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PSG members in the middle of bushfires

May. 27, 2020

As Victorians slowly start to come out of more than two months of social restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to forget that just weeks prior to that, we were watching in horror as bushfires swept through North-East Victoria and Gippsland.

Sandra Watts (pictured third from right) and Sandra Smith (fourth from right) from the Corryong Parkinson's Peer Support Group, one of the most remote Parkinson's PSGs in Victoria's north-east, kindly shared their experiences.

Both evacuated as fires spread around the area in late December. Before they could settle back into their normal routines, COVID-19 struck. It has been a tough start to the year, but these wonderful women are resilient and despite what they have been through, are appreciative of what they have in this stunning part of Victoria they call home.

Sandra Smith has lived in Corryong since 1965. A true local, she was at one time a midwife helping to deliver babies at the local base hospital. She’s seen a lot over the years, but nothing could prepare her for the events of late December 2019.

By late evening of 30 December 2019, Sandra and her family were cautiously watching the glow at the back of Mount Mittamatite.

“My son & I had left a family dinner at my daughter’s that night. Although I still felt relatively safe at this stage, my son (who was visiting for Christmas and had stayed on for a planned family birthday celebration in early January) suggested I pack up some photos. So we did.”

Sandra went to bed about 10.30pm that night. She was woken at 5am on the 31 December by her daughter’s family of four, with their four border collies, at the door.

“They live on the other end of town and had been evacuated. The police had come knocking on their door and said you have five minutes to get in or get out. The fire was roaring up the valley.”

Sandra’s daughter told her to come onto the verandah, which faces Mount Mittamatite. What she saw shocked her – the mountain was ablaze, burning ferociously. While Sandra said she felt pretty safe being right in the middle of town, her daughter's property, on the edge of town, was at risk.

“The fire burned a block of paddock opposite my daughter’s house. Four or five fire crews came through. If they hadn’t, it is quite possible my daughter would have lost her house. When we started hearing war stories from her neighbours, it was pretty frightening.”

Once the fire went through, and they knew her daughter’s house on the edge of town was okay, Sandra left her home to return to daughters with her family.

“We decided to lock down there together as the house is bigger and more comfortable. We started cleaning out the fridges because we had lost power. My granddaughter was supposed to be celebrating her 21st birthday on 4 January, so she had a fridge full of food.”

Sandra said the middle of 31 December, there was still a lot of “thick, dark, awful smoke. With a grand-daughter developing asthma, and anxiety levels still quite high, the family decided to leave before the next fire front threat was due to hit.

So on Friday (3 January), 7 adults, 5 cars and 4 dogs evacuated to Wodonga, “the last chance to leave – after that they closed the roads and anyone who stayed did not have an option to leave as there were too many burnt trees and dangers on the road”.

The “extremely kind and understanding owners” of Belvoir Village Motel & Apartments in Wodonga took them in, 4 dogs included.

Four days later they decided to return home. About half way around the Hume Dam, they got a message to go back as the convoys from Tallangatta to Corryong had been cancelled. Instead of returning to Wodonga the family decided to move to accommodation at the Army’s Latchford Barracks.

“They were brilliant,” Sandra said, making sure family was alright and had all the medication they needed. Sandra had forgotten to take her scripts with her, but had just enough Parkinson’s medication to see here through, returning home with just one day’s worth of tablets left.

The following day, they made it home.

Sandra spoke of the kindness of people, including strangers who helped farmers, as well as community groups and Government services who came to town.

“The extraordinary the amount of stuff we were given, it was almost extravagant. People are just amazing,” Sandra said.

As a member of the local CWA, Sandra helped to distribute donations locally, mainly vouchers for petrol and food to be spent in town, which in turn helped local businesses.

Then COVID-19 came.

“I think in some ways when you are sitting here and all you’ve got is the TV or your IPAD, you read a lot and some of the stories make you howl.

“People with Parkinson’s, we’re all a bit depressed anyway, so I’m trying to avoid watching (the news) and I’m watching a lot of renovation programs instead!”

Sandra had been living by herself since her husband died more than 30 years ago. But her close-knit family, including her son, two daughters, son-in-law and three grandchildren are all there for her.

While she has been able to enjoy a morning ‘socially distanced’ coffee with her daughter on her front verandah, Sandra said hugs are what she is missing the most.

“But we’ve worked so hard (to beat the coronavirus), so we should all be proud of ourselves,” she said.


Sandra Watts' story is shared in the May edition of InMotion magazine, a quarterly publication for Parkinson's Victoria members. If you are not a member, join now. In light of the hardships imposed by COVID-19 and the increased need for support and information, Parkinson's Victoria is offering 12 months' free membership. You will receive an e-copy of the magazine sent straight to your inbox. Call us to join now on 03 8809 0400.

 

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