Family still in a caravan one year after Carngham fire

SOME people manage to get back on their feet quicker than others.

It was a year ago this week that a huge grassfire tore through Carngham and Chepstowe, destroying nine houses. One of them belonged to Gayle and Ray Ellen.

After Ray escaped the burning inferno with the animals, he and Gayle returned to find their house on Station Lane in Carngham had been completely burnt to the ground.

A year later, and despite vowing to rebuild, the Ellens are struggling to get back to where they were before that fateful day on January 8.

“We didn’t get anything. Nothing. Not one thing we got from the house,” said Gayle, in an interview with The Courier one day after the anniversary.

Piecing their lives back together has been a painfully slow process for Gayle and Ray, particularly the red tape that comes with trying to build in a bushfire area after a fire.

“If we hadn’t been burnt down, we would have had a house six months ago. Everything has to be done differently,” said Gayle.

The glacial progress of their new home means the family has been living in a caravan since returning to the property six weeks after they were burnt out. 

Most of their possessions are donations, including the shelter over their heads. 

Some people they knew in Sydney donated a portable toilet, shipping container and construction site office, which they use as a kitchen and living area.


Ray Ellen in The Courier,
January 10, 2013

Gayle said she never really knew what the weather was like until she was exposed to it through the thin canvas of a caravan annex. 

The weather – wind, rain and heat – all seems magnified by their current situation.

“It’s a nightmare, I cannot go through another winter. I would sleep in there with a beanie on my head because it gets really cold. Otherwise I wake up with a headache in the morning,” she said.

Without a place to put everything, most of their possessions are either filthy or damaged because they have nowhere to put it. 

Even doing the washing is a battle, as they have to cart water in buckets from a tank across the property for the machine. Sometimes it’s done in the rain.

More than that is the feeling of being dirty all the time. Gayle said she used to bathe with a bucket in a small clamshell kids pool and just wishes she could have her old bathroom back.

“We beg, borrow and steal showers from friends and relatives when we go into town,” she said.

Happily, things have finally started moving in a positive direction for the Ellens. Local builder JG King Homes poured the concrete slab for their new house about a month ago, but it hasn’t been easy figuring out how to pay for it.

Gayle said the old house was underinsured, meaning they have had to go into debt to try and pay for the new one.

The contents insurance from the old house will help, however when Gayle lost her job not long after the fire it made things even tougher.

“There’s an extra $20,000 we’ve had to borrow, which at our ages isn’t good,” she said.

Now with the weather heating up once again, Gayle is turning her mind back to what happened a year ago. 

She’s particularly worried about the animals, which form part of her new business, Oolboa Park Mobile Animal Farm.

She’s also concerned that the property is in worse condition to stave off a fire than it was a year ago because they haven’t been able to clear it.

"It's like grieving for something that’s died, your old life I suppose"

“I was fine up until it started getting hot, just before Christmas. Now it’s really hit me and I don’t want to leave the property and all the animals here and drive away. I can’t do it,” she said.

With not much left of their old life, Gayle said it’s going to be hard to move on from the fires that happened a year ago. Everywhere they look is a reminder of what happened.

Seven people lived in the family home when it burned down a year ago. Gayle said one of her daughters refuses to come back to the property where she lived before the fire. 

But Gayle can’t bring herself to leave.

“It’s like grieving for something that’s died, your old life I suppose,” she said.

“It’s hard, just every day you’ve got to put each foot forward and try and get on with it. Try and do the best you can at the time.”

tom.cowie@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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