“It sounded like a hundred jets, just this roar getting louder and louder and louder,” says Matt.
It was 1:30am on 31 December 2019. Matt was asleep at home, when he awoke to what he initially thought was the sound of strong winds. It was only when he looked out his window and saw that everything was orange, he knew it was a bushfire. The biggest he had ever seen.
“I grabbed my cats…knocked over the 200-litre drum with water in it and put the cats in them and threw them in the back of the car. I grabbed my clothes and I jumped in the car and went to my neighbours.”
By the time he got to his neighbours’ house, everything around it was on fire. Having lived in the bush most of his life, and in the remote town of Club Terrace in Victoria’s East Gippsland region for the last ten years, Matt understood the lay of the land. He knew that his neighbours’ place at least stood a chance at being defended from the massive fire-wall that had encircled the property.
So he got to work.
“All the paddock in the front was going. I put that out, watched it go to the right of me, up into the bush. Then I turned and watched the fire come over the left-hand side of me; I got rid of that one. I raced down the hayshed, put that out,” recalls Matt.
“Then I looked up the driveway to where my place was and watched it burn.”
He did try to save his home. He had spent the last ten years working on it so that it was completely self-sufficient. Off the grid.
“I’ve never seen a fire this big. It was huge. It went off like an atomic bomb. It was grabbing the tops of trees and twisting them off like a stick of celery, throwing them out into the paddock. Then the rest of the trees, which were probably about 15-20 metres high, got thrown down and broken in half,” Matt remembers.
He spent the next week staying on the floor of his neighbour’s house with nothing more than a mattress to sleep on and a bucket for a seat.
When the roads were finally open, Matt made his way down to Bairnsdale evacuation centre where Red Cross was helping to provide relief for those impacted by the fires.
“Matt came in very distressed. It was just pure distress,” says Red Cross volunteer Janet, who was working at the relief centre at the time.
“He lost everything. One of our volunteers Farida sat down and registered him with Register.Find.Reunite. I spent some time with him, gave him one-to-one-care and I stayed with him through the rest of his journey. We were then able to link him in with the Red Cross Emergency Grant, which means that he’ll soon have $5000 to help him start his life again,” says Janet.
Two weeks on from the fire that destroyed his home, Matt is only just beginning on the long road to recovery, “I’m numb. Numb from the house burning down, just – I don’t know. No emotions really,” says Matt.
Despite this, he is already planning what he will need to rebuild.
“The (Red Cross) money is going to help me. I need a fridge, probably a 200-300 amp-hour battery, a couple of fold-out solar panels just to get started. And then that way, once I’ve got the fridge I can at least get food then, borrow a tent off someone and start from scratch again,” says Matt.
The Club Terrace that Matt has known for the past ten years is all but gone. Only four or five houses remain. Everything is black, burnt. The enormous cacophony of gum trees that once stood, towering over everything are now nothing more than burnt sticks, protruding from the ground, raised like scar tissue, scattered across the landscape. The ground is completely covered in three-inch-deep black soot. Matt says it’s like walking on powdered snow.
“I’ve got to start again…but Red Cross hooked me up with everything. I didn’t know what to do until I came here (to the relief centre) but then the Red Cross grabbed me, put me under their wing and away I went,” says Matt.