We made the call that we stay as a community,” said Tony Allen, a former mayor in the district. “We knew then that was a big risk, it’s breaking every rule in the book, but this is the way to do this. We keep the community together.”
In Cobargo, a town known for its bookstores, century-old buildings and its annual folk festival, shops opened to accept donated goods, putting up signs that said “open to everyone” and offering clothes, linen, blankets and “free hugs”.
A set of amber-coloured firefighter overalls was hung on the fence of one house, with a sign saying “thanks guys”.
Volunteers from elsewhere in Australia helped to clean solar panels, repair farmers’ fences and clear debris from rural roads.
“There has been so much help and support. Everybody looks after each other. There are so many good people here,” said Philippe Ravanel, a Swiss blacksmith, standing in the rubble of a 150-year-old home that he bought in 2006, of which only the fireplace remains.
Hundreds of people flocked to a fundraiser at the local pub, The Cobargo Hotel, cheering and embracing firefighters as army personnel opened their vehicles to children and former sports stars mingled with evacuees and farmers.
Homes are already becoming available. Peter Hisco is moving to Sydney, Australia’s largest city, and will rent his two-storey house to two displaced families. “My wife has a new job in Sydney so we’ll rent both floors out at a reasonable price.”
Former butcher Barry Parkes, 68, who lost his house, two vehicles and his Harley Davidson motorcycle, said friends had asked him to house-sit for them. “We’ve had a lot of people offering us places,” he said.
Rod Dunn, the builder, said a friend had kindly offered him use of his property, rent-free for a year.
“It’s a good place too,” he said, smiling. “I should know, I built the bloody place.”
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)