'We're Nerrigans - we'll rebuild, it's a supportive community'

Nerriga Pub sheltered evacuees from monster Currowan fire

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Lisa Hurley and her partner Wayne Sommerville were among the hundred people who sheltered in the Nerriga Pub as the fire approached.

Lisa Hurley and her partner Wayne Sommerville were among the hundred people who sheltered in the Nerriga Pub as the fire approached.

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One hundred people sheltered in the Nerriga Pub from firestorm

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On any other occasion being trapped inside a pub would be a good thing.

But was far from a social occasion for about 100 people inside the historic Nerriga Pub on December 23. The giant, apocalyptic Currowan fire monster was bearing down on the tiny town 40km west of Nowra.

Lisa Hurley and her partner Wayne Sommerville, who lost their cabin home and possessions about three kilometres south-west of the main township, were among the group who for almost an hour sheltered inside the pub.

Outside, Rural Fire Service volunteers continuously sprayed the building and surrounds with water to protect the structure as the fire front hit.

"It was scary but there was also a sense of calm in the building," Ms Hurley said.

"Some people were even lying on the floor trying to get some sleep.

"But it was incredible. The noise, the power. It came with such gusto, just engulfing everything in front of it.

"It just roared - someone described it as like a stampede of horses as it came towards us along with the crack of a whip - that was the trees exploding.

"It was probably a bit like the fellas who went to war - you couldn't see your enemy but you could hear it.

"Then we could hear gas bottles exploding. It really became a bit of a blur."

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For Ms Hurley, who also suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it was unnerving.

"It's heartbreaking to talk about it," she said.

"Looking out the window and seeing the flames coming towards us was scary.

"It was like Armageddon and it's definitely something I never want to experience again."

Although fire was near, the day had begun with clear skies and the couple had actually been able to watch the large waterbombing aircraft complete a number of runs in the area.

"Then out of nowhere a big white cloud appeared - it was like a nuclear cloud," Ms Hurley said.

In a matter of minutes, their 25-acre property of nine years turned from day into night.

"I was getting ready to go when Wayne's father who was staying on the property in a bus, which was also destroyed in the fire, came and said he thought it was time to go.

"They jumped in my car which was at the front to leave and I got into Wayne's.

"Despite it being mid-afternoon everything had gone dark."

Then the battle began.

"I initially couldn't find my way back to Wayne's car and when I finally did it was that dark I couldn't see Wayne on the road," she said.

"While trying to get out I managed to run off the road - I just remember Wayne telling me 'If you leave don't stop'.

"Here I was on the side of the road and I thought this was it."

She somehow managed to find her way back onto the driveway and cleared the driveway as a big fireball roared down the road.

"The trees were just exploding around us," she said.

Along with their four dogs and three birds they eventually made it to Nerriga and the town's evacuation centre at the fire station.

Soon after the firefighters instructed them to get to the pub and explained what to expect as the fire impacted.

"I've never seen or heard anything like it," she said.

"Phil and Sarah Smith, who own the pub, were fantastic. I have never seen such calm people."

Nerriga residents display their resilience the day after the Currowan fire destroyed large parts of the township west of Nowra.

Nerriga residents display their resilience the day after the Currowan fire destroyed large parts of the township west of Nowra.

At the height of the emergency, the bar was closed, there was no alcohol being served, everyone just gathered together.

"And we managed to get through it."

And then came the heartbreaking news that theirs was among at least 17 homes in the area lost during the fire.

They stayed at the hotel for two weeks, Ms Hurley helping with cooking duties.

"Wayne went back to our home the next day to survey the damage," she said. "I couldn't.

"It took me about three days or so before I could go back."

Their uninsured cabin and all their possessions were gone and the majority of their property looks like a lunar landscape.

But there were a few bright spots - the three chickens and chick they had to leave behind managed to survive, as did a pet wallaby known as Swampy, which Wayne had hand raised.

"He came jumping up to Wayne happy to see him," she said.

Along with their neighbours, who also lost their home, they are now living in caravans on their properties supplied by Sussex Inlet Caravan Park.

A town meeting at the weekend attracted more than 100 people.

"We are sort of the forgotten people out here," she said.

"We are in no man's land, halfway between Nowra and Braidwood, resting between the Palerang and Shoalhaven council areas

"I'd hate to be at Sassafras. I think it's even worse as far as help is concerned.

"We're Nerrigans - we'll rebuild. It's a tough and supportive community.

"We won't be going anywhere. As I said to my daughter, I can't pack up and take my land with me.

"We love it here and will stay.

"The way the community has rallied has been amazing - the community hall has become the Nerriga IGA - there are food and supplies - the youngsters have been making food drop-offs for animals and humans. Helen Rollands has overseen that and she's been amazing."

That community support was evident the day after the fire had passed, with some residents even dancing in the main street.

But the rebuilding will take time.

"We have applied for the grants that are available but have to wait to be assessed," she said

"We can't move anything or clean up. And then we have to wait for the EPA to also come to see if there are things like asbestos etc.

"So in the meantime, we just look at rubble."

A popular staff member at the Woolworths Caltex service station in Nowra, Ms Hurley started back at work last week, making the 150km round journey each day, and said she has been inundated with inquiries from customers and support.

"I've had cards with money in them left for me and other customers just giving me money," she said.

"It's been just incredible. So uplifting and also humbling. It's also tough, I've never had to take help before but it's very appreciated.

"But we are not the only ones - there are hundreds of stories just like ours from all round the Nerriga area."

This story first appeared in the South Coast Register

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