After the fires: On the road to recovery - Gabby and Bob Frizzell's story

SURVIVING: Bob Frizzell in his workshop. Picture: Monique Satchell.
SURVIVING: Bob Frizzell in his workshop. Picture: Monique Satchell.

This summer was the second time Gabby and Bob Frizzell had survived bushfire.

The couple's former home in the Canberra suburb of Duffy was one of the few in their street left standing after the 2003 bushfires. Seventeen years later, their home on a 113-acre Braidwood property narrowly escaped disaster, while the outbuildings went up in flames.

As a neighbour said: They ought to buy a lottery ticket.

"We're surviving," Gabby said. "We're just on the road to recovery - navigating the road to recovery like thousands of others."

The Frizzells bought their hobby farm at Little Bombay 30 years ago, and moved permanently to the region in 2013. Their house perches on a hill; from a window on the western side, Gabby saw the North Black Range fire start on Tuesday, November 26.

"We didn't see the actual strike of lightning, but we saw the plume of smoke after lightning," she remembered. "We never thought it would come as far as our place and impact us."

Gabby packed their car with photos and documents, just in case "But we really didn't have any inkling that we would need to evacuate, because at that stage, the fires were so far away," Gabby said.

On Friday, November 29, they rang their neighbour further up the road. "Don't worry; everything will be fine," he reassured them. Half an hour later, he phoned. "Time to leave, folks, if you're going to leave," he warned. "You've got spot fires in your backyard."

The Frizzells locked their house up, and drove to Braidwood - among the first to register at the council evacuation centre. Staff organised accommodation for the night at the Cedar Lodge Motel; the owners, as other locals did, generously donated rooms for evacuees.

Although glad to have a room for the night, Gabby and Bob spent a restless night. The township itself was under alert.

"We didn't really sleep, worrying whether our own place was surviving, let alone if we had to evacuate Braidwood as well," Gabby said.

At 5am on Saturday morning, their neighbour called. Their house had survived the night. Everything else was gone; the sheds and their contents, tractors, generators, and fences. But the house was still there.

Bob Frizzell's Fergie tractor was burnt in the fire. Picture supplied.

Bob Frizzell's Fergie tractor was burnt in the fire. Picture supplied.

Bob and Gabby hurried home as soon as they were allowed to return.

"We were just so relieved when we drove up our driveway to see our house was untouched," Gabby said.

The fire had melted the water tank and damaged solar panels; there were a few spot fires in front of the house - but otherwise, the house was completely unscathed.

Gabby and Bob have stayed lived in their home since they returned that Saturday. Their insurance company was "quick off the mark" to replace the water tank and fix the solar infrastructure - ensuring safe living arrangements for the couple who live off-grid.

"We have been amazed at the generosity of people," Gabby said. "People that we know, but also many that we didn't know."

Their daughter's neighbours banded together to gather up gardening implements for Bob, and vouchers so the couple could start to rebuild their lives. Vouchers and financial support came from other friends as well.

The volunteer organisation BlazeAid replaced all the perimeter fences on the property. The Braidwood Life Centre, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross have all assisted, and NARG (Native Animal Rescue Group) supplied food and watering stations for the wildlife on their property.

After the fires came the floods. The Frizzells' dams were low, and Bombay Creek empty where it ran through their property. Then it rained: 54 ml in an afternoon.

"It was a hell of a storm," Gabby said. "It just bucketed down."

Fierce winds lashed their house; rain leaked under the doors and windowsills. Within half an hour, the dam had overflowed, and the creek was flooded. "You couldn't get from one side of the creek to the other on the causeway," Gabby said. Looking out the window during the storm, she saw a sludge of black ash wash down the slope into the creek and dam.

The Bombay Creek flooded causeway on Little Bombay Road. Picture supplied.

The Bombay Creek flooded causeway on Little Bombay Road. Picture supplied.

Now the Frizzells have the hard work of recovery - including removing 50 acres of kunzea by hand. The highly flammable shrub grew thick in the area; that, Gabby suspects, is why the fire was so intense.

"It's not a good bush to have; in one way, the fire has done us a favour by getting rid of it all. It's regenerating again now, but we can keep it under control."

When the shrub catches fire, it burns down to a pointed spike - a menace to tyres, as BlazeAid volunteers and tractor drivers have found. Every morning, Bob and Gabby go out with a mattock and chip out the spikes.

All the trees along the road boundary were also burnt; while some are coming back, many won't, so a two-kilometre stretch will have to be replanted.

But, Gabby said, the dams are full; the grass is green; the trees are regenerating; and wombats, kangaroos, and wallabies have food and water.

"About a fortnight ago, we were sitting on the balcony having dinner," Gabby said. "If it wasn't for the tops of the trees, which don't have any growth on them, you wouldn't have even thought we'd had a fire."