Along a dirt road in the middle of the Nambucca valley, 515km from Sydney, an old ute, beat up on one side, disrupts the dust as it cruises along.
The soft rumble of the old engine, tyres on gravel – it’s the only sound for miles.
It’s the start of January and it’s stifling hot, three weeks since the fire roared through South Arm.
The bush is black on black. Green shoots are yet to emerge. Every few minutes the ute passes a burnt-out tractor, a shed still standing, the remains of somebody’s home.
Normally, this is cattle country. Now a lot of it is ash.
Beck Beverly drives with her mate, Tara, to farms too far out to get reception. People are living in tents, relying on the bottled water she brings them.
A photo taken from Beck's ute shows the devastation. Photo: Beck Beverly
There’s free water in town, but that’s an hour drive for some and petrol is in short supply.
She does the meet and greet, checks on their health and offloads the supplies. Then the friends drive to the next property.
The daily repetition is all they could do to help people survive.
Now, looking back on those first three weeks, she could see the stages of grief on their faces.
“We met quite a few people, by week three you could see the shock had started to fade and the reality was setting in,” she said.
The fire burnt through more than half the homes in the community: Photo: Beck Beverly
“People were isolated, they didn’t have food or water. So we piled my ute full, made care packs of food and toiletries and drove to each property that was impacted. We did that for three weeks.”
South Arm is small, with just over 230 residents. The closest town, Nambucca Heads, sits on the coast, 40 minutes away.
“We lost 61 homes, and we lost double that in what they call non-council approved houses. They were homes, they just didn’t have approval. So about 120 households.”
Since January, Beck has been running the town hall like a drop-in centre. People can get water, food, connect to the internet, and a tent if they need one. On Fridays they do a lunch.
“I realised we needed something in the community to bring us together," Beck said.
“For farming communities to lose hope, it’s pretty dire. They’re a resilient bunch usually. This fire was catastrophic and it comes off the back of the worst drought we’ve been in.”
It’s been almost three months and there’s still a lot of confusion in the community. Cattle are still wandering on roads and people are making daily pilgrimages to get ice.
“You’ve got people living in tents, waking up every day looking at what they’ve lost.
“People have started to go back to their 9-to-5s, and they go to the public toilets to shower and brush their teeth.”
After losing her home Pauline Taylor stayed with friends for the first few weeks until she got a tent set up in a paddock.
“For seven weeks we moved every two days, between about three people," Pauline said.
Pauline in front of her former home.
"That’s a big strain because you’re trying not leave a footprint. You don’t want to be a burden to people who are giving their house to you.
“I have been in my paddock ever since.”
For weeks she was showering and charging her phone at the town hall. After almost a month, two ladies donated a caravan to Pauline.
First she said no, she had ordered a yurt from Mongolia and it was on its way, but it had been raining for a week, and the caravan came with a toilet.
“I pretended it was a holiday for a bit, but after three weeks, I got over the wind. I won’t say it’s been easy, it’s been difficult. Being on bottled water and only having a bucket.”
Pauline had to delay going back to work – cleaning up, dealing with insurance and working out the next steps became her full-time job.
“You’re learning as you go. There’s grants from the charities, you’ve got to find paperwork, the bill with your address, and something saying it’s all burnt down.
"I understand there are charlatans who claim things, but it makes it difficult for the people who are legitimate.
“You need your passport, but it was in the cupboard. Your thyroid medicine was in the fridge. I've got to go the doctor, get new scripts, there's so much to do. I need a notebook, my short term memory has holes in it, which is common.”
She's getting through it, slowly. She faced the caravan away from the rubble of her home so she wasn't reminded of it. At night she watches the sunset, which reminds her of Mongolia.
The grass has grown back on Pauline's block.
“Mother Nature came along, said 'It’s over, there goes the house'. I’m peaceful now on my own, with only the birds and the wind, the creek going past and the horses in the paddock.
“You have to be patient. There’s a lot of people in the same situation and that’s been an unexpected benefit. I’ve met people I didn’t know existed. There are lots of tears, men included, but there's a lot of laughing.”
One of those people is Carol. She had always lived close by, but the pair had never spoken. In the aftermath, the shared grief of losing their homes has brought them together.
Carol and husband Troy have reception on their property but they had no warning, no text message from the NSW Rural Fire Service to say they were under threat.
Carol and Troy with their surving goat.
Troy tried to stay and fight, but the fire was out of control.
“It was an old machinery shed we had turned into a house," said Carol.
"It was steel. We thought it would be fine, we didn’t expect a complete and utter wipeout … there was nothing. It was like it went ‘poof’. Yeah, that was quite confronting.”
She said her neighbours lost their house and aren’t coming back: "It wasn’t a normal bushfire".
They're fighting with their insurance provider. They're asking for full coverage, because they had full loss. The insurer doesn't want to play ball.
But the hardest part is reporting again, and again, that you’ve lost everything. Managing re-building not just your home, but your life.
“Everyone wants the information again. The council, disaster clinic, Red Cross, Salvos, Rapid Relief Team, Blazeaid. You make six calls to one and you’re back at the beginning.
“The rules change, they can change between morning and afternoon.
“I struggled initially because I like to be organised, it was mayhem, but my partner struggled because he thought it was his fault we lost everything.
“I’m much better these days. We’re moving forward without a lot of help.”
After spending the first night in their car, the couple found short-term accommodation while they worked out how to get a roof on their surviving shed so they could live in it.
A few weeks ago, a few Melbourne tradies on holiday offered to do the job for free.
“The road back has not been easy," she said.
"The help has come from outside the area. Food deposits or contributions, blankets, kitchen utensils, it has come from outside the area.”