Skip to main navigation Skip to main content

A place to call home

On an isolated cattle farm that was hit hard by the Black Summer bushfires the Sturgess family are building a new home for their friend Smiley, with the help of two Red Cross emergency relief grants.

Smiley and Carley on the foundations of his worker's cottage that was destroyed by a bushfire.

When bushfires tore through a remote property near Batlow in New South Wales earlier this year, retired man Smiley lost the home he had found with a local farming family.

But thanks to two Red Cross grants, farmers Andrea and Paul Sturgess have been able to build a new home for their friend. ”He lost everything he had … [The grants] will help greatly towards the worker’s cottage to give Smiley a place of his own again,” says Andrea. “To the Australian people who donate we can only say: you are all amazing.”

With the grant money, they’re converting two shipping containers into a cottage in the bush for 63-year-old Smiley. “We’ve got to build a big shed over the whole lot. We could put a bit of hay in the side of it … which will be warm in the winter for him. We’re going to find some second-hand tin to put on this shed to give him a bit of cover from wind.”

Smiley had been living in the cottage on the Sturgess’ cattle farm for 14 months before it was destroyed by the bushfire.

“We inherit homeless older people, I don’t know why but we do. We used to have another old chap living with us for 10 years … we built the hut for him and he ended up dying here, which is what he wished for.“

After that the cottage stood empty for a few years until their son Mitchell befriended Smiley.

We heard he was living in his truck under the bridge in the winter in Tumut. We went ‘Right, we can’t have this’. So up Smiley come with us.

Andrea Sturgess

Smiley helps the couple out around the farm one day each week. “He’s an old diesel mechanic and he always makes sure the old tractor or anything like that is running in tip-top condition … He’s a good help, he probably does more than what he should. It’s a give-give sort of thing … and it’s given him a purpose in life too.”

Smiley and Andrea next to one of the shipping containers that will be transformed into his new home. 

On Saturday, January 4, Andrea, her husband, their son and Smiley watched from a high point on the farm as the fire engulfed the town of Batlow, some 5km away, “as the crow flies”.

My husband had 40 years in the fire service. He knew that last week it wasn’t going to be stopped. He said, ‘We’ve got to get ready for it because it’s coming.’ … you couldn’t get out anyway, you just had to have a plan and work it.

“We had plenty of water and we were well prepared. Our eucalyptus oil distillery, it’s got a pipe right along the roof which sprays water. That was our backup plan – we were all going in that with our hoses because that would have been the safest shed.”

Just before the fire swept onto the farm – as they moved their cattle to safe rocky ground – birds began falling out of the sky, she says. “That was the fear that you got … We had 42 birds dead out on top here before the fire hit. They were falling out of the sky with no oxygen.”

For an hour and 54 minutes the family, with Smiley at their side, fought together to save their farm.

“Because he’s got a big beard he couldn’t go out much because he couldn’t wear a mask or goggles … We had one shed that only had part water on the roof and I said [to Smiley], ‘You watch that place and every so often I want you to run around that workshop and make sure there are no sparks anywhere, plus take care of the cats and dogs in the house.’

“When it did come close to the kitchen window … we both tore out with hoses, I worked one end and he worked the other.“

The fire burnt across 99.9% of their property – which is surrounded by state forest – destroying pastures, fences, their eucalyptus forest and Smiley’s cottage. Andrea says she doesn’t know how they saved their home, cattle, workshop and eucalyptus oil distillery.

Smiley's cottage after the January 4 bushfire.

All the couple’s money has gone into saving and repairing their farm. “We did not have the funds to build him another worker’s cottage. We didn’t want to tell him to leave because he’d be homeless again … If we didn’t have that help from Red Cross we wouldn’t have got this far in building him another place.”

While they finish off the cottage Smiley is living in a caravan on the farm and is doing well, Andrea says. He also received a Red Cross grant to help replace his lost belongings. “He’s as happy as … and there’s a few friends helping him too, a few of our son’s [friends], young people.”

Now Smiley has a bigger space he’s collecting some of his belongings he had left with friends across the state. “He wants to put in a veggie garden over there and things, it’s given him a purpose, actually. He’s really loving it … he’s enjoying having a place to put all his stuff together.”

Smiley and the Sturgess family are building a shed over the new cottage.

Smiley is a private person and Andrea has never asked him how he got his nickname. In fact, for a long time, she didn’t know his real name.

He reminds her of the other older man who once lived in the cottage and whose ashes are scattered near its ruins. “[Smiley] fits in rather well … He’s very kind, he’ll do anything for anybody. That’s why he probably fits in good here because we’d probably do anything for anybody [too].

That’s the sort of people we are I suppose … we help people, we don’t take more than what we need and this is just who we are. You can’t let people sleep in their trucks under the Tumut Bridge in the middle of winter, you just can’t.

It’s been a tough six-plus months, says Andrea. First drought then fire, then rains that destroyed the 3km access road to their farm. And now a caterpillar infestation has killed off any of their burnt eucalyptus trees that were starting to sprout again.

“It’s just so overwhelming and you think, ‘Oh, where do you go?’  And then you look at your place and you walk out and you go, ‘Oh God, everything’s black, yep, not today’ walk back in. 

“It’s emotional and you think you’re alright … I learnt how to talk, laugh and cry all at the same time.  I’d say to people, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to burst out howling now but I’m fine.’

“[I am] very appreciative we live in the country that we live in. You don’t realise until something like this happens how everybody does pull together, it’s amazing,” says Andrea.

“We will get there like everybody else …. It’s hard but us Aussies keep going.”

Find out more about how our supporters are helping bushfire-affected communities