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Black Summer bushfires bridge rebuilt near Bodalla ending kayak school run

Families who have been ferrying their children to school in kayaks can finally travel again by road after the town’s bridge was rebuilt last month, more than two-and-a-half years after it burnt in the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires.

The loss of Murphy’s Bridge near Bodalla on the state’s south coast added about 64 kilometres onto the daily school run and cut Cadgee residents off from services and support.

While the physical scars of the fire remain on the bush and the psychological ones remain for those who lived through it, the new concrete structure is helping people move forward in more ways than one.

“It was like you’d been locked in a cell and it’s been opened at last,” Cadgee resident Deb Colburn says.

When fire came to Cadgee
Three generations of Colburns live on the property near Murphys Bridge.

The bridge was the lifeline that connected the family with the rest of their community.

On New Year’s Eve in 2019 as the sky turned purple and red, most of the Colburns and their children fled home as the bushfire descended.

Over the following months the fires scorched more than 24 million hectares, killed 33 people directly, and almost 450 more lost their lives from the effects of smoke inhalation.

It would be two days before the family, sheltering an hour’s drive north in Moruya, would hear from those who had stayed behind.

“As we were coming down the mountain, everything was just black and dirt,” Deb says.

“It did a lot of damage to us all mentally.”

Fortunately, the family managed to save the main house but most of the other structures were lost.

All aboard the kayak school bus
At first the family made a temporary crossing, but it was soon washed away in the first of 15 floods that would impact the area over the next two-and-a-half years.

Once the river became unpassable, the adults would drive back roads to do the school drop, which added a significant amount of time to their daily run.

“We couldn’t really afford to keep the petrol money up and the car kept breaking down,’ mum Keira Colburn says.

They resorted to using kayaks and stand-up paddle boards to cross the water to the school bus pick-up spot.

“Doing what we had to do to save fuel, canoeing across the river, it was hard,” Keira says.

Her daughter Kearna Walpole, who is now in year 7, says some days the water was freezing.

“It was horrible,” she says.

“We’d go across on the paddle board so you’d have to get down on your knees, with my sister on the back.”

Sometimes one of the adults would wade into the water to guide the boats.

“I can only imagine how cold my mum would have been,” Kearna says.

No way in, no way out
The family’s biggest worry was that in an incident, emergency services would not be able to get in.

Their fears were realised when Keira’s husband John had an accident, and it took more than two hours on back roads to get him to hospital.

“It was just a nightmare. Everything became impossible,” she says.

Keira is one of many in the Cadgee community who were vocal in their frustration with the Eurobodalla Shire Council, responsible for replacing the bridge.

Residents were told the crossing would be finished by the end of 2021, but flooding and the pandemic delayed the process.

“We just wanted our kids to be safe,” she says.

Not just a bridge
Tamara Peter lives not far from the Colburn family and lost her home in the fires.

The loss of the bridge has made getting trades and supplies for the rebuild difficult.

A little more than a year ago the Peters family moved back in to their home, and Ms Peter says having the bridge open again is about much more than making their commute into town easier.

“It’s not just a bridge,” she says.

“We needed to be a bit more connected so we could discuss the things that were happening, not just the rebuild, but just our emotional connecting.”

On her first crossing of the new bridge, Ms Peter saw her neighbour from the other side of the river.

“Just being able to give him that wave, it’s something,” she says.

“It doesn’t say much, but it is a lot.”