The town is eerily quiet by any standards, but especially for a sunny Saturday mid-morning. Aside from the lone cars parked in front of the One-Stop Shop and the elderly couple taking photos near the rubble that remains of the railway station, there is little sign of human life. A police car patrols the streets, slowing down as it passes the occasional person or car, the officer inside eyeing them suspiciously.
A few stores. A deserted playground, devoid of the children’s laughter it thrives on. A town hall reduced to a pile of stone, closed off by a menacing gate. A “Thank You Australia” sign nailed to a blackened tree the only suggestion of warmth.
Before wildfire tore through 181 homes and businesses and killed two residents over 17 days in January, Yarloop was home to about 550 people. Only 150 remain. For many, who have lost too much, it will never be home again.
“The morning of the fire, Yarloop was full of smoke,” Elizabeth O’Brien says in a slow, frail voice.
“It was something you didn’t usually see in Yarloop. Everything was blue.”
O’Brien would know, having lived there for 55 years before ravenous flames ripped through 69,165 hectares of land and consumed her house, belongings, and memories, leaving nothing but the clothesline on her deserted block.
On Wednesday January 6, 2016, about 7.45am, a neighbour woke O’Brien and told her they had to go to Harvey. The fire was coming. She left her bed not knowing she would never return; that she would receive the news later that day her home had burned to the ground.
At around seven that evening Alex Jovanovich went out to the back of his property and looked defiantly at the red glow ahead. “Right,” he thought. “It’s time.” He put on the overalls, boots, and breathing mask that had served him faithfully in his firefighting days and stayed to battle the blaze that threatened to steal his everything, that was already starting to eat away at the town he had lived in since he was eight years-old.
Leonie Murrihy was cooking dinner in the dark— by that point the power and water supply to the town had been cut— when her husband and son came home from a drive. “In the car, now,” they said. “We’ve got to go. The wind has changed.” They headed west, watching the flames approach them as they drove. They were the last to get out.
The Murrihys had a pretty good idea, having seen the ferocity of the blaze, their home would not survive. But they found out for sure that Saturday— they had lost everything.
“It’s simple things,” Murrihy says. “Like thinking, ‘I’ll just go and get that,’ and then realising, ‘No, I can’t get that’. The hardest thing was losing the photos of my children.
“It was just like someone knocking you down and stomping on you constantly. Overwhelming devastation. Just total devastation.”
O’Brien stayed at her sister’s for three days and still couldn’t see her property. This was because, according to Shire of Harvey president Tania Jackson, the area had been deemed unsafe — chromium, copper, and arsenic from the torched toxic materials poisoning the air and separating the locals from the ruins that used to be their home.
O’Brien moved to Waroona to live with her daughter, Eleanor Rogers, and now rents a unit there. She won’t go back to Yarloop. She is too old to rebuild, she says — she is 79 in two weeks — and no one would give her a loan.
Rogers had lived in Yarloop her whole life before moving to Waroona 10 years ago. When she got the phone call that Yarloop had gone, she says that was the end of her. “I just collapsed in a heap at the back and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”
She had lost her shed, containing all her son and daughter-in-law’s belongings, in the 2015 Waroona fires. She remembers how, as she and her family had started down their driveway, they had seen rain, or snow, falling softly on the windshield.
“But it was actually fireballs,” Rogers says, “and ashes and dust and that. Very scary, it was. I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”
But she had to. A year later the fires threatened to steal everything from them all over again, the vacant block behind theirs already succumbing to the flames.
“We didn’t sleep for two days, we were just watching it come over the hill at us. I said to the husband, ‘If it happens a third time, we’re shifting’.”
Would they really consider moving?
“No, not really,” she admits. “Where would we go?” Rogers has lived in WA’s South-West her whole life. She doesn’t know anything else.
On August 12, after eight months of work, Yarloop was reopened to the public. When Rogers went and had a look at her childhood hometown, she had a meltdown.
“It really sunk in,” she says. “It’s gone. There’s really not much left.”
Shire president Tania Jackson says there are plans to rebuild the main area of the town. The Yarloop workshops, the hospital, the hotel, and the town hall— all were lost in the fire. Residents have voted in favour of building a multi-purpose community centre as soon as government funding is available, as well as a new fire station budgeted for this financial year. “They’ll be our priorities,” Jackson says.
Locals have also been able to look at their properties and decide whether they want to rebuild. Of 180 surveyed, 63 per cent said they intended to return to the town. But this is neither an easy nor a quick process. They must put in an application before builders can begin working on their site— approval for which Jackson explains can take a number of weeks.
“The fire didn’t break us, but all this bureaucracy certainly is,” Murrihy’s husband told her last week as they juggled a pile of forms to be filled and papers to be signed.
But Murrihy’s husband’s family all live in the area and, aside from a sister in Perth, all her own relatives have passed away. They can’t leave family, and Yarloop has been their home for 35 years. Whatever the cost, rebuilding quickly emerged as their only option.
They found a place in Harvey, furnished with the help of their friends from second-hand shop and verge collection finds, to serve as a temporary home before they return to Yarloop.
“At least, we’re hoping to go back, we’re just playing it by ear at the moment. And trying not to think about it too much. If you thought about it too much you’d just end up screaming heaps,” she laughs warmly, nervously.
Fighting tirelessly for what he says felt like an eternity, Alex was able to save his home, as well as the two adjacent properties and one across the road. Aside from extensive smoke damage the house remains intact, but neither that nor the promises of rebuilding are enough to convince him and his wife to stay.
The infrastructure of the town has really suffered, Janice Jovanovich explains, and she is not sure what was lost can truly be rebuilt. When it comes down to it, she says: “I’m just thinking it’s not going to be the same”. She and Alex are in the process of negotiating to sell, and living in Eaton with family while they do.
Janice feels for her husband, who watched his town burn that night. He watched the hospital of which he was once a board member burn. He watched the workshops on whose committee he served burn. He watched the shed of the bushfire brigade where he had worked for years burn. He was a strong community member, had done a lot in the town, and he had to watch it all burn.
“I just thought it was time for us to move out and move on,” Janice says. “I think he’s come to terms with it.
“Hopefully some good can come of it.”