Sharon Weber was taking a long-awaited family holiday in Queensland the day her life went up in flames.
The single mum of two was at the start of a 10-day stay on the Gold Coast with her mother Fay and youngest daughter Kayla, 9, when the calls started.
“My brother Darryl (Purdy) called Mum and told us a fire had started at the Walla tip,” Sharon recalls, sitting in the lounge room of her rented house at Gerogery.
“I could hear the wind roaring through the phone as he told us people were leaving town but he was going to stay.”
Sharon’s first thought went to eldest daughter Teegan, 17, who had remained at home.
Frantically she rang the teenager who didn’t answer.
Calls to a neighbour reassured her there was no car in the driveway and her daughter wasn’t there.
But she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling and said to her mum, “I don’t feel good about this, let’s head back to the motel”.
They had parked the car when next-door neighbour Tony Halpin rang again; he was trying to call his wife but in the panic hit a wrong number.
“He told me, ‘It’s bad’,” Sharon recalls.
“His house (in Rose Street) was gone. I asked him, ‘What about mine?’ and he went silent.
“I said, ‘You have to tell me’ and he said, ‘I’m standing where your house used to be’.”
Sharon felt herself collapsing and asked Tony if he’d seen her dogs – her great dane Daisy, and little jack russell Spike.
“He said, ‘No, I haven’t seen them’,” she says.
“I was crying but nothing was coming out.”
Sharon made another desperate call to her ex-husband, pleading with him to go and get the dogs.
“He wasn’t allowed through; the dogs were inside the house and the first thing to go was the back verandah which trapped them inside,” she says.
About the same time, Teegan rang her mum and said she was in Albury at a friend’s place.
“I thought, ‘Thank God, she’s safe’,” Sharon recalls.
“She offered to drive out there but couldn’t get through either.
“I spoke to my brother and he said he’d try to get ‘round there; he asked a passing fireman (who he knew) if he could check his sister’s house but when he got there, there was nothing left.”
About 40 fire brigades and four aircraft were called to extinguish the inferno, which ignited at the Walla tip and roared across to the town of Gerogery within an hour.
The firestorm, fanned by gale-force winds and 40-degree temperatures, destroyed homes, outbuildings, livestock, machinery and more than 6000 hectares of land.
A mammoth clean-up in the days following produced feelings of both grief and relief as those affected surveyed the damage and contemplated the extent of their losses.
Many farmers faced the grim task of being forced to shoot stock burned beyond help.
The general consensus was council inaction at the Walla tip fuelled the fire.
In a report by The Border Mail on Saturday, December 19, 2009, Walla man Alan Hunter said the state of the tip was a disgrace and a “recipe for disaster”.
“A modern garbage recycling facility could have prevented this easily avoidable disaster,” he said at the time.
“If Walla had a facility like Jindera or Gerogery, there would not have been a problem.”
Greater Hume mayor Denise Osborne commented that the council had been looking at its waste disposal sites and that a meeting had been scheduled for the January.
It was cold comfort to Sharon who returned home with nothing but a suitcase and had to start from scratch.
“When it happened my first instinct was to jump on a plane to come home,” Sharon recalls.
“But I had no home to come to so I flew Mum home to start getting things organised.”
A huge piece of Sharon’s heart died that day with her beloved animals.
“I couldn’t get over the dogs,” she says.
“My brother went the following day, found their remains and buried them for me.”
And although Sharon had contents insurance, it wasn’t enough to replace more than the basics.
Then there are the things you can never replace.
“My grandmother died in April, 2009 and as her only grand-daughter I was left her rings,” Sharon explains.
“They are gone forever, along with priceless items like photographs of the children from their first day of school; things like that…
“Teegan rummaged in the remains and found my engagement rings and a couple of old coins but everything else was gone.
“There was nothing left.”
Sharon’s ex-husband offered to move out of the former family home so the girls had somewhere to stay in the short term.
“That was traumatic in itself,” she says.
“My family dynamics changed from that day – Teegan didn’t live with me again and moved to Melbourne to do her nursing.
“Kayla had it the hardest – seeing every day the effects on me.”
The council was later accused of negligence over its management of the tip in a legal class action led by Warrnambool-based Maddens Lawyers, who acted in a class lawsuit in the wake of the Beechworth Black Saturday fires.
Sharon is the lead plaintiff in the action and says her life has hung in limbo.
The class action against Greater Hume Shire was dismissed earlier this year but a three-day appeal hearing is set for Sydney Supreme Court on February 26, 2019.
Sharon “is now a completely different person” since that fateful day.
“I used to see similar things happening on television and think, ‘Poor bastards’,” Sharon says.
“Now I know what it really feels like inside.”
Sharon struggled to get back on track in the aftermath; the owner of their incinerated house told the family they would have a home to return once she rebuilt but then tripled the rent.
“Life completely changed direction that day,” she says.
“I could barely find the will to get out of bed, I couldn’t go to work and could barely leave the house.
“I lost friends because I always had an excuse not to meet up with them, or attend their birthdays or weddings; and people just stopped asking me.
“I’m sure many people who know me will be shocked by my story because nobody knew the pain I was going through – I always put on a brave face and told everyone I was fine.”
The quietly spoken Sharon recalls, nine months after the fire, a woman pointing her out while she was shopping at Big W.
“She said, ‘That’s the woman from the newspaper whose dogs got killed in the fire’,” Sharon describes.
“I remember walking up and down the aisles of the supermarket but there was nothing in my trolley – my mind was gone and I went back and sat in my car and just cried.
“When I got home, Kayla came out to help me unload the car but there was no shopping.”
Sharon, who is no longer able to work, was diagnosed with chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Nothing is the same as it was … my kids lost their mother that day and didn’t know how to find her,” she says.
“(Before) I was a strong, hard-working determined single parent, who had ambition to one day own my own home and set a good example for my girls.”
Heart-breakingly, Sharon wants to apologise for any hurt she has caused through the fog of her own pain.
“To my dogs that were lost on that devastating day, I’m sorry; to my kids who I hurt, I’m sorry; to friends and family that I cut off, I’m sorry,” she says.
“If council could just say the same, maybe we could all move on from this and put it in the past.”
With the full force of summer to come and Gerogery among the shire’s “forgotten towns”, Sharon lives in fear of history repeating itself.
She knows she won’t hang around if a fire looms.
“This year has been so dry, if anything happens I will take my kids and my dog and leave,” she states firmly.
“I have no faith that we could be saved.”
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