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A Survivor’s Story of Hope

On the last weekend of our summer from hell, a New Year's Eve bushfire victim shares her story

“Those windows at the front with the flames coming out were the children’s bedrooms,’’ says Jodie McDermott, 38, calmly explaining the image of her family home alight (pictured below). It was taken by her husband Jason, 36, on the morning of New Year’s Eve when a firestorm raged through Conjola Park on the NSW South Coast, destroying 89 houses in the process. He had stayed behind to fight the flames, while Jodie had a five-minute window to pack the kids – Taz, 9, and Millah, 7 – into the car and get down to the highway (and to nearby family) before it was closed off by police.

“I told Jase to call me every hour – but all the communication lines went down so I hadn’t heard a thing. I was terrified. My son was so upset; he kept crying, ‘I want Dad, I want Dad.’

“Finally, about six hours later Jase pulls up out the front of the house. It was like a scene from a movie – we all sprinted out and just ran towards him. He looked at me through eyes red-raw from smoke and ash and said ‘It’s all gone.’ But I honestly didn’t care, because we were all safe together. I know it sounds clichéd but it’s true.


“I had actually spent the morning unpacking the `fire plan’ suitcase that had all our valuables and special things we had collected and wanted to save. We thought we were in the clear in terms of risk, so all we were left with was the five pieces of clothing still unpacked in that bag.

“But our little family unit has made a pledge to stay positive – I don’t want the children to think there is a negative to this. I don’t blame anyone – politicians or whoever. It was a firestorm that could not be stopped. It took our house but we will rebuild.

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“The support from the community has been overwhelming. I feel we are really blessed – more positives have come out of this than negatives. We’ll walk into a supermarket and people won’t let us pay. We went to the local surf shop and they gifted us everything. The school uniform shop decked the kids out in new gear. Someone came up to Jase in the car park and handed over $100. It has been incredible.

The generosity has floored me. Actually one of the first-times I really broke down and cried was when I received a personal gift from a close friend. I had an extensive collection of Mimco jewellery and handbags that of course were all lost in the fire. It was part of my ‘look’, I suppose.  

“So when I opened the present from my girlfriend and saw it was a pair of earrings and necklace from Mimco – I just broke down and cried. I think it’s because she knew these were the little things I loved. The things that say `this is me’. She knew who I was and she knew these pieces of jewellery reflected who I am. I haven’t take the earrings off once. 

“But the biggest takeaway has been the fact I have so much more appreciation for the people in my life. There have been times where I’ve seen people I know in the street and we’ve run and thrown our arms around each other. And they are real embraces – hugs where you feel every bone in their back. Hugs that say ‘I don’t want to let you go because I don’t want to lose you again.’

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“Everyone just wants to get back to Conjola as it has a fantastic community spirit. It’s a place where we would have drinks every Friday night with our neighbours.

“I didn’t go back to the house til the following Sunday which was really difficult. I was crying in the car all the way there because I could see the devastation. It was hard seeing the remains so I filmed it all: me walking through the rubble saying ‘here’s the bedroom. Here’s the backyard.’ 

“Our wonderful neighbours were there seeing their property too. So Jase grabbed some beers and said ‘Let’s have last drinks’ and we sat at our burnt-out bar in the backyard – which was probably the only thing left standing – and drank to a brand new future with our friends (pictured, above). It’s really not the end – it’s a new beginning.’’

If you would like to help the McDermott family get back on their feet, a GoFundMe page has been set up here 

This article originally appeared in the March issue of marie claire. 

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