Debbie Gates

A personal reflection upon visiting Lake Conjola and Ulladulla

January 12, 2020

Our director of development and community and engagement, Debbie Gates, has spent much of the past week travelling with Bishop Brian Mascord to many of the towns and suburbs in our diocese hit hardest by the bushfires. On Sunday 12 January, Bishop Brian and Debbie spent the day with the people of Ulladulla and Lake Conjola. Below is an emotional personal reflection written by Debbie upon returning home after witnessing the devastation of loss and inspirational response by locals.

Bishop Brian and I have just returned from a 13-hour road trip to Ulladulla and Lake Conjola—exhausting, confronting and surprisingly in the end, inspiring.

After a busy morning in Ulladulla praying and meeting with first responders, counsellors and a generous and deeply affected community, Bishop Brian, Fr Michael Dyer (resident priest) and I made our way to Lake Conjola and Conjola Park. At the road block from the highway into this area, Bishop Brian showed his NSW Police chaplain badge and we were allowed into the strange and unfamiliar landscape.

From my recent research, and now observations, this area has been the hardest hit in our diocese. I have seen media footage, but the devastation is totally overwhelming to see firsthand.

Our drive in was silent. We were the only ones on the road. Smoke still filled the air and tree stumps were also still smoking. The forest is totally burnt to a crisp. All the trees look like black matchsticks standing out of the ground. No mulch or shrubs left, so you can see quite a distance into what was once a beautiful forest.

To see this is utterly sad—but eerily—stunning. Some say the forest is too destroyed to regenerate on its own, yet there were a few small patches of green doing their best to pop out of the ground and dramatically contrast the black everywhere.

Three lives and 89 homes have been lost. In some of the streets we visited, all the houses have been spared except one. In others, only one house stands. Houses made from steel are a molten mess.

If that is not enough to deal with, because of the structure of some the houses, asbestos issues are now a major concern, too.

At a private community BBQ gathering that was being held (supplied and cooked by an Islamic community from Sydney), we met people who had lost their homes, sacred and treasured mementos, and their source of income.

We also met a woman whose partner died from a heart attack in the fires. A lady we had been talking with, who had lost her home, invited her to come and meet Bishop Brian. Both Bishop, Fr Michael and I were unprepared for this meeting, but her stoicism inspired us, and somehow we found the words needed to be as responsive and supportive as we could be.

Lots of hugs were offered today and all were deeply and gratefully accepted. This community is suffering together through their devastation, sadness and shock. Still “out of the ashes”, many commented on the new and firm friendships that have been made. There was even time for a laugh about the correct recipe for lemonade scones that are going to offered for morning tea by our parish community at Milton on Friday.

If supported well, I believe this place will become a most amazing and tight knit community. But, the rebuild will take a long time. The generosity of others is simply overwhelming. Everyone we spoke to who have lost their home have been offered a rent-free house to stay in for as long as needed.

Sorry if this recount is a bit all over the place. I am sitting here and tears are simply falling down my face. As I quickly journal this, I am reflecting on the fact that, despite the tragedy, I witnessed human nature at its best today.

Please keep these amazing people in your prayers and thoughts, not just in the weeks ahead, but in the months and years ahead.

Photos by Debbie Gates.

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