In front of the camera, beer in hand, Sandy Wicks beams with the relief of a woman who has just saved her life and the family home.
Behind her is the smouldering hay shed, with its destroyed antique machinery, and the rolling scorched grass visible on almost every nearby hill and flat.
She tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she is also simply relieved to see another person alive in Cudgewa, the small north-eastern farming community near Corryong that was ravaged by fires on New Year’s Day.
That person, on the other side of the lens, is Josh Collings, a full-time photographer who came bearing diesel and food, despite losing his own home, one of an estimated 14 in the region.
“I wondered how he could be there and be happy having just lost his place. I realised I couldn’t be a sad sack anymore when I’ve still got my house standing,” Sandy said of the photo.
“I was just counting my blessings. You’ve got to have gratitude. That’s how I try to bring up my kids.”
Sandy was in Cudgewa from Cairns for a family holiday and to celebrate the 80th birthday of her father, Linton Vogel.
Then the fires arrived.
As the rest of the nation counted the hours to the new year, Linton, Sandy and their family watched the flames roll in from the north. By the first hours of 2020, “we had our own fireworks”, Linton said.
Linton and other family members saved the house and those of two neighbours.
A few doors down the path, Linton’s granddaughters, Nicole and Anita, stood alongside Sandy saving the old family homestead with buckets and towels. It was all they could do without power.
Nicole had already given up on her own vulnerable Cudgewa home – said her goodbyes and made her peace – to get her nine-month-old daughter behind the homestead’s double-brick walls.
But as the glow approached and expanded until it was a wall of flame, she wondered if she had made the right decision.
“When I was watching that flame come, I was just nauseous with fear,” Nicole said.
“I went a bit delirious at that point. But I leaned against the fence and put my game brain on. You’re just powered on by all that adrenalin.”
The battle raged all New Year’s Day morning. When the sun had risen somewhere behind the smoke, they knew the properties were safe, even if the hay shed was gone.
Little Freya slept the entire time.
“Going back to my own house, it was like driving through the apocalypse,” Nicole said.
“Everything was black, there were dead animals, power poles on the road, every single thing is burnt and smouldering. It was like driving through something foreign.
“And then seeing my house standing, you can imagine – after saying goodbye – just the relief. There’s a lot of relief and gratitude in this community.”
Josh took the photo of Sandy when he came back into Cudgewa with supplies a couple of days after the fire went through. He fled his house on New Year’s Eve with his partner, Kate, their three-year-old, Tully, his phone, his wallet and his cameras.
Josh and his family sheltered in his double-brick gallery space in Corryong with about 30 others for the night. Fire was a hair’s breadth away from town and they kept the kids occupied with movies.
The next day, after moving further away to Tallangatta, someone in the supermarket told him: “Sorry for the loss of your house.”
“Tully burst into tears, asking about his first toy, Ziggy, a little teddy bear. That was the first time I cried,” Josh said.
On the drive back to Corryong, he played a game with Tully where they pretended to be a robot to distract him from seeing the dead animals outside. There were a lot.
“I am a robot. It’s time to close your eyes,” he would say.
“I’m shutting down,” Tully would reply robotically, closing his eyes.
When he made it back to Cudgewa, Josh stood where his house once was.
“I was standing there and I thought, ‘f— it, it’s time to raise some money,” he said.
He started a fundraiser called Rebuild Upper Murray. They’ve already raised more than $100,000 for immediate needs – transporting fuel, food and fencing into cut-off areas like Cudgewa and, further on, Walwa. Collings continues to document what he sees, uploading it to the fundraiser’s Facebook page, “to be able to capture the story so people remember”, he said.
“They’re farmers, they’re workers. I’m probably the only one with social media or media skills. It’s been pretty full on, but I’ve got beautiful people around me.”
Back in Cudgewa (pronounced Cudgee-war), Tracey Fair has kept the pub doors open. They’ve converted Hotel Cudgewa’s dining room into a general store and are still cooking meals; the lights are powered by a generator. Monday, they served silverside, and a donated pig made for roast pork on Tuesday.
They’ll run out of meat after that and Tracey, who reckons she’s only one of two vegans in Cudgewa, joked she’d convert the town to veganism.
“We’re trying to do our part, and be that meeting point, which is what a pub is,” she said.
Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tammy Mills is a Crime Reporter for The Age.