“For the first nine days after the fire all we could smell in this town was death – all the animals that didn’t make it,” says Sherrie, a Mogo Land Council environmental ranger.
“Not many things have been able to scare me in my lifetime … this fire she came with one hell of a might and she showed us all how vulnerable we really are.
“On the day of the fire my 13-year-old got really scared at one point he said, ‘Mum, we’re going to die.’. I grabbed his face in my hands and said, ‘Mate. I won't let you die, not on mum’s watch. We’ve got this, we will be okay.’”
For days after the fire, the proud Walbunja Yuin woman and artist was too scared to go anywhere or see anyone.
“I went and had a talk to a couple of the Elders and it made me feel a bit better. And then as a community we all just started rallying around, we all just started helping everybody out,” says Sherrie, who has lived her whole life in the small town on the New South Wales South Coast.
“It’s not just the Indigenous community, it’s all of Mogo. We got to meet people that we didn’t even realise lived in Mogo. Now we’re like, ‘Hi, how you going?’ … we’re always checking in on somebody. That’s the way communities are supposed to be.”
The New Year’s Eve bushfire destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in the historic gold rush town. It burnt across most of Sherrie’s garden, destroying a caravan and chicken coop, but somehow skipped her wooden house.
Red Cross grants, made possible by generous donors, enabled Sherrie to replace mattresses, bedding and clothing. “Two of my kids suffer from anxiety and the smell of the smoke in [their] bedding and bedroom … she wasn’t sleeping, she’d only sleep during the day when she could open up the window and somebody was awake to tell her the house isn't on fire.”
Red Cross funds also helped with a special family dinner for her son’s 21st birthday. “There was 18 of us … it was really nice to get away from home and think of different things … because usually everywhere you go someone’s talking about the fire or there's something that reminds you of the fire.”
As they pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the fire, Sherrie says her family gives her strength.
“I've got five amazing kids ranging from 13 to 25 and couldn’t be more proud of them … and then I've got four granddaughters, soon to be five … They are all at home with me and I love it. Sometimes it’s a bit loud and crazy and hectic but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“One thing I'm really proud of through this six months is how my family has come together … just the closeness and the bond and how everyone’s stuck together – we’ll get through this together.“
Some days are harder than others and the family is getting help to deal with the emotional toll of the fire.
“We all suffer a little bit of anxiety being away from each other … Every time you leave home you have that little bit of anxiety if everybody’s going to come back. It’s a scary world we’re living in at the moment – scared to go to the shops, scared to go to work. It’s been a test of our strength.”
Because it’s her job to protect nature, Sherrie she says felt she had somehow let down the environment, her ancestors and community.
“That’s taken a huge toll on my mental health … It took a long time for me to come to terms with the fact that I do my best for the environment but I couldn’t stop a catastrophe like this.”
More than six months on from the fire she longs for the birds to return to her garden – the ones that used to wake her each day. “I want that day to come back again. I want to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and hear them screaming around.”
If any good can come from such tragedy, Sherrie hopes this summer’s events have taught more people to respect nature. “[Mother Nature’s] angry and she’s going to come back and do this again if we don’t listen to her signs and don’t care for her properly … this is just going to become a regular occurrence for our future … That’s a message I want to get out to everybody that we really need to think about how we treat Mother Nature.”
Sherrie recently returned to work and that’s something she feels good about.
She says her ancestors, who every day give her strength and guidance, would be proud too she has not let this challenge defeat her.
And although recovery will be a long journey – that isn’t going to be over in six or even 12 months – it’s a journey her community will walk together, Sherrie says.
"I love being part of the whole community. You can heal yourself but there's no point in being healed if those around you are still broken. That’s why we all need to walk it together and at the end of it we’re all going to be healed."